Arrested Development Netflix [Seasons 1-4] DVD [Seasons 1-3]
Created by Mitchell Hurwitz
Executive Produced by Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Mitchell Hurwitz, David Nevins
Starring Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, Tony Hale, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, David Cross, Alia Shawkat, Henry Winkler, Scott Baio, Ron Howard
Fox [Seasons 1-3]
Netflix [Season 4]
Originally Broadcast: November 2, 2003
Some say it’s the most popular sitcom from the 2000s. Others deem it has a cult following. Either way, Arrested Development has become a phenomenon among its fans – a show that, while created by Mitchell Hurwitz, is driven mainly by Ron Howard. Taking the conception of filming a sitcom using the style of reality television, and littering the show with pop culture references (as well as its own memes that it develops over time), Arrested Development is an amusing viewing experience, though overrated.
The series takes on the concept of "riches to rags", of a wealthy family that fall on bad times when their father George Bluth (the CEO, played by Jeffrey Tambor) is arrested by the SEC. Taking a massive hit to the company, son Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) takes on the responsibility of bringing the business back to profitability while trying to keep his family together.
While this is the key component of the plotline of Arrested Development, and indeed it begins this way, the major overarching element of the stories is the characters and their interactions with each other. Michael’s son, George Michael Bluth (Michael Cera, in the role in which he cut his teeth) looks up to his father positively, though suffers from the torment of yearning after his cousin Maeby (Alia Shawkat).
Maeby’s parents, Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and her husband Tobias (David Cross) are dysfunctional. Michael’s and Lindsay’s brother Gob (Will Arnett) obsessively contends with his siblings while ruining everything with his obsession with magic tricks. Their youngest brother Buster (Tony Hale) is in a destructive relationship with mother Lucille (Jessica Walter), who egotistically refuses to relinquish control of her family and the business for the style of life she is accustomed to.
The inaugural season of Arrested Development, while strongly following the plotline and character interactions, is extremely mediocre. Though the filming techniques and uniqueness of the show’s presentation, the meme-ification of scenes from this first season have burnt out the effectiveness of its impact (Google the "I Don’t Know What I Expected" gif, you’ll see what I mean). The first half of the season goes slowly on, but it’s in episodes 8 and episode 9 where the show truly seems to kick off and slide into its own groove, with a great deal of laughs – only to follow with more mediocre installments to cap off the season.
Season 2, on the other hand, is where the series steps away from mediocrity. The script writing vastly improves, with a lot of clever foreshadowing to future elements (some of which don’t even come to pass until Season 3) and connections made across all of the episodes with continual in-jokes and self-styled memes that enhance the culture of the series. Ron Howard’s narration takes on more levity in Season Two, and more major connections are made to his Happy Days heritage, along with the continuing lawyer role played by Henry Winkler.
Season 3 wraps up the entirety of the main story arcs and character relations, and continues the in-joke show memes with much more solidarity and flippancy. By this stage of the game, the show is in full swing, with the mediocrity left far behind. Like Chachi replacing Fonzi, Scott Baio takes over Winkler’s lawyer role, and Justine Bateman’s appearance in Season Three is brilliant, and hysterically shattering. The concluding finale is wonderfully wrapped, making the third season the best of all three. While Arrested Development begins poorly, in my mind, the show develops and gets better as it goes.
It is with the resurrection of the series on Netflix with Season 4 that things go awry. While it isn’t the overrated mediocrity of the early shows, it certainly isn’t comparable of its pinnacle with Season 3. Taking a massive gamble, the creative team takes on a completely different format this season – rather than following Michael as the primary protagonist, each major character gets their own episode. It is a bit off-putting, but judging by how things have progressed it looks like they’re opening up a lot of avenues for new seasons; so I am suspecting that this will follow on in the current format. Despite this, many fans of the original series will be highly disappointed with the format change, as well as a poor focus on Bateman’s main character as well. And, it’s definitely not as eccentric as the previous seasons.
The filming approach to Arrested Development is a winner in my mind. It does away with the tacky in-studio live audience thing, and instead zones in on using reality television filming techniques, placing the viewer among the family. The ongoing narrative from Ron Howard is superb, and he actually takes on bigger on-screen roles in Seasons 3 and 4. The inclusion of faux news footage, videos, snapshots, and other collage transition techniques make for interesting scenes, and the use of fake "next time on Arrested Development" trailers with scenes that never happen in later episodes is brilliant fun.
That being said, there’s a snide element to the show to some degree. Focusing on a family that is wealthy, selfish, at the height of the economic downturn across the world seems somewhat out-of-place for me. While the vast majority of the American viewing public are struggling through tough times, we get to laugh at the "clowns of the 1%" portrayed on Arrested Development – a show wherein the perpetrators of financial crimes get away with it for the most part; while everyone in reality suffers from the poor decision making and greedy criminal behavior of their real-life counterparts. In some ways, it is a little insulting.
Additionally, the family is made up of individuals that are very unlikeable characters (at least the core members of the Bluth family). Even the stoic and positive Michael suffers from falls in which he follows his selfish desires from time to time as well. There are very little moral aspects to the family. George Michael is mostly ignored (not always), despite being a clumsy, nerdy and likeable kid. Maeby is always ignored, ironically becoming the most resourceful of the family. And Tobias, the odd one with problems, a desire to follow an acting dream, and denying his own sexuality, is the jester that is often despised by the family.
But this is precisely the point of the show, in fact, it’s in the title: Arrested Development doesn’t refer to the arrest of George and the stalling of house development. No, instead it is the character development that is arrested, and deliberately so. Don’t get me wrong – the show is enjoyable and funny. David Cross is a riot at Tobias, fully embracing the comedic element of the character, crafting some of the most iconic and memorable scenes and lines ("I just blue myself") throughout the entire series. Jason Bateman is a treat to watch in all of the seasons, and I’m thankful this talented man has made an incredibly comeback over the last decade. Michael Cera is notable also, and it’s fascinating seeing his blossoming as an actor during the series.
Arrested Development avoids symbolism and subtext, and moderately creates its own riffs on current events (from the time of the filming) and pop culture, and eventually creating its own in-show joke memes that repeat throughout the series (many of them pop up in the new season too). This is significant, because there are many elements of episodes (sometimes sharp-witted snapshot scenes) that precede and foreshadow these ongoing memes which creates the most important winning aspect of the series: its rewatchability.
There are so many of these elements littered throughout the show that it’s impossible to catch them all on your first viewing. Subsequent viewings reveal many of these aspects, but also reveal a very forward thinking and clever writing staff and creative team. This alone makes Arrested Development worth the look.
However, the show is not all it is made out to be. It comes with its faults, and I found the series to be incredibly overrated, despite its popularity. If you’ve not seen the show before, do not expect brilliance, but you can expect to be entertained. And while established fans may find themselves disappointed with the format change in Season 4, newcomers to the show will find Arrested Development to be an enjoyable laugh to check out. Add it to your queue, and consider checking it out sometime.