08/29/2012 11:34 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

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


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.

Top 10 'Arrested Development' Episodes
The 15 Most Hilarious 'Arrested Development' Supporting Characters