When it comes to the great American tradition of the family comedy, one recent show stands out among the best, and I know I am not alone in calling it my favorite show in this genre: Arrested Development. Any TV historian can chart the growth of the sitcom, from I Love Lucy’s zany antics to the sociopolitical dramedy of M*A*S*H and the artificial families in Cheers and Friends. Each of these shows brought something new to the television landscape, and so has Arrested Development. When he brought the show to Fox in 2003, showrunner Mitch Hurwitz created a unique comedy that relied on documentary-style camera work, frenetic pacing with several cutaway gags, densely layered inside jokes, and an omniscient narrator who directly addressed the audience.
The show can be summarized easily by the voiceover narration that plays over the credits, as delivered by director and former child star Ron Howard: “Now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.” Jason Bateman plays Michael Bluth, a devoted single father who considers himself the only responsible person in a family of self-absorbed, lazy freeloaders. Michael’s father, George Bluth, is sent to prison in the pilot episode for a variety of financial improprieties, and the once-ascendant Bluth Company falls to the hands of Michael, who must deal with the rest of his family: his shy son, George Michael; his haughty, controlling mother; his overeducated, immature younger brother, Buster; and his egomaniacal older brother, GOB, who is possibly the world’s worst magician. There’s also his shallow, shopaholic twin sister, Lindsey; her husband, neurotic therapist Tobias; and their daughter, Maeby, who is smart beyond her years but a bit of a juvenile delinquent.
As anyone who has been online in the past decade can tell you, the best part of Arrested Development is the way it embeds its jokes in the storyline: the jokes hide within jokes like a never-ending matryoshka doll. In addition, the show has become famous for its self-references, many flashbacks, and surprising amount of foreshadowing, all hilariously put together. However, despite praise from critics, the show lasted only a short while; by 2006, after a mere three seasons, it had already left the airwaves to be replaced with Skating with Celebrities, a pathetic fate the show mined for humor.
Much has been made of the reasons for Arrested Development’s failure. Certainly, Hurwitz’s show was ahead of its time, in many ways; one of the first American mockumentary-style sitcoms, it possessed a kind of verve and style other shows just didn’t have. Perhaps the show had simply become too political, with its focus on the ongoing Iraq War and a plot that satirized the vapidity of American wealth and excess. Whatever the reason, despite its cancellation, the DVD sales were incredible, and it gained a huge cult following.
Happily for fans, Netflix bought the rights to produce a new fourth season, which premiered, all at once, in May 2013. Hurwitz strived for honesty in his characters, thinking about where time would have brought them, and revealed a Michael brought low by the housing crisis. The season proved to be somewhat polarizing; the cast, which has largely gone on to enjoy considerable fame thanks to their performances in the original show, was very hard to bring together all at once, necessitating an unusual style that The New Yorker compared to the Kurosawa film Rashoman. Despite that, it reminded me why I fell in love with this show in the first place: the characters, the insane humor, and the brilliant topical satire. I can only hope that Netflix will deliver the next season soon!