July 2013

Essays

The unlikely resurrection of ‘Arrested Development’

By Elmo Keep
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 broadcaster and writer. Her first book of nonfiction, I Went Where I’ve Been, is forthcoming with Scribe. 

@Elmo_Keep

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