Arrested Development is hailed as one of the best sitcoms ever made, and therefore its absence from my viewership has been widely ridiculed. I started it with the intention of doing the first season of the show this feature; I ended up watching the entire thing, and am roughly halfway through the first season again. It’s every bit as good as its reputation, with a density to much of its humour that allows you to pick up little things you never noticed before on your fifteenth viewing of an episode.
The show follows the wealthy Bluth family, who own a mini-mansion company. The CEO and Bluth patriarch George Sr (Jeffrey Tambor) is arrested for fraud – among other things – just as he is about to retire, leaving his son Michael (Jason Bateman) to sort things out. Michael, however, was about to leave forever and take his son George-Michael (Michael Cera) away from nutter-butters that are his family: his wildly controlling mother Lucille (Jessica Walter); his idiot magician older brother Gob (Will Arnett); his mollycoddled younger brother Buster (Tony Hale); his shallow and work-shy sister Lindsay (Portia De Rossi); Lindsay’s husband, doctor-turned-“actor” Tobias Funke; and Lindsay and Tobias’s rebellious daughter Maeby, whom George-Michael is secretly in love with. And breathe. Also, the show is narrated by Ron Howard, who often comments on the shoddy narrating of others, scolds characters for calling somebody “Opie”, and generally pointing out whenever somebody drops the title of the show into conversation.
The narration is also key in keeping the show from becoming too dense. While most episodes do have episodic functions, many plotlines or developments do carry over. In any particular episode, you might ask why Michael drives a stair car, or why Buster is dating Liza Minnelli, or why Maeby works at a movie studio. But the oddball nature of the show’s format allows for swift catch-up sequences and narration asides that don’t feel forced or out-of-place – it’s all just that strange.
Each season appears to be framed around the state of George Sr’s incarceration: in the first season he is in jail, while Michael tries to find ways to get him out, with no help from George Sr, the rest of the family, or their supremely incompetent lawyer Barry Zuckercorn (Henry Winkler). He escapes in the finale, and spends season two on the run. Well, I say on the run – first he fakes his death, and then spends the rest of the season hiding out in Michael’s attic. In season three he is discovered, and placed under house arrest – with Lucille, much to his chagrin. Eventually we find out that he is indeed innocent of the “light treason” that has fuelled much of the series. It seems cheap, but it’s a show about some stupid people, in stupid scenarios – it works because it’s a charming kind of stupid.
If there’s one thing that defines the show’s humour, it is running jokes. Many of the show’s lines have entered into the meme lexicon – “I’ve made a huge mistake” to name but one – and the show takes delight in springing something on you a twelfth time. George Sr’s twin brother Oscar (also Jeffrey Tambor) is mistaken for George and tasered violently so many times; often, George uses him to escape justice for a brief time. One of the season three storylines involved a possible British spy codenamed “Mr F” whose name is sung in the soundtrack every time his name is mentioned by a character. It turns out to actually be Tobias, who is unknowingly spying on the family for the CIA. But then later, Gob’s puppet Frankin is revealed to be the pimp for a prostitute Michael thinks is actually his sister*, and the soundtrack once again sing “Mr F”. The episodes with J. Walter Weatherman and Maggie Lizer are particularly fond of a thousand twists. The former involved an armless friend of George Sr who helps him teach “lessons” to his children; the one time Michael tries to teach George-Michael a “lesson” by faking a drugs bust, they are busted by some real police – who then turn out be a final “lesson” from George Sr when one of the “real” police gets his arm shot clean off – J. Walter Weatherman. Maggie Lizer has a one-night-stand with Michael, before he realises she is blind, and also the lead prosecutor in the case against George Sr. Except she’s not blind, just faking it (her dog, Justice, is blind. The episode is called “Justice is Blind”). Later, almost eight months after their fling, she is pregnant, and Michael suspects he is the father. She tells him he isn’t, but it turns out he is, and then he discovers a fat suit, but then Maggie shows him her genuine pregnant belly, then he reconciles with her, then he’s not the father, it’s actually two gay cops and she’s a surrogate, and then it transpires she was faking with a much better fake belly, and actually her client (a large woman in a case against a fast food chain for making her fat) is the one carrying the child. And breathe.
The show also makes good use of guest stars, and build a lot of humour on them. The aforementioned prostitute that Michael thought was his sister is not actually a Bluth, but the actress is Jason Bateman’s real-life sister. Liza Minnelli’s character makes reference to a song everybody thinks is Sinatra, but in actual fact, she (as in the real Liza Minnelli) sang it originally. And Scott Biao’s Bob Loblaw (who has a law blog) replaces Henry Winkler’s Barry Zuckercorn as family lawyer, just as he did in Happy Days. Earlier, Barry jumps over a toy shark. And the show is narrated by Ron Howard. Do you see the pop culture explosion that this show inhabits?
The show also calls forward to many events to the point where you can’t help but be impressed by how early the plant the seeds of some storylines. One of the very first episodes has George Sr mention “light treason” almost as a throwaway gag; it turns out he made houses for Saddam Hussein, and this drives seasons two and three. In one episode Buster finds an old hand-shaped chair of his, and proclaims “I never knew how much I could miss a hand.” Several episodes later, his hand is bitten off by a seal. The biggest twist, however, was hiding in plain sight. In the finale we discover that Lindsay was adopted, and therefore not a blood relative. This means George-Michael’s crush on Maeby is legitimate. And then you realise she has always been “George-Michael’s cousin… maybe.”
These are just several points of the show I particularly enjoyed, but there is so much more that I’ve not mentioned. I think you’ve have to write a book to truly do it justice. I’ve hardly mentioned the genius of Tobias; Gob’s magic tricks… sorry, illusions; Ann Veal; Annyong; the Blue Man Group; and many more. Really, the only way to find out is by watching. I assure you, it will not be a huge mistake.