July 2013


The unlikely resurrection of ‘Arrested Development’

By Elmo Keep
The unlikely resurrection of ‘Arrested Development’
The deliberately weird comedy series makes a comeback

Arrested Development has often been described as a “live-action Simpsons”, and this remains the best comparison for a show so in love with the medium of television itself. The first three seasons ran from 2003 to 2006, and tracked the dysfunctional Bluths, a wealthy family brought low after the patriarch and erstwhile head of their real-estate development firm, George Senior (Jeffrey Tambor), is jailed for fraud, embezzlement and “light treason”. Forced to share a shoddily built model home, the Bluth family are shown in their quest to get ahead while all members deny personal responsibility and cruelly undermine each other.

Family members are subject to endless lawsuits brought about by the Bluth Company’s gross corporate incompetence in the housing market, a commentary on both Enron-scale corporate greed and the collapse of the American mortgage sector. Every opportunity to “learn a valuable lesson” is ignored as the family’s exploits descend into farce. The handheld camerawork, quick cuts and narrated segues allow for a labyrinthine network of plot-lines, running jokes and layered comedic pay-offs, all of which made the show ground zero for obsessive fandom.

Though critically adored and bestowed with several Emmy awards, Arrested Development didn’t rate strongly enough to stay on air. Almost from the moment it was cancelled by the Fox network, rumours swirled online about its coming resurrection: first, that it would move to a rival network (it didn’t), and then that the Bluth family would come back together in a feature film (they haven’t).

Eventually the internet would come to the rescue of the unashamedly wordy, dense and deliberately weird comedy series, via a new player in the field – the US-based film- and television-streaming service, Netflix. Netflix has now branched out to produce its own original programming and distribute it directly to its subscribers. If it proves a profitable model, it has the potential to drastically change the way the broader television industry works. As viewers under 35 increasingly abandon traditional broadcast television for watch-when-you-want digital models, ratings are declining. As of April 2013, Netflix had 36 million paying subscribers in the US alone, with more than enough spare revenue to invest in experimental ways of producing and distributing TV shows. (Watching Netflix in Australia is legally contentious at best, but that hasn’t stopped fans.)

The new episodes tell interlocking stories that take place over the same period of time. As the season progresses, the show’s fondness for recurring gags and motifs emerges, but there’s enough new material to avoid treading over too much old ground. The format differs from that of previous seasons: each episode focuses on an individual character, showing events from their perspective. Where Pulp Fiction updated Rashomon, this new season of Arrested Development updates Pulp Fiction, if only Pulp Fiction featured dialogue for over 80 characters, was more than eight and a half hours long and was stripped of Tarantino’s blood-soaked flourishes.

Guest stars (too many to mention and the fun is in spotting them) play the show’s favourite targets: inept professionals and deviants of all kinds. In its good-natured, aw-shucks way, Arrested Development manages to get away with jokes that would otherwise be in very poor taste. The intention is not simply to shock, but to make fun of the intention to shock. The new episodes wade into topics such as racism – against blacks, Hispanics, Indians and the Chinese – paedophilia, incest, drug abuse and alcoholism, but its true targets remain corporations, the military, big tech and the moral vacancy of the media and entertainment industries. It’s in this tendency that it most closely resembles The Simpsons’ love of biting the hand that feeds it, routinely mocking its own network, the mega-conglomerate Fox.

Likewise Arrested Development’s most enjoyable humour often lies in its breaking the fourth wall, such as in acknowledging how different some of the actors after seven years, or making jibes about how watching television on the internet is unlikely to take off.

All 15 episodes of the new season were released at once. In the age of the television recap, where tens of thousands of words are typed each week about the historical allusions of the most recent episode of Mad Men, this speaks of how little Netflix values the opinions of critics next to the desires of viewers, who don’t care to follow a series week to week when they can spend a cosy weekend at home binge-watching an entire season.

