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Maureen Ryan


'Arrested Development' On Netflix: Reasons To Be Glad (And Afraid) That It's Returning

Posted: 08/29/2012 11:33 am


When a great TV show goes away, we don't just miss the characters and the world they lived in -- we miss the particular combination of things that program did. We look in vain for its DNA, often to find only little pieces of it scattered here and there, all of which lengthens the grieving process (presuming the show hasn't overstayed its welcome). 

Few shows in the last decade had more distinctive recipes and more vociferous mourners than "Arrested Development," which ran from 2003-2006 on Fox and returns in the spring on Netflix

It resembled "Lost" in the intricacy of its structure and "Breaking Bad" in the relentlessly unsympathetic nature of most of its key characters, and its comic influences ranged from Preston Sturges to Monty Python to '80s sitcoms. Like every show people daydream about reviving, it had a strange alchemy all its own, but a recent rewatch of "Arrested Development" confirmed that the core elements that made the show work are timeless, and that's what makes me so excited about its return. (Check out my lists of favorite "AD" episodes and supporting characters below.)

Much as I love "Breaking Bad," "Lost" and "Battlestar Galactica," all of those shows needed to have end dates; no matter how good the storytelling, all those plot gyrations and all that suffering gets exhausting after a while. But comedies are a little different: If the execution is top-notch and the show avoids falling into too many ruts, seeing the sad sacks go around in circles is half the fun. Not for nothing is Dante's most famous work -- the majority of which is about Hell and Purgatory -- called "The Divine Comedy." 

True, I eventually grew tired of "30 Rock's" lack of emotional depth and I think "The Office" should have been put out of its misery at least a year ago, and that's why I now think "AD's" relatively brief run turned out to be a plus. Had the show devolved into a long-running, formulaic comedy about a wacky bunch of rich idiots, I might be singing a different tune. But I view the comedy the way the thrifty "AD" version of Carl Weathers views a chicken carcass -- there's still plenty of meat on those bones. 

It's short shelf life isn't the only reason to anticipate its return. "Arrested Development's" most distinctive quality is something it has in common with FX's "Louie": You never really know what you are going to get. It's not a tonally different animal week to week, as is the case with the bravura "Louie," but within episodes, the "AD" writers mixed and matched ingredients like adventurous chefs. On "AD," one minute a giant mole is stomping on a miniature housing development, the next an innocent young man is stammering about his painful crush, and that might be followed by a litany of accidental sexual innuendoes from a man painted blue. At its best, "AD" was meticulous in structure and exuberantly jazzy in execution.

And that's partly because the show's creator, Mitchell Hurwitz, liked to play around with typical comedy rhythms and rules. "Whether they realize it or not, people see that [usual] rhythm coming and it stops being amusing to them," he told me in a 2004 interview. "I don't think the joke-telling on this show is that unconventional -- the rhythms are different. [The jokes] are timed differently. They're catching people off guard."

Hurwitz's inspired and deliberately off-kilter melange didn't just embolden the next generation of television-comedy experimenters, it left a lot of surreal and slapstick places for "AD" to go. One reason the "AD" characters generally stayed in the same places was that their constant frustration and stagnation gave an anchor to the silliness, political satire and savage wit the writers deployed. Plus, all that aggrieved resentment made "AD" seem, at its core, quite traditional: Michael's long-suffering frustration, best expressed in the half-resigned way he muttered "Family first," is not that different from Ralph Kramden's pent-up rage on "The Honeymooners."
All that frustration also helped us not hate these former one-percenters. When "AD" characters got what they wanted, disappointment, disgust or outright disaster usually followed: George Michael Bluth finally kissed his cousin, Maeby, and the Bluths' shoddily constructed model home fell down around them. Michael Bluth found a gorgeous, sweet woman who wanted to date him, only to realize that she had the IQ of a first-grader. Maeby bypassed -- or cannily exploited -- most of the family's neuroses, but she ended up saddled with the thankless job as a mid-level movie executive (her homework consists of trying to find an ending to the studio's teen-oriented "Old Man and the Sea" adaptation). 

Michael is the cursed soul in this scenario: His limited self-awareness makes him the only one to see just how self-absorbed these people really are, and no matter how hard he works to pry his family members out of their narcissism, they don't really change. But through a series of smart workarounds, creator Mitchell Hurwitz made the Bluths' eternal disappointment and arrested emotional development not off-putting but amusing. 

