Arrested Development

All three seasons on DVD.

My brother, Michael, and I both own all three seasons of Arrested Development on DVD. We’ve seen most of the episodes numerous times. We know much of the dialogue by heart and often start giggling before the show actually reaches the punch line. So when my father and he visited for a few days, Michael, Sean, and I decided to introduce Dad to our dear departed sitcom.

It wasn’t a careless decision because offering TV or movie recommendations is risky in our family. My Aunt Mary Sue and Uncle George still give my parents a hard time for suggesting they see Annie Hall, which my aunt and uncle did not enjoy as much as Mom and Dad did, to put it mildly. (Annie Hall came out in 1977, by the way, which ought to give you some idea of the longevity of cheerfully held grudges in our clan.)

Fortunately for us, Dad was soon bawling with laughter at the bizarre, ribald, perverse antics of the Bluth family. Too little, too late, but Arrested Development has won another devoted fan.

Granted, the off-beat, off-color sitcom isn’t for everyone. This is a show that makes running jokes out of incest, repressed sexuality, and treason (well, “light treason,” as George Bluth Sr. optimistically describes it). But the writing is so clever and agile, the acting so sharp and well-timed, the satire so thoughtful and biting, that Arrested Development manages to dance lightly over material that might otherwise have been in exceedingly poor taste.

Jason Bateman plays the responsible but self-righteous Michael Bluth, who attempts to keep the Bluth development company afloat—and his family out of prison, bankruptcy, and the gossip pages—after his father, George (Jeffrey Tambor), is arrested for embezzlement and other crimes of financial chicanery. The Bluth family is not easily managed, though, and the three all-too-brief seasons of Arrested Development record their escapades.

I could give pithy descriptions of Michael’s various troublesome relatives (flighty, unfulfilled sister; tart, abrasive mother; sweetly awkward son), but such summations don’t begin to reflect the complexity of the characters and their relationships with each other. Unlike the characters on most sitcoms, the Bluths cannot be encapsulated with a couple of adjectives or a facile cliché.

Take the relationship between Michael and his older brother, Gob (pronounced like the biblical Job—don’t ask—and wonderfully played by Will Arnett). Bubbling under even the silliest plots (Michael enlists Gob to seduce their father’s secretary, Gob becomes convinced Michael is preparing to flee to South America, Michael petulantly crashes Gob’s bachelor party) is a stew of conflicting emotions: affection, exasperation, resentment, admiration, jealousy. Bateman and Arnett are able to convey the idea that these two men grew with each other—they have a common history and all of the shared neuroses and quirks and weaknesses that result from that—and the writers back the actors up with keen specificity, not just generic fraternal banter. In other words, beneath all the farce and hyperbole is a well-observed portrait of true brotherhood, the authenticity of which anyone with a sibling can recognize.

The writing for Arrested Development is difficult to overestimate. The amazing attention to detail and continuity alone are worthy of attention. Notoriously plot-hole-prone show creators such as Chris Carter (The X-Files) and J.J. Abrams (Lost) should be required to study the way Arrested Development weaves together an intricate fabric of backstory without losing or muddling its threads. Seemingly throwaway lines or details in one episode quietly foreshadow plot twists that don’t develop until much later, and later episodes constantly hearken back to earlier ones, enriching the overarching Bluth saga.

And it’s funny—sometimes twisted or acerbic but always howlingly, uproariously funny. Much of the humor is smart, character-driven farce, but Arrested Development isn’t shy about indulging in slapstick or sight gags or double entendres either. The sheer diversity of the comedy on screen rewards repeat viewing; often you catch a witty aside or a background gag that you missed the first time around.

Arrested Development is just a damn good TV show—definitely the best sitcom in years—but I guess I understand why it never found much of an audience. Much of the humor is pitch-black, the characters aren’t always particularly likable, and the long, intricate plot arcs demanded consistent viewing. By third season, when it was clear cancellation was imminent, the writers stopped even attempting to make the show accessible to new viewers and indulged in elaborate “meta” jokes that would have been incomprehensible to anyone who wasn’t already intimately familiar with the Bluths.

But for those of us who were familiar with them, who’d grown to love the Bluth family, the ride was a great one, for in many ways, the third season was the most ambitious. At first I didn’t like a five-episode plot line guest starring Charlize Theron as the quirky object of Michael’s affection, but by the time it resolved itself with a risky twist, revealing just how brilliant the writing and Theron’s performance had been, I was in hysterics. Not only was it salaciously funny, but its satire of the conventions of romantic comedy was nothing short of genius.

The final few episodes of Arrested Development pull every last thread and recurring character together with the bridge-burning abandon of a show with nothing to lose: the final climax is incendiary, and maybe a tiny bit bitter. I love all that high-flying farce (parodying the classic situational comedy setup with a house full of Saddam Hussein look-alikes is a jaw-dropping lark), but toward the end, it becomes unsustainable.

At the time, I was disappointed to see my beloved show go off the air, but in retrospect, I’m glad that it ended bold and strong instead of petering out, a shadow of its former self. Arrested Development gave me fifty-three episodes of comedic gold to treasure, and rewatching the first half dozen with Dad, I laughed my ass off all over again.

%d bloggers like this: