TV’s Best of the Decade: No. 4 – ‘Arrested Development’

12.28.09 8 years ago 18 Comments


While I never gave any serious consideration to placing it in my Top 31, I think that a quick tip-of-the-hat is owed to “Malcolm in the Middle,” which premiered on FOX in January of 2000.
Although it wasn’t the first show to attempt to translate the aesthetic and comic rhythms of an animated series to live action, “Malcolm in the Middle” was perhaps the decade’s most successful variation on that theme, running on FOX for a whopping 151 episodes. In substance and structure, “Malcolm in the Middle” was a traditional family sitcom, but its pacing, zany excess and the characters’ proclivities towards incorrect decision-making had more in common with the freedom of animation. And certainly “Malcolm in the Middle” benefited from its proximity to FOX’s successful cartoon entries, since even I’m a bit astounded that it made it past 150 episodes. [Was *anybody* still watching “Malcolm in the Middle” by Season Seven? Anybody? I watched for three or four seasons and checked in every once-in-a-while after that. That neither Jane Kaczmarek nor Bryan Cranston won even a single Emmy for the series is yet another black mark.]
“Malcolm in the Middle” (and “The Bernie Mac Show,” which also deserves mention) was a trailblazer for the single-camera aesthetic that FOX emphasized in live-action comedy throughout the decade. Beyond “Malcolm” and “Bernie,” you’d be hard-pressed to find many popular successes in that group, though I’ve now mentioned the names of the honorable failures (things like “Greg the Bunny,” “Kitchen Confidential,” “The Loop” and “Method and Red”) in several entries. 
Without a doubt, the best of the shows following in the wake of “Malcolm in the Middle” was Mitch Hurwitz’s “Arrested Development,” a boundary-bending, joke-spewing, wildly meta dysfunctional family comedy. 
The finest sitcom of the Aughts, “Arrested Development” ranks at No. 4 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
[More after the break…]
Premiering in the late fall of 2003, “Arrested Development” lasted for 53 episodes. That’s only a third as many as “Malcolm in the Middle,” but perhaps even more impressive given that “Malcolm in the Middle” was actually a hit when it premiered and “Arrested Development” was, from a ratings standpoint, DOA almost immediately.
Despite some of the best reviews for any comedy series in recent memory (possibly surpassed this fall by the notices for “Modern Family”), “Arrested Development” never came close to finding the audience necessary to succeed on network television. Bitterness has led fans to blame FOX for its treatment of “Arrested Development,” a tendency I’ve never understood. Yes, FOX was consistently inconsistent in scheduling the show, but rather than pushing “Arrested Development” around into increasingly dead slots, FOX kept trying to give the show better lead-ins, to push the show out of the way of particularly strong shows and episodes on other networks. FOX would have been justified to cancel “Arrested Development” after one season. Then, after a second season that failed to gain any traction despite an Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy win, FOX would have been additionally justified in canceling the show. And yes, the third season was a nutty piece of clusterfudge in terms of programming — two episodes here, three episodes there, a four-episode marathon against the opening ceremony of the Winter Olympics — every single produced episode aired on FOX.
I know it’s always tempting to rant against the network when a show you love is finally cancelled, but when it comes to “Arrested Development,” I’ve just been grateful for those 53 episodes, while pondering just how many other great FOX shows I’d have loved to get 53 episodes for. With that many episodes, “Arrested Development” has been in constant syndication and whole new audiences have discovered a show they never bothered to check out on FOX and have taken advantage of what may be the most rewatchable live action comedy ever produced.
I can’t even blame audiences for not getting “Arrested Development” right off, or for not responding to promos for it. I didn’t get “Arrested Development” when FOX showed clips at its upfront presentation in May of 2003. Without context, the sizzle reel for “Arrested Development” seemed like empty quirk. The pilot arrived in the mail just a week later and I felt instantly embarrassed that I hadn’t given the show enough credit. 
It turns out that the only way to love “Arrested Development” was to get to know the Bluths. You had to embrace corrupt, frequently incarcerated patriarch George (Jeffrey Tambor), with his ties to international dictators, and perpetually pickled wife Lucille (Jessica Walter). You had to find a way to adore obvious socialite Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and her husband Tobias Funke (David Cross), a very straight shrink-turned-actor-turned-analrapist who introduced the world to the very serious condition of being a never-nude. You had to laugh at Segway-riding magician Gob (Will Arnett) and socially awkward momma’s boy Buster (Tony Hale). And you had to find sympathy in the plight of Michael (Jason Bateman), our ostensible hero, just trying to raises son George Michael (Michael Cera) to be better than the rest of the family, even as the teen was lusting after Lindsay and Tobias’ daughter Maeby (Alia Shawkat).
The foundation of the traditional family sitcom, from “Ozzy and Harriet” to “The Brady Bunch” to “The Cosby Show” is that, no matter how many obstacles are put in the characters’ paths, togetherness is the ultimate aspiration.
In “Arrested Development,” that was far from the case. Michael summed up the theme in a Season One episode when he decides, at least temporarily, to put aside his love for telenovela star Marta (in her original Leonor Varela incarnation, before she became Patricia Velasquez) to let Gob set things right with her.
“You’ve gotta put family first,” Michael explains. “That’s the stupid thing that I believe.”
On “Arrested Development,” almost nothing good ever came from putting family first or, in Michael’s case, from doing the right thing. More often than not, what brought the family together at the end of an episode was the futility of Michael’s gestures to be altruistic, to be moral or to be selfless.
Selflessness was perhaps the ultimate crime in the “Arrested Development” universe, where everybody other than Michael and George Michael cared more about living in the lap of luxury than who they shared the lap with or what laws had been broken to yield that luxury. Many post-mortems on “Arrested Development” tried to claim that the selfishness of the characters made the series difficult to relate to and that’s why the show failed. Leaving aside my incredulity that only four million Americans can relate to selfishness — statistics regarding the opposition to universal health care prove that were tolerance of selfishness were the only criteria, “Arrested Development” ought to have drawn 100 million-plus viewers every week — the characters on “Arrested Development” weren’t any more ethically backward than the gang on “Seinfeld.” 
What probably did “Arrested Development” in was that it felt a bit like work, since some of the jokes required effort and attention. Perish the thought, I know. “Arrested Development” was a show built around ironic juxtapositions, double-entendres and the occasional site gag based upon spelling (“analrapist”) or punctuation (newspapers referring to Tobias as “‘Actor’ Tobias Funke). You had to find it funny that Tobias Funke would see a magazine titled Tractor Pull, misread it as Actor Pull and spend time intently reading the “Parts” section, or to see something sublime in a magician storing a deceased prop in the fridge with the sign “Dead Dove Do Not Eat.” You also had to not be disturbed by intimations of desired incest, repeated jokes about cornballing and the untold perversities of “Motherboy XXX.”
You had to have a certain amount of pop cultural awareness. You had to remember the “Star Wars” kid from YouTube, or to know that narrator Ron Howard had been on “Happy Days,” to quickly recognize a snapshot of guest star Charlize Theron from her Oscar-winning turn in “Monster,” or to know that even though FOX aired a show called “The O.C.,” most residents of Orange County were more likely to just call it “O.C.” You also had to be paying enough attention of the world to recognize a good George W. Bush or Terry Schiavo joke, to chuckle at Patriot Act humor.
If you only paid casual attention, you also ran the risk of losing track of the show’s joke continuity. While the plot of “Arrested Development” was generally going in circles and even the writers sometimes seemed to lose tract of where the characters were supposed to be, nobody ever lost track of its internal joke-meter, generating call-backs throughout the entire series, whether to the Cornballer, the seal who ate Buster’s hand, the family chicken dances and more. “Arrested Development” existed on a continuum all its own.
And by the end of its run, you had to be well and truly invested in the show’s struggle to remain on the air, because “Arrested Development” became more and more invested in a meta-commentary on its own survival, whether joking about the show’s second season order reduction from 22 to 18 episodes or to the possibility that the comedy might be migrating to Showtime or HBO. Not only was FOX content to keep renewing “Arrested Development,” but the network didn’t make a peep as “Arrested Development” became a comedy ouroboros, first nibbling at its own tail and eventually devouring itself completely.
