Why you should watch Arrested Development

News Gem Wheeler 16 Nov 2011 - 13:57

Although its life on Fox was all too brief, Arrested Development remains a fondly remembered comedy series. Gem reminds us why we should watch it...

Let's assume, just for argument's sake, that there's a Valhalla for long-dead TV shows, where fan favourites go to spend eternity. We can all place a few safe bets on which legendary series could be found up there. Firefly, Freaks And Geeks, Eldorado... well, on second thoughts, maybe not that last one.

But one entry stands out above the others. Even if you haven't seen this sitcom giant, you'll have met one of its ardent followers somewhere along the line, babbling about “Pop-pop” or giggling uncontrollably at people on Segways. Still not there yet?

It's Arrested Development.

What is it about this show? It wasn't long-running, disappearing from our screens after just three seasons, the last of which was cut down to a mere 13 episodes. Nothing about its plight was particularly unusual, depressingly enough. The Fox network has always been castigated for its reluctance to give its shows time to grow and develop.

No amount of critical plaudits or fan campaigns could save Arrested Development from the axe when it became clear that it would never be a worldbeater in terms of ratings. Its theme wasn't outstandingly original at first glance, either. After all, where would the sitcom format be without the misunderstandings and petty rivalries of unhappy families?

So why did the recent announcement that its brilliant creator, Mitch Hurwitz, is planning to revive the show for a ten-part series and (maybe) a movie excite spontaneous public rejoicing on several continents? The fact that you have to ask tells me that you're not ready for this series just yet, so allow me to guide you through the triumphs and tragedies of Arrested fandom. Just as we had resigned ourselves to the fact that our beloved show was never coming back, after five full years of dashed hopes and failed plans, we got that announcement and a celebratory chicken dance from an assembled cast. And it still resembles no chicken ever to have clucked, in this or any other universe.

Meet the Bluths

The pilot episode of Arrested Development introduces us to the Bluth family, a clan of wealthy Orange County oddities on the verge of imploding for good. Scheming patriarch, George Sr, is arrested on his boat for financial misdemeanours, right in the middle of a family party.

As the Bluth Company hovers on the brink of ruin, middle son Michael has to keep the sinking ship of business entanglements and familial nightmares afloat, all while playing mind games with his three siblings. The eldest, George Oscar (Gob - pronounced the same way as the Biblical Job, except for when ignorant newsreaders give it a hard 'g') is a husky-voiced and deeply unsuccessful magician whose sexual confidence barely conceals his many inadequacies.

Michael's twin, Lindsay, is a conniving temptress with a psychiatrist husband, Tobias Fünke, who defies description, and a daughter, Mae ('Maeby') who proves to be a constant source of temptation for Michael's son, the shy and retiring George Michael (not to be confused with the singer-songwriter). The family is completed by Byron Bluth, known to all as Buster, his mother’s pet, a perpetual student and the runt of an already dodgy litter. Confused yet? Good. You're getting there.

The acting is rarely given the acclaim it deserves, and tends to be overshadowed by the superlative writing. This really is unfair, not least because several members of the Bluth family are so extreme in their wackiness that it's hard to imagine any other actors being able to retain our sympathy. Key to the series’ success is the supposed calm at the centre of the Bluth storm. Jason Bateman shakes off the baggage of his teen stardom to great effect as the ever-deadpan Michael, the blank-faced straight man to his bizarro relations whose martyr complex prevents him from seeing his own foibles.

Michael's own grip on sanity is not quite as tight as he thinks, and Bateman does a remarkable job of showing us the cracks spreading beneath the smooth facade. The rest of the family are at least dimly aware of their own ridiculousness; Michael really does think of himself as a functional adult, and that is his particular brand of crazy. Bateman’s talent for one-liners is second only to his skill at falling over; one of the joys of this show is the fact that it does physical comedy every bit as well as the complex verbal witticisms. 

The toughest gigs, however, go to two characters who, in lesser hands, could well have been a series-killing disaster. My personal favourite is Will Arnett as Gob, undoubtedly one of the best and most memorable characters in recent sitcom history. Gob is a hilarious tragedy, an immature little boy in the body of an aggressively masculine – and fatally, sleazily attractive - man. Disliked and ignored by both his selfish and manipulative parents, he’s best summed up by his career as a magician: his smoke-and-mirrors magic tricks rarely get the attention of the people he's trying to impress.

One of the most moving moments in Arrested Development is when Gob finally registers one of Michael's putdowns. In a small voice, shorn of bravado, he responds with 'Oh, I see what you did there'. Once again outsmarted, the trick’s on him. Gob has been brought up around people who hurt others daily with flashy gestures designed to make those closest to them feel small; his beloved 'illusions' are the only response he has.

Arnett sells all this because - incredibly - he isn't a comedian, but a brilliant dramatic actor with a rare talent for comedy. There is a kindness behind Gob's swagger that emerges in his touching interactions with his nephew and his clingy, love-hate relationship with Michael. Oh, and after Gob’s magic shows, you’ll never be able to listen to The Final Countdown again without laughing. That is, if you were able to before.

And then there’s Tobias. Oh, Tobias. David Cross may be known to you as a stand-up and for his cameo roles in films such as Men In Black and Eternal Sunshine Of The Spotless Mind, but nothing can possibly prepare you for his role here. Tobias is a man for whom denial ain’t just a river in Egypt, but the mainstay of his existence - or is it? His ambivalent sexuality, his status as a 'never nude' and his ludicrous marriage to Lindsay provide a rich seam of comedy that the writers mine constantly for comedic gold, but, again, there is pathos in this perpetually deluded character.

After all, who couldn't feel sorry for a man who considers the logical title for someone practising both psychoanalysis and therapy to be 'analrapist'? Cross's superb comic timing brings us a character that somehow manages to retain a degree of plausibility even at his most ludicrous. 

The rest of the cast richly deserve their own share of the acclaim. Jeffrey Tambor brings a seedy gravitas to the head of the Bluth family that is equalled only by his bravura performance as George's hippy twin, Oscar. Jessica Walter is insanely good as Lucille, the lascivious, scheming and utterly bonkers power behind the throne. Nobody can ever doubt that she is the Bluth matriarch...apart from Gob, who thinks he is. English isn’t Gob’s strong point.

Michael Cera has, sadly, been so overexposed in recent years that his star has fallen drastically. See him here to understand why he was once so acclaimed as the sweet, shy George Michael. If you're going to be typecast, there are worse roles to be stuck in. Tony Hale, conversely, seems to have dropped off the face of the earth since Arrested Development ended, which is absolutely baffling given his wonderful performance as Buster, the heart of the Bluth family. On the surface the weirdest of the lot, Buster is actually by far the most stable and well-adjusted, and the only one with a fully functioning conscience. Portia de Rossi brings a frazzled glamour to proceedings as Lindsay, while Alia Shawkat makes a lot out of her slightly underwritten role as mischievous Maeby.

It's not my trick - it's my allusion!

One piece of advice with Arrested Development: whatever you do, begin at the beginning. It's a complicated tale, for sure, but plot confusion isn't the main problem here. No, the major sticking point for new viewers is the constant, many-layered 'callbacks' and 'call forwards' thrown around by Hurwitz with gleeful abandon. Plot threads are foreshadowed way in advance of their appearance, while the outcome of an episode can hinge on a throwaway line uttered by a minor character three seasons earlier.

To say that Arrested Development rewards the observant is something of an understatement. In many ways, this attention to detail and self-referentiality would spell its downfall. By the time of its third season, as it became horribly clear that the axe loomed, the still intermittently brilliant show was taking the concept of 'fan service' to new levels. In the absence of most of the viewing public, accessibility simply didn't matter anymore, while the cast and writers have repeatedly stated that they relied heavily on the devotees over at Television Without Pity for insight into fan preferences.

Listing all the references that made the show such a delight - and such an essential DVD purchase - would probably take longer than Arrested Development actually ran for. Ron Howard's omniscient, detached narration works wonders, anchoring us in a quasi-documentary style that eventually not only breaks down the fourth wall but tramples on its pulverised remains.

When one character insultingly refers to George Michael as Opie, the character played by Howard on the Andy Griffiths Show, the narrator comments that ‘Jessie had gone too far, and had best watch her mouth’.  The show constantly plays with the real world, leaving us unsure on occasion where fiction ends and reality begins. Award-winning news anchor John Beard appears as himself on sixteen occasions, once, admirably, with hilarious 70s hair.

The models upon which the different family members seem to be based vary depending on the episode. In many ways, they’re awfully close to the Bush political dynasty; Gob’s name is clearly a skit on George W. Bush’s elder brother, Jeb (John Ellis Bush), and the family’s various dodgy deals in Iraq evoke topical concerns. However, there’s also a fictional parallel to be made to the Corleone gangster clan of The Godfather series. Again, we have three brothers: one the reckless ladies’ man, one ‘sensible’ brother, also named Michael, and one who is considered weak and despised by the rest. Not all the characteristics fit; Buster is the youngest, while his Godfather equivalent, Fredo, is the middle son displaced in favour of the younger and more capable Michael Corleone.

Still, the dysfunctional but tight-knit bunch are similar enough to hit all the right comedy notes. After yet another spat with Gob, Michael wakes up one morning to find his sheets soaked with oil and the handlebars of his bike lying next to him in bed. Not quite a horse’s head, but as close as this lot will get.

As for the guest stars, where to begin? From Liza Minnelli to Judge Reinhold as a real judge (well, kind of), the list is long. One example sets the standard for the range of clever cameos: Henry Winkler as the useless family lawyer, Barry Zuckerkorn. If you didn’t know that Winkler was the Fonz before watching Arrested Development, you certainly will afterwards. From a superb visual reference to the scene in Happy Days that spawned the term – and the trope – ‘jumping the shark’, to some of Barry’s more, shall we say, expansive hand gestures, the constant sly nudges are a cheeky delight.

All this, of course, ties up with the fact that none other than Richie Cunningham himself is doing the series narration – and the Happy Days gags keep on stacking up. When Barry is finally fired in the third season, he’s replaced by Scott Baio as Bob Loblaw (the name only really makes sense if you hear it pronounced with an American accent). Baio also turns up in Happy Days as Fonzie’s younger cousin, Chachi. This adds extra resonance to Loblaw’s claim that his job with the Bluths isn’t the first time he’s filled Barry’s shoes.

If the TV gods continue to smile on us, Arrested Development will start again in 2013. Plenty of time to start getting excited, then. Those of us who’ve already seen all the episodes 20 times each have the excuse we really don’t need for a rewatch, while the rest of you have a lot of fun in store. What a fun, sexy time for you.

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