Non-procedural dramas with ongoing mythologies are often built around what characters want, and usually, if they get one thing, they start to want another (and thus begins a new season). Comedies like "Arrested Development" can function for years without anyone obtaining what they want or need, not just because the show's comedic elements are so sharp and unpredictable, but because, in this case, the wanting is the important thing, not the getting. We think a little better of these people because they occasionally aspire to something beyond another drink.

It's important that Michael Bluth recognizes that he wants to do a better job than his self-absorbed parents. It's important that George Michael wants to have a pure, uncomplicated first love, even if that is unrealistic and perhaps genetically inadvisable. Even Michael's brother-in-law Tobias desires something understandable -- a career as an actor is, after all, marginally more realistic than his previous job as a combination analyst-therapist (or "analrapist"). Michael's younger brother Buster shows occasional signs of knowing just how strangled he is by his freakishly close relationship with his mom, and even their lazy sister Lindsay briefly gets a job in a designer boutique to see how other well-to-do people get by. 

These people aren't monsters, they're just incredibly limited, and their occasional altruistic moments and acts of solidarity make them more than mere caricatures (though, as caricatures, they're still pretty damn amusing. The wordplay that revels in Tobias' closeted status is still as funny as it was when the show premiered). We may not admire them, but they're far more clueless than malevolent; it's not worth expending the effort it would take to judge patriarch George Bluth, who spends his days in an attic having tea parties with discarded dolls. That Island of Misfit Toys vibe infects the rest of the series, partly inoculating these mostly unemployed moochers from the cynicism that lurks in the foundations of the Bluth empire. 

The rewatch (which is also chronicled in this podcast) reminded me that "Arrested Development" takes great delight in going to bizarre and disturbing places: What other broadcast network comedy would imply that a mother had used her son's detached prosthetic hand during a sex act? (To be fair, she did put it in the dishwasher after.) Not only that, "AD" savagely critiqued America's Iraq engagement when few scripted programs were willing to do so (a "Mission Accomplished" banner is visible at least three different episodes), and it offered a black-hearted look at corporate behavior years before the go-go economy tanked. And of course, its core concept is that family is defined as the people you are saddled with and would escape if you could work up the nerve (and the money). 

All that lacerating darkness is balanced not just by the show's fast-paced comic melange and the occasional flashes of sincerity, but also by another technique that I can't believe other comedies haven't used more frequently. "30 Rock" adopted "AD's" surreal-cutaway gags, "How I Met Your Mother" occasionally attempts similarly ambitious structural conceits, "Community" can almost be viewed as a worshipful "AD" cover band, and "Modern Family" put a slick spin on the narcissistic-dad-with-neurotic-kids premise. But why haven't more comedies used narrators? 

("Better Off Ted," "Arrested Development's" underrated kissing cousin, had its lead character address the audience directly, and maybe I just answered my own question -- the delightful "Ted" lasted exactly half as long as "AD." It's also on Netflix, and by the way, Netflix, how about a revival of Portia de Rossi's other delightful cult comedy?)

Even more than was the case on "Sex and the City," the narration did a lot of heavy lifting for "AD." Information in the voiceovers didn't have to be included in dialogue (and there's nothing Golden Age viewers hate more than clumsy exposition), and Ron Howard's folksy tone and the show's bluegrassy score made the Bluths' grasping antics seem almost reasonable. The loping pace of the narration imparted a soothing unity to a show that often featured mildly frenzied plots, and of course, Howard's lines were often dryly funny in their own right. 

Perhaps other single-camera comedies haven't used narration because they didn't have Howard (who's also a producer on the show). It's not just that he gave an understated and effective performance, he is also the source of a host of cultural associations that helped balance the fraught elements of the Bluth universe. He's Opie, for God's sake! Thanks to Howard, anyone who grew up on "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Happy Days" unconsciously injected "Arrested Development" with a dose of wholesomeness that it didn't necessarily deserve. If Opie is paying attention to these selfish goofballs, they can't be all bad, right? 

The show began exhibiting signs of flop sweat in its third season (understandably, given its ratings), but on the whole, "AD" expertly balanced the dark and the fizzy, the surreal scenarios and the compassionate digressions, the cynical commentary and the one-liners that could have come from "The Golden Girls" (where Hurwitz once worked). That's what made "AD" special -- the fact that it tried so many things so often, and more often than not, pulled off a brazen combination of cutting wit, intricate plotting and sheer silliness (if you're ever down, put this in your search engine: "Arrested Development chicken dance"). All in all, "AD" is like the combination of salt and caramel: It sounds like it shouldn't work, but the sum is definitely greater than the parts. 

Of course, the show's ability to deftly offset its weirder elements didn't draw enough of an audience to give it a long life ("Modern Family" has echoes of "AD" all over it, but it's successful in large part because it does the same things over and over again). And though I was one of hoping it would get a fourth season back in the day, I'm very glad it's had this long rest period. By its weaker third season, the unique concoction was losing some of its fizz, and flat champagne is worse than no champagne at all. 

The show needed to go away for awhile, and come back in an environment more conducive to its particular brand of waspish, deliberate goofiness. Incestuous overtones? Entitled characters? Narcissistic mothers? Ambitious structures? Chilly relationships? ("No touching," the cry of the ever-present prison guards, should have been the show's motto.) Those elements haven't just become more common in the last decade, nowadays they're practically required on cable networks.

But true to its trendsetting roots, "AD" has skipped over cable television and all the silly-cynical progeny it helped spawn. Truth be told, I'm both excited and scared that the fourth season is being funded by Netflix. Like James Poniewozik, I don't want the show to repeat its greatest hits; inspired variations on the Bluth basics will work for me. But what will the show do when it doesn't have television network telling it to be less convoluted? Will it actually be too convoluted? Will it feel less of a need to balance out its lurking horror of genuine emotional connection with sweetness? What is "AD" without a machine to rage against? 

I'm not that worried; like Michael Bluth, I'm more hopeful than defeated (or perhaps, like George Michael Bluth, I'm hopelessly naive). I imagine the Bluth stair car will be back next year -- a rolling analogy that was front and center during the show's first three seasons.

Giving the illusion of upward mobility, the stair car never really helped its characters ascend to a higher level. But it sure was fun to hop on.

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  • "Pier Pressure"

    In which we meet J. Walter Weatherman, the one-armed man that George Bluth uses to teach lessons meant to make them more responsible. Given how the Bluth kids turned out, that worked out pretty well! Weatherman was part of an elaborate pot bust at the Bluth boat, a sequence that showed the comedy using one of its signature moves -- escalating, farcical confrontations among different sets of characters -- to hilarious effect.

  • "Beef Consomme"

    A classic thanks to the insane fight among Buster, Michael and GOB, a conflict that began with Michael's attraction to GOB's girlfriend Marta, progressed through a misunderstanding about the word "hermanos," and ended with the Michael and GOB rolling around on the grass and Buster shouting, "Will someone please have the decency to punch me in the face?" Contains this classic exchange between an angry GOB and an actor on the set of Marta's telenovela: "Como?" "Oh, you're going to be in a coma all right!!"

  • "The One Where They Build a House"

    A classic if only for the side-splitting scene in which GOB and Michael stage a rock-paper-scissors battle with a giant boulder and gigantic scissors (Ron Howard's bone-dry narration: "Unfortunately, the whole incident was covered by the paper."). But there's lots more to love in this gem from the second season, which found the show at the height of its game: There were the scathing Iraq allusions, Lindsay's crush on Thomas Jane, whom she thought was a random homeless guy and the specter of GOB being put in in charge. By the way, Michael "does not have a problem with that."

  • "¡Amigos!"

    The gang's excursion to Mexico could have seemed frenetic had the storylines and jokes within them not been so well-orchestrated and gleefully deployed. But by that point in Season 2, the writers, directors and cast had built the "AD" machine up to the point that they could throw it into high gear and all the parts moved together beautifully; everything in "¡Amigos!" was pleasingly synchronized and delightfully ridiculous. As members of the clan hit the road to find George in Mexico, chicken dances erupted, mistaken identities abounded, Ice melted Lindsay's and Ann (her?) was accidentally left behind. It was a veritable plethora of amusing Bluth insanity.

  • "Good Grief"

    The winning "Good Grief" ably demonstrates how "AD" managed to locate real heart inside all its dizzyingly constructed silliness. The show's appealing narration and folksy music balanced out its wackier elements, and here, the many references to the beloved "Peanuts" canon gracefully communicated a certain kind of bittersweet disappointment. There's so much to say about this ambitious half-hour -- which featured George as a witness to his own funeral, which GOB of course bungled -- that Ryan McGee and I did a <a href="" target="_hplink">whole podcast on the episode</a>.

  • "Afternoon Delight"

    Never let it be said that "Arrested Development" shied away from going big and broad -- it did so effectively here, with an episode that built to a car slipping on a banana peel and Buster trying out his new crane-game skills on his own brother, who happened to be wearing a banana suit at the time. And any show that dwells on family member singing the lyrics of "Afternoon Delight" to each other has a firm grasp on cringe-inducing yet hilarious wrongness.

