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When everyone you know is telling you the same thing about a TV show — namely that it’s the BEST SHOW EVER — that’s a lot of pressure to live up to. My roommate Alison still hasn’t read Harry Potter, because the last time I made her try, she got so worried that she wouldn’t like it (and hurt my feelings) that she physically couldn’t finish the first book. And I know a lot of people who insist on disliking things solely because so many other people have told them how OMG GOOD it is. I find this behavior idiotic — you’re missing out on quality entertainment purely for spite, or worse, because you think you’re better than the rest of us. (Here’s a helpful tip: You’re not.) Luckily, I don’t usually succumb to any of these kinds of pressure. I saw all three seasons of Arrested Development on sale at Amazon for $30 and I snatched those suckers right up.
Arrested Development is the story of the weird and wealthy Bluth family who live on or around Balboa Island in Orange County, CA. The details beyond that are a bit harder to master, which is part of the fun. (It’s also part of the reason the show was canceled after only three seasons — and frankly they’re lucky they got even that — but I’ll get back to the cancellation thing later.) Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) inherits CEO duties of the Bluth Company after his father George (Jeffrey Tambor) is sent to prison, accused of committing a bunch of white collar crimes (up to and including building illegal houses in Iraq for Saddam Hussein). But being CEO of the Bluth company doesn’t mean just managing finances, it also means keeping tabs on and reining in his family’s irresponsible and insane behavior so the company doesn’t fall into anymore trouble than it already is. His older brother, George Oscar “G.O.B.” (pronounced ‘Jobe’) Bluth, Jr. (the sublime Will Arnett), is a professional magician who is completely delusional but supremely confident in his talents. Twin sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) is married to a closeted and in denial homosexual named Tobias Fünke (David Cross), who used to be a therapist but now wishes to be an actor. They also have a daughter named Maeby (Alia Shawkat), who is much more competent than either of them put together, and who they neglect mercilessly. Bluth matriarch Lucille (Jessica Walter) is, to quote Wikipedia, “manipulative, materialistic, and hypercritical of every member of her family, as well as being a perpetual drunk.” Both George Sr. and Lucille cheat on each constantly, most famously with his secretary and his twin brother, Oscar (haplessly and brilliantly played also by Jeffrey Tambor), respectively. The Bluth family is rounded out by Michael’s son George Michael (Michael Cera), who is in love with his cousin Maeby, and Michael’s younger brother, Buster (Tony Hale), who has an unnaturally close relationship to his mother, who may or not be actually twin brother Oscar’s son, and who I love beyond reason. The whole thing is narrated tongue-in-cheek by TV and film legend Ron Howard.
Watching Arrested Development‘s pilot was an interesting experience. The minute my roommate Alison found out what I was doing her eyes got as big as saucer plates, like my cat’s do when he thinks he’s about to get fed, and she squealed at me, “CAN I WATCH IT WITH YOU?” From the very first scene, she was laughing hysterically at everything — and she has a very distinctive laugh. She kept looking over at me like, why aren’t you laughing, too? Isn’t it funny? And it’s true, I wasn’t laughing, but it wasn’t because I wasn’t enjoying myself. The thing about Arrested Development is that you only get to the laughing out loud when you’ve gotten to know the characters. The humor comes from knowing and loving these absolutely idiotic people, the things they do over and over, the things they never do, or should do. It’s context humor, and what you end up getting if you invest enough time (number of episodes will vary person to person, for me it was four) is the kind of laughter you get from your own friends or family, except better because you don’t actually have to deal with them or clean up after their messes. It probably also took me longer to get to know the characters because I was so used to seeing them in their post-Arrested Development roles. I saw Jason Bateman in Juno, Will Arnett in 30 Rock, Portia de Rossi in Better Off Ted, Tony Hale as Chuck‘s Emmit Milbarge, and Michael Cera in every movie ever made before I ever saw this show. I had such a hard time, especially with de Rossi and Hale, whose post-A.D. characters — cold fish Veronica and Buy More Nazi/Weasel Emmit — are so incredibly different than Lindsay and Buster that there was some definite cognitive dissonance going on. It took me forever to stop thinking of Lindsay as a bitch, because that’s what Ted‘s Veronica is. Lindsay, like the other Bluths, is simply self-deluded. Where Gob has convinced himself that he is a talented magician and puppeteer, Lindsay has convinced herself that she is a liberal humanitarian and activist. Buster, though . . . Buster is just magical.