The show did it all with a style that felt simultaneously loose and precise. From the pilot, directed by the Brothers Russo, the visuals gave a fly-on-the-wall sensation, heavily relying on location shooting and hand-held filming, but the call-backs and carefully edited cutaways never felt at all like afterthoughts. Those cutaways and callbacks were always far better integrated into the storytelling than on, say, an animated show like  “Family Guy.” The entire show and every joke within it remained consistent to the characters, who didn’t change very much over 53 episodes, but mained remarkably funny in that statis.
“Arrested Development” had another of those ensembles where it would be folly to go through each and every performance singling out the excellence. During the show’s run, Emmy nominations went to Tambor, Walter, Batemand and Arnett, but certainly Hale, Cross and de Rossi would have been just as deserving of recognition. Over three seasons, the show had too many terrific guest stars to salue all of them, but I’d feel guilty if I didn’t mention Liza Minnelli’s vertigo-impaired Lucille Austero, Bob Einstein’s Larry Middleman, Scott Baio’s Bob Loblaw (a joke the former teen star never really got), Martin Short’s grotesque Uncle Jack, Mae Whitman’s Ann (“Have we met?”) and Charlize Theron’s Rita (an unfolding joke some fans loved and others hated) or the versions of themselves played by Thomas Jane, Judge Reinhold and, especially, Sir Carl Weathers.
I close by noting that as much as I loved “Arrested Development,” I don’t have much desire to get an “Arrested Development” movie. What I want is another season of “Arrested Development,” or even to someday stumble across four episodes of “Arrested Development” that I’ve never seen before, airing mysteriously on IFC. That, though, isn’t the same thing as an “Arrested Development” movie, which has been a source of giggly anticipation at every press conference involving a former “Arrested Development” star that I’ve attended in the past four years.
The giggly anticipation for the movie is based on the fact that journalists basically willed this movie into being. The “AD” cast went out into the world and did countless other projects and with every press day or junket, each and every one of them would be asked whether or not an “Arrested Development” movie was going to happen and they almost all kept hemming and hawing, except possibly for Jeffrey Tambor, who always seemed to have inside information that the movie was getting closer and Michael Cera, who always seemed a bit too busy going forward to enthusiastically look backwards. Even once the trades reported that Fox Searchlight was ponying up the dough for the money and that Hurwitz was writing a script and would direct, the cast has continued to be asked about its progress so frequently that I’m almost sorry for the number of times Jason Bateman has had to lie, fabricate or just circumvent an absence of facts to give non-answers that were then rushed up online as breathless non-exclusives.
Hurwitz has tried to go on with his career and do other things, working on a number of pilots and short-lived shows, even putting his name on FOX’s “Brothers,” though we prefer to forget that that is the case. 
Part of my concern for the “Arrested Development” movie is that at no point did Hurwitz show up at a press conference and say, “I’ve got an awesome idea that both has to be a movie and has to be ‘Arrested Development’ and therefore I’m pushing for this to happen.” It remained one of those “If the right thing comes along…” ideas until exactly the moment a deal had been made and even then it wasn’t like Hurwitz told whichever trade reported the story that he had an idea that was bursting out of his chest like a baby alien. This movie seems to be something that everybody involved wants to do because they liked hanging out with each other, which is a subpar motivation for a film, if you ask me.
“Arrested Development” left no meaningful plot details unresolved and would gain absolutely nothing from the visual expansion of the big screen. It was a TV show and a great TV show. Why would anybody assume that a movie screen and a $30 million budget would be advantages rather than disadvantages?
Events in the real world have conspired to make “Arrested Development” look prescient in its depiction of white collar crime and real estate fraud, but if “Arrested Development” were to bring similar plotlines to the big screen, it might run the risk of falling behind the commentary curve. 
I suppose there’s probably a way for Hurwitz to plot a movie which would do for “Arrested Development” what “In the Loop” did for “The Thick of It” (a series, coincidentally, Hurwitz unsuccessfully attempted to translate for ABC). And it’s not like I’m not going to go see “Arrested Development: The Movie” the first day it’s out. I just want Hurwitz to be doing the movie for himself, rather than as some obligation he thinks he owes a few fans. 
For those fans? There will always be 53 episodes of “Arrested Development,” which stands at No. 4 on my list of TV’s Best of the Decade.
Coming up tomorrow: Conclusive and unequivocal proof that cigarette smoking *is* indeed cool.

A full explanation of the parameters for this list. 

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