  • "Out on a Limb"/"Hand to God"

    A two-parter jam-packed with delightful hijinks, in which Michael meets a "blind" lawyer named Maggie Lizer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus), Buster wonders who his real father is, Lucille begins to like Ann (<em>her</em>?), Maeby struggles with her "Young Man and the Beach" movie, and the youngest Bluth brother famously encounters a "loose seal." Like many of the best episodes of "AD," these installments are dense with interconnected stories that skitter through the Bluth family like Buster on a juice-box rampage.

  • "Motherboy XXX"

    Lucille's attempt to make George Michael into her new Buster via the creepy Motherboy dance is stymied by Buster himself, who does all he can to save his nephew from his emotionally stunted fate. And the "loose seal" that ate Buster's hand, as it turns out, was eaten by a shark, which Barry Zuckerkorn jumped over (a deeply meta reference to the shark-jumping moment in "Happy Days" which gave rise to the term).

  • "Righteous Brothers"

    When someone gets what they want on "AD," it usually turns out to be a nightmarish experience, as is the case when George Michael and Maeby finally kiss and she says, "Hey, look at that, we didn't get swallowed up into Hell" -- and of course, part of the model home collapses into a pit. At the courthouse, there's another Michael-GOB donnybrook and a member of the Bluth family is finally put (back) in the slammer. It's not the George Bluth, of course; it's his hapless brother Oscar.

  • "Exit Strategy"

    Worthy of inclusion in any "AD" Top 10 just for the scene in which Det. John Munch (Richard Belzer) leads a scrapbooking class (one designed to get the ever-gullible Tobias to share incriminating Bluth documents). The brothers Bluth finally make it to Iraq, where they find several Iraqi men -- all of them Saddam Hussein stand-ins -- living in a Middle Eastern version of the model home. Though the CIA wants to bust them, somehow Buster saves the day, and for once Operation Hot Brother is a massive success.

  • Honorable Mentions

    "Immaculate Election," which featured Mrs. Featherbottom and Buster's dalliance with a Roomba; "Missing Kitty," for general Kitty Sanchez nuttiness; "Spring Breakout," for Howard's deadpan evisceration of the narration of the melodramatic program "Scandalmakers" ("Real shoddy narrating. Just pure crap."); "Sword of Destiny," in which we meet Tony Wonder; "Meet the Veals," for the crazy series of confrontations among the Bluths and the Veals and for some memorable Franklin moments; "Mr. F," for the destruction of Tiny Town sequence -- giant mole, jetpack and all; the season 3 finale "Development Arrested," one of the show's more frenetic outings, but it brought the loony story of the Bluths full circle to the infamous boat party that began it all.

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  • Barry Zuckerkorn

    Played by: Henry Winkler Winkler actually made us forget the Fonz with his performance as the Bluth's memorably incompetent lawyer, whose attempts to give the family legal advice were hindered by the fact that he appeared to know nothing about the law. Maybe Zuckerkorn was so cheerfully unhelpful because he was more focused on his mysterious personal life, which involved rest stops, prostitutes and predilections that sounded, shall we say, unconventional. The show's Fonzie references had him giving a familiar "Ayyy!" in the mirror before combing his hair and, at one point, referencing an infamous "Happy Days" scene by jumping over a shark.  

  • Bob Loblaw

    Played by: Scott Baio  This Bluth family lawyer appeared to be a slightly more competent than Barry Zuckerkorn, but you'd think an ethical attorney would not represent one Bluth spouse while dating another, as happened when he worked on Tobias and Lindsay's divorce. Most notable for the slogan in his low-budget TV ads ("Why should you go to jail for a crime someone else noticed?") and for his web site, the Bob Loblaw Law Blog. 

  • Stan Sitwell

    Played by: Ed Begley Jr.  This hairless land magnate (whose misplaced eyebrows were a dependable source of hilarity) was the Bluth Company's frequent antagonist, and the forthright way in which he conducted business stood in contrast to the Bluth's frequent ethical lapses. The families' frienemy status went back years -- Michael always had a crush on his daughter, Sally (Christine Taylor), but he could never quite close that deal. 

  • Lucille Austero

    Played by: Liza Minnelli The vertigo-challenged retiree was Buster's paramour for a while, despite his fear of (and attraction to) older women and her problems staying upright. Minnelli's game, energetic performance as Lucille was a lot of fun, and her rivalry with Lucille 1 was especially delicious. 

  • Tony Wonder

    Played by: Ben Stiller  GOB's magician idol was every bit as douchey as you'd expect him to be, and if we have any complaints about the character, it's that Stiller's schedule didn't allow him to stop by the Gothic Castle that often. No doubt true Tony Wonder fans own his stupendous magic video, "Use Your Allusion."

