This article contains spoilers for the first three seasons of Arrested Development.
The wait is finally over. Seven years since that abruptly truncated third season ended in one last burst of self-referential brilliance, Netflix has reunited us with our favourite dysfunctional family. Mitch Hurwitz’s legendary creation, the sitcom loved by critics, salivated over by its devoted fans, and tragically ignored by most of the viewing public, has done what once seemed impossible. The Bluths, God help us, are back.
The question is, what can we expect from the zany clan after their long break? Part of the charm of the over-privileged bunch of layabouts we grew to love was their utter inability to learn from their frequent mistakes. Each family member languished within the prison of his or her own delusions – or illusions, in the case of GOB (Will Arnett), eldest brother and magician, whose answer to his father’s impending arrest was to conceal him in that most useless of hiding places, the Aztec Tomb. Buster (Tony Hale), the youngest son, was never quite able to escape the smothering grasp of terrifying Bluth matriarch, Lucille (Jessica Walter), while sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and her would-be actor husband, Tobias (David Cross) were trapped in a weirdly touching union cemented, ultimately, by two common interests: their love for precocious daughter, Maeby (Alia Shawkat), and their shared desire to get closer to other men. By the end of the third season, meanwhile, it had become painfully obvious that Michael Bluth’s status as the reliable son, the one on whom the whole family depended, was about as solid as, well, a very fake rock. Should we really expect too much to have changed?
After all, it’s Arrested Development.
For those of you who have somehow managed to miss everything Arrested – from the seemingly endless negotiations around its continued existence as Hurwitz pondered whether or not to take it to a cable channel such as Showtime, to the long string of articles questioning the sanity of viewers who skipped it at the time (ahem) – a helping hand is needed. The world of Arrested Development is complex, peopled by a cast of supporting characters as bewildering, and beguiling, as those of any drama, while hugely significant plot developments sometimes hinge on a throwaway line in an episode from the previous season.
But here’s a lesson worthy of J. Walter Weatherman: don’t let that seemingly impenetrable exterior put you off. For every cleverly constructed callback or layered political reference, there’s a moment of perfect physical comedy. Every member of Arrested Development‘s impeccable cast is just as capable of falling over spectacularly as he or she is adept at delivering the kind of killer line the show’s always excelled in. You will be hooked – the only question is how. For me, it was Gene Parmesan. (I watched season two first. Don’t do it, kids – trust me, you need to start at the beginning with this one.) Yes, the incompetent private eye whose arrival was greeted by squeals of delight from the usually glacial Lucille. As she shrieked, “Isn’t he the best?”, only to be immediately contradicted by Ron Howard’s deadpan voiceover (‘Gene was far from the best’), I knew I was lost.
It’s a tangled web of a plot, but it has to start somewhere, and that somewhere is a fateful family boat party. After being passed over for promotion in favour of his mother, Michael (Jason Bateman) has had quite enough of his family’s antics for one lifetime. However, his plans to leave the lot of them behind for good are abruptly curtailed when his father, George Senior (Jeffrey Tambor) is arrested for corporate fraud. Nobody else can run the Bluth Company, and the rest of the season details Michael’s attempts to, as the narrator would have it, keep them all together. Still, as George Senior keeps reminding Michael, at least there’s always money in the banana stand. However, the frozen banana kiosk that kickstarted the Bluth empire soon meets a fiery end, torched for the cash by none other than Michael and his shy teenage son, George Michael (Michael Cera). All would be well, were it not for the fact that GOB (short for George Oscar, and, the ignorance of local newsreaders notwithstanding, pronounced like the Biblical Job) never mailed the insurance cheque, preferring instead to dramatically throw it into the sea in a futile gesture of defiance. Most of the family’s efforts to overcome their situation were derailed by the years of pent-up resentment between the four siblings, all of which had been fostered by George Senior in typically Machiavellian fashion. Michael tries to shake off his father’s attempts to maintain his ‘divide and rule’ policy from jail, even as the rest of the family struggle with their own problems. George Michael battles his painful crush on cousin Maeby, while his aunt Lindsay tests the boundaries of her marriage and Tobias tries – and fails – to launch a new career in acting. From Olivier-worthy adverts for fire sales, to fraternal spats over beautiful telenovela stars, to enthusiastically disrobing stripper cops (“Look how hot they are!”) season one was certainly eventful. By the time we learn that George Senior has been constructing houses in Iraq for one S. Hussein, nothing can surprise us anymore.
As season two begins, George Senior escapes prison after faking a heart attack. He ends up hiding out in the attic of the model home in which Michael and George Michael live, in a bid to avoid the charges of ‘light treason’ for which Michael, as former president, is now being investigated. GOB is appointed CEO in Michael’s place, a position in which he manages to do $45,000 worth of damage to the office in just three hours. Still, what’s that to the guy in the $6000 suit? With Michael as the real power behind the throne, the family faces yet more difficulties. Tobias and Lindsay’s open marriage is a predictable failure; when Lindsay throws her husband out, he returns in disguise as British nanny, Mrs Featherbottom, fooling nobody at all. When Lucille reignites her passion for George Senior’s twin brother, Oscar, it turns out that Buster’s long-haired stoner uncle is, in fact, his father. Unfortunately, poor Oscar ends up in prison in his brother’s stead when the conniving George Senior arranges a case of mistaken identity. George Michael’s new relationship with the devoutly religious Ann (“Her?”) is, meanwhile, doomed by his undying love for cousin Maeby.
There are a few victories for the embattled Bluths in season three, but disaster, as ever, is still lurking around the corner. The treason charges against George Senior are dropped when it turns out that the CIA actually paid for the houses in Iraq in order to spy on the regime, but, in a word-for-word retread of the show’s very first scene, Lucille’s the one to be arrested when it’s revealed that she had been the real mastermind behind the accounting fraud. After learning that his family is falling apart again, not to mention experiencing the horror of being jumped on by his lustful sister when Lindsay finds out she’s actually adopted, Michael escapes with George Michael on GOB’s yacht, intending, once again, to dump the rest of the Bluth clan for good. Ron Howard made a final appearance – in person, this time – to suggest cryptically that the Bluth story might work better as a movie. And that, it seemed, was that. But, seven years of dashed hopes, cynicism and cautious optimism later, we’re going back to the OC. Don’t call it that, though.
So, as Arrested Development returns, the once and future sitcom back to claim its crown, we all sit waiting in eager anticipation. What if it all turns out to be, as a great man once said, a huge mistake? In all honesty, just seeing these characters again after such a long time will be a treat. It’s important to remember that Arrested Development, while brilliant, was never perfect; some episodes didn’t quite hit the mark, and season three in particular featured some distinctly dodgy plotting. I will, however, go to my grave defending ‘Ready, Aim, Marry Me’ against those who hated Martin Short’s brief involvement with the show…
One final, and particularly intriguing, aspect of the Arrested comeback is the historical dimension. As Jaime Weinman pointed out at Macleans, Arrested Development‘s first three seasons were deeply entrenched in the political climate of that strange, turbulent period around the Iraq war. Perhaps the most memorable example of this came in the episode ‘Sad Sack’, when a photo supposedly proving the existence of WMDs in Iraq turned out to be, quite literally, balls (Tobias’, actually, thanks to his attempts to use his cameraphone in the bath). Will the radically different, post-Bush cultural landscape of 2013 suit the Bluths? We’ll soon find out…on the next Arrested Development.
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