It is scientifically impossible to list all the things I love about this show in such a small space, but pretty much every single thing that would be on that list falls under one umbrella: It’s the characters you end up loving the most. I love Tobias and his freaky flexibility, his unintentionally homo-erotic phrases, and his propensity to wear cut-offs at all times (“Tobias was a never-nude.” “I thought he just liked cut-offs”). I love Gob’s magic tricks and the fact that he rides around on a Segway, the world’s stupidest technological innovation (“I’ve made a huge mistake” “COME on!”). I love that George Sr. likes being in jail more than he likes being in his own house (“NO TOUCHING!”) I love that Buster is a man-child with one hand (“I’M A MONSTER!”) I love that Lucille is drunk at all times, that she leaves rehab to have a drinking contest with Kitty, George Sr.’s former secretary (who has a propensity for flashing her breasts in public), and I love that she wins said drinking contest by a margin of 1000%. I love that the Bluths own a banana stand on Balboa Island, and that they adopt a Korean boy whom they call ‘Annyong,’ which is “hello” in Korean. I love all the incestuous undertones: that George Michael and Maeby have the hots for each other, Buster’s unnatural attachment to Lucille (to the point of dating her best friend, Lucille 2 (Liza Minnelli)), Lucille’s affair with Oscar. I love that they drive a stair car. I love all the wonderful guest stars and their wonderfully kooky roles. I love that none of the Bluths seem to know what a chicken actually sounds or looks like. The Final Countdown. I could go on forever.
But you see what I mean, because none of that sounds very funny when you just list it out like that. You can’t see their facial expressions or hear the tones of their voices. You can’t hear the rhythms of their mangled and deranged sentences. And if you haven’t seen the show, you don’t have any context whatsover. So much of Arrested Development‘s humor is based on previous knowledge. It’s a rarity in the television world: a completely serialized half-hour comedy. Most serialized shows are dramas, like Lost or Dexter or The Wire. If you miss an episode of one of those shows, chances are you will have no idea what is going on, or even if you manage to grasp the main thrust of the plot, you won’t care one way or another about the outcome. Serialized television requires investment, and the traditional sitcom requires the opposite. Sitcoms with the best ratings are the ones you can pop in and out of, the ones that can in theory gain new viewers at any point in their runs without said viewers having to wait for DVDs to catch up. If you were to have somehow tuned in to a late season three episode called “Prison Break-In,” and you just happened to catch sight of a one armed man walking into a room and saying to another man with long hair, “Hey Father Uncle Dad,” you would have absolutely no idea what was going on. You wouldn’t know that this man’s name was Buster, and that his hand was bitten off by an escaped seal his brother Gob released into the ocean after a failed magic trick. You wouldn’t know that he always greets people with a “Hey Brother” or “Hey Sister.” You wouldn’t know that his father had a twin brother and that he’s not sure which one is actually his father. All of this is need to know information if you are to find this small, three second moment funny, and the whole episode will be packed with moments just like it. It’s no wonder the show was canceled. In-jokes, repetitious behave, self-aware humor, meta-narration — all of it brilliant, all of it very niche, and very unaccessible, if you’re not willing to pay attention.
Ultimately, Arrested Development was doomed from the start. It was a cable show that had somehow made its way onto primetime television and couldn’t hack it with the dumbed down fare it was in competition with. I want you to stop and take a minute to reflect on something. Two and a Half Men premiered the same year as Arrested Development did. Two and a Half Men is still on the air and Arrested Development is not. Two and a Half Men, while I’m sure it gives great pleasure to its fans, could be enjoyed by a monkey wearing underpants. Arrested Development asked for a little bit more from its viewers, and not only in terms of serialization. In fact, if they had been paying attention, I’m sure many, many people would have been very offended by it. And that is why it is canceled. I recently read an interview that creator Mitchell Hurwitz gave concerning his upcoming show Running Wilde, starring Will Arnett and Keri Russell. I can’t remember the details (and I couldn’t find the interview), but the interviewer asked Hurwitz whether his new show would follow in the footsteps of its big brother in terms of tone and style. Hurwitz’s response was essentially to say that Arrested Development was “niche” television, and that as much as he loved it, he would like for people to actually watch Running Wilde, even the idiots — especially the idiots — simply so that he can keep making it. I know I’m four plus years late to this party, but that’s pretty sad, isn’t it? Because the things that make up his style, the things that I love about Arrested Development, are exactly the things that need to go if the show is going to be successful. But who knows, maybe they can pull it off. Maybe it will run for ten seasons. That would be a nice trick, don’t you think?
(“Illusion, Michael! A trick is something a whore does for money.”)
This is why we can’t have nice things.