Once his latest real estate venture fails, the show’s straight man, Michael (Jason Bateman), tries to reinvent himself as a film studio executive, producing a movie based on his family’s life to be produced by Ron Howard. In the real world, Ron Howard is both the uncredited narrator and executive producer of Arrested Development, and has been integral to orchestrating not only its inception, but also its renewed production. His fictional self is a ruthless, egotistical Hollywood bigshot who couldn’t care less about the films he produces or the people who work for him. The fictional film version of the Bluth family’s life proves as difficult to make happen as the still rumoured, but yet-to-be-seen real world Arrested Development movie. In trying to obtain a release form from each errant member of the family, Michael finally comes to his niece, Maeby (Alia Shawkat), who for years has been secretly working as a high-powered Hollywood executive while pretending to be a high school student. Signing her life rights over to Michael, she says, “A movie? Movies are dead. Maybe it’s a TV show.” Thankfully, it is.

Elmo Keep

Elmo Keep is a writer and journalist. She lives in Sydney.


There is nowhere quite like The Monthly. We are told that we live in a time of diminished attention spans; a time where the 24-hour-news-cycle has produced a collective desire for hot takes and brief summaries of the news and ideas that effect us. But we don’t believe it. The need for considered, reflective, long-form journalism has never been greater, and for almost 20 years, that’s what The Monthly has offered, from some of our finest writers.

That kind of quality writing costs money, and requires the support of our readers. Your subscription to The Monthly allows us to be the home for the best, most considered, most substantial perspectives on the state of the world. It’s Australia’s only current affairs magazine, an indispensable home for cultural commentary, criticism and reviews, and home to personal and reflective essays that celebrate and elevate our humanity.

The Monthly doesn’t just comment on our culture, our society and our politics: it shapes it. And your subscription makes you part of that.

Select your digital subscription

Month selector

From the front page

Kim Williams seen through window with arms half-raised

The interesting Mr Williams

At a time when the ABC faces more pressure than ever before, is its new chair the right person for the job?

Exterior of the Department of Treasury, Canberra

Tax to grind

Tax reform should not be centred on what we want, but on who we want to be

Rehearsal for the ABC TV show ‘Cooking with Wine’, March 13, 1956

Whose ABC?

Amid questions of relevance and culture war hostilities, the ABC’s charter clearly makes the case for a government-funded national broadcaster

Tony McNamara in New York City, January 2024

Pure things: Tony McNamara

How the Australian screenwriter of ‘Poor Things’, who cut his teeth on shows such as ‘The Secret Life of Us’, earnt his second Oscar nomination

In This Issue

“We’re all conservatives now”

Guy Rundle interviews Julian Assange at the Embassy of Ecuador, London

Methadone and pho

A day in a drug treatment centre

NSA surveillance

How the National Security Agency is undermining privacy and sovereignty

Inside Julian Assange’s high-tech lair

An interview with the WikiLeaks Party Senate candidate

Online latest

Osamah Sami with members of his local mosque

In ‘House of Gods’, Sydney’s Muslim community gets to be complicated

Plus, Barnaby Joyce shines in ‘Nemesis’, Emma Seligman and Rachel Sennott deliver ‘Bottoms’, and Chloë Sevigny and Molly Ringwald step up for ‘Feud: Capote vs. The Swans’.

International Film Festival Rotterdam highlights

Films from Iran, Ukraine and Bundaberg were deserving winners at this year’s festival

Two women on a train smile and shake hands

‘Expats’ drills down on Hong Kong’s class divide

Plus, Netflix swallows Trent Dalton, Deborah Mailman remains in ‘Total Control’ and ‘Vanderpump Rules’ returns for another season

Image of a man playing music using electronics and the kora (West African harp)

Three overlooked albums of spiritual jazz from 2023

Recent releases by kora player John Haycock, trumpeter Matthew Halsall and 14-piece jazz ensemble Ancient Infinity Orchestra feel like a refuge from reality