  • Kitty Sanchez

    Played by: Judy Greer "Take a look at these!" You might recall Kitty Sanchez as an unstable former Bluth Company employee who was prone to showing off her breast implants, and that just about describes her particular brand of freaky insanity. But don't forget her infamous drink-off with Lucille at Senor Tadpoles, her creepy affair with GOB and her devious attempts to extort the Bluth family and steal George's sperm (timeless wisdom from George: "Never promise crazy a baby"). Would any of it have turned out differently if the producers of the "Girls with Low Self-Esteem" video series hadn't rejected a pre-implant Kitty? 

  • Annyong

    Played by: Justin Lee George and Lucille's attempt to adopt a child came at an inopportune time: He arrived in the midst of the government's prosecution of George Bluth's various crimes. Still, Annyong was soon one of the family (much to Buster's chagrin), and though he went missing for much of Season 2, George found him living inside the walls of Lucille's condo in Season 3. Most memorable quote: "Annyong!"

  • Steve Holt!

    Played by: Justin Grant Wade This popular jock was the object of Maeby's affections for quite some time, until she found out that GOB was his father and thus <em>Steve Holt! </em>was her cousin. (George Michael, despite his jealousy, was torn about informing Maeby of this fact, given that he himself had a crush on his cousin.) In the show's third season, he and GOB explored their father-son relationship, and even Michael got pulled into the <em>Steve Holt! </em>cult when he trained for a triathalon with him. Steve's exhortation to a weary Michael: "There's no 'I' in win!" 

  • Wife of GOB

    Played by: Amy Poehler Poehler played the wife of her real-life husband, Will Arnett, in a few episodes that highlighted both the haste with which GOB tied the knot and the fact that he never actually slept with her the night they got hitched. One of the few fans of Dr. Funke's 100% Natural Good-Time Family Band Solution, she figured prominently in the infamous "loose seal" incident that deprived Buster of his hand, and when she was in the Army, she had an unfortunate tendency to pose for very questionable photos.

  • Carl Weathers

    Playing himself, the "Predator" actor sold Tobias a series of worthless acting lessons, but the most valuable advice he offered consisted of lessons in being thrifty. Thanks to Weathers, "Arrested Development" fans no longer throw away bones after a meal -- they make a stew. There's still plenty of meat on that bone! 

  • Stefan Gentles

    Played by: James Lipton  The warden of George's prison was an artistic soul: He allowed Tobias to bunk in a cell to prepare for a tiny role as an inmate, and he later pitched Maeby on his script for "New Warden," a hilarious compendium of jail cliches that, in one episode, was acted out by little kids. Needless to say, a savvy executive like Maeby wasn't interested.

  • Franklin Delano Bluth

    In a cast full of characters who are willing to say almost anything, Franklin, a puppet GOB used in his act, stood out. His song "It Ain't Easy Bein' White" wasn't the crossover hit GOB was hoping for, and in a tragic turn of events, he was accidentally dyed white. Before that, an angry Franklin delivered a stinging putdown to Lucille in the clip here. (I don't know who's more shocked by Franklin's outburst, Lucille or Buster.)

  • Phillip Litt

    Played by: Zach Braff  The magnate at the heart of the Girls With Low Self-Esteem empire shared an unlikely secret with Tobias: They were both Never-Nudes, nudity-shunners who sported matching cut-offs beneath their clothes. There were quite a few notable actors (Martin Mull as Gene Parmesan, Malik Yoba as Ice, Jane Lynch as Cindi Lightballoon, Robb Corddry as Moses Taylor) whose roles on "AD" weren't large, but they made a strong impression anyway.

  • Ann Veal

    Played by: Mae Whitman Can't quite recall this character. Was her name Yam? Bland? Plant? Annabelle? In all seriousness, Mae Whitman is a terrific actress, but the show had a lot of fun with Michael's inability to remember anything about her or even that his son was dating her. Really? Her?

  • J. Walter Weatherman

    Played by: Steve Ryan This one-armed man was a constant menace during the Bluth children's childhood: George would employ Weatherman in grisly scenarios designed to teach the kids lessons ("And that's why we leave a note!"). He was central to the hilarious pot bust that took place at the Bluth's boat, and at one point in Season 3, he teamed up with the handless Buster to deliver an elaborate lesson to the Bluth brothers, after Buster ran into him at Weatherman's prosthetics shop. But I'll stop there, because I've learned my lesson: <em>That's</em> why we don't make lists of supporting characters! 


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