Arrested Development and The Office, two of the most critically acclaimed American sitcoms of the decade, both have devoted followings. Both deviate from traditional sitcoms, eschewing laugh tracks and embracing unorthodox camerawork. Both feature superb ensemble casts, sharp writing, and excellent direction. They even share an overlapping fan base. Why is it, then, that only The Office is still on the air?
When Arrested Development premiered on Fox in 2003, the network’s hopes were clearly high. The show was relentlessly promoted, and viewers were instructed to expect a new sitcom that was hilariously quirky and edgy, a claim that doubtlessly seemed anathema to jaded sitcom viewers. Improbably, the show actually exceeded the hype. During its brief run, Arrested Development fully lived up to its potential, garnering extensive critical praise, six Emmy awards, and a cult following. However, to the dismay of many but the surprise of very few in this cult, the show was canceled in 2006 due to low ratings.
Unlike the critical fanfare that greeted Arrested Development, The Office‘s premiere as a midseason replacement was met with low expectations by those who knew and loved the BBC original. NBC heavily promoted the show, pinning its hopes on Steve Carell, then known primarily for his appearances on The Daily Show and supporting roles in films such as Bruce Almighty. With a script taken almost word for word from the BBC version, the pilot received generally lackluster reviews. Throughout the rest of its short first season—six episodes total—The Office used original scripts and steadily improved, and by the end of the first season, it began to find its audience and was renewed for a second season. Currently in the middle of its third season—the point when Arrested Development was canceled—The Office is at the height of its popularity.
A cursory glance at the promos for Arrested Development didn’t suggest anything revolutionary, just another sitcom about another wacky, dysfunctional family. However, the Bluths soon proved themselves to be anything but a traditional TV clan: Where the majority of family-based sitcoms try desperately to resemble mainstream America, few Americans could relate to the wealthy, eccentric, amoral Bluths. At first glance, the show’s only likeable character is Michael (former teen star Jason Bateman), a widower with a 13-year-old son who attempts to hold the family together and save the family business when his father (Jeffrey Tambor) goes to jail for business fraud. But even he is soon shown to have fewer scruples than he claims; he is as consistently deceptive, selfish and critical as the rest of the family.
Michael typifies the show’s refusal to adhere to the formulas for what has made sitcoms work in the past. With no imperative to make characters relatable, moral, or even believable, Arrested Development‘s writers created some of the funniest and most bizarre characters in network television history. Michael’s older brother G.O.B. (Will Arnett) is somehow arrogant, pathetic, charming, morally bankrupt and emotionally unhinged at the same time, and his younger brother Buster (Tony Hale) took mama’s boy to an absurd extreme. Michael’s brother-in-law Tobias (David Cross) is a hopelessly closeted homosexual who speaks in unintentional double entendres and suffers from a fear of nudity.
Not only were Arrested Development‘s characters unconventional, but its style also departed dramatically from sitcom norms. While the handheld camera direction gives the show the feel of film, the constantly overlapping dialogue also adds realism. It was densely plotted and extremely self-referential, setting some jokes up episodes in advance for a payoff later. In one example of the show’s renowned foreshadowing, Tobias’s cutoff shorts are briefly visible in a short shower scene in the second episode, though his “Never Nude” disorder is not revealed until several episodes later.
Many fans felt the network hadn’t given the show a fair chance: it was moved around too much, it wasn’t promoted enough. But the show’s writers offered a different explanation for its demise. The third-season episode “S.O.B.s”, in which the family throws an elaborate “Save Our Bluths” party, offers a spoof of sitcom tactics to draw viewers: parades of guest stars, a death in the episode, even a bogus live feed at the end. Narrator Ron Howard goes so far as to exhort viewers, “Please tell your friends about this show.” The climax of the episode is a fancy dinner at which Michael delivers this speech: “We’ve been given plenty of chances, and maybe the Bluths just aren’t worth saving. Maybe we’re not that likable…. We’re very self-centered.” The show’s writers seemed to be suggesting that even with a combination of fantastic writing, talented actors, and innovative direction, the main element a comedy needs for success is characters and situations viewers can relate to.
When it comes to relatability, The Office has it in spades. Though The Office has sharp dialogue, a wonderful ensemble and an unusual setup, the settings and characters are far more conventional and comfortable for American audiences to watch. The show also has more obvious hooks for the network to promote than Arrested Development had. The whole premise of The Office is to depict something almost everybody knows: what it’s like to work a lousy job with a clueless boss. Even those Americans who don’t work in offices know what it’s like to have to defer to a foolish authority figure. Also, it showcases another familiar scenario: a conventional love triangle between Pam, a receptionist, Roy, her warehouse worker fiancé, and Jim, a slacker sales rep who attempts to woo her mainly through office hijinks that torment Dwight, the know-it-all and office sycophant.
The screen time devoted to the romance between Jim and Pam increases significantly in The Office‘s second season, with their constant looks at one another and looks at the camera building tension. Unlike Arrested Development, in which all the romantic relationships are either taboo (George Michael and his cousin Maeby), adulterous (Lucille and her brother-in-law Oscar), or bizarre (Buster and his mother’s best friend), we are obviously expected to take this romance seriously and sympathize. The love triangle clearly fits in with traditional sitcom tropes. After the season two finale, in which Jim declares his love for Pam and they kiss, NBC’s constant promotion of the “will they, won’t they” angle was reminiscent of the endless Ross and Rachel storyline of Friends. Season three introduced more obstacles between Jim and Pam, with the tension designed to draw viewers. By all accounts, it works.
Also, Steve Carell has become an outright star capable of carrying an advertising campaign for the show. He breathes new life into familiar comedic territory, giving a performance that manages to be what few expected: funny, but substantially different from the career-making brilliance of Ricky Gervais’s BBC version. In the first season of the US sitcom, Office, the Michael Scott character is fairly one-dimensional; his main function in the show is to provide moments of almost unwatchable awkwardness, such as a mandatory “Diversity Day” training exercise which ends when Michael greets an Indian employee with a stereotype impression so painfully offensive that she slaps him. But in the show’s second season, Michael expands out of his selfish-jerk persona to reveal a sad man driven to his actions by abject loneliness. We first see his pathos in the “Halloween” episode, where after revealing his typical ineffectiveness, he sits alone in his darkened apartment waiting for trick-or-treaters to whom he happily and generously doles out candy.
When comparing the two shows, there is also the significant matter of new viewership. While Arrested Development maintained a devoted but small fan base throughout its run, The Office has increased ratings considerably each season. Though only six episodes were first ordered for the second season of The Office, it was easy for new viewers to begin watching the series. The characters were fairly simple to identify: cringe-inducing boss, suck-up assistant, wisecracking hero, cute and funny love interest. Though Arrested Development had the benefit of an actual narrator (Ron Howard), his explanations—even if they could untangle the convoluted plot threads—weren’t enough to convince new viewers they should care. The amount of inside jokes the series maintained since its inception endeared it tremendously to long-term fans; new viewers likely found them confusing, if they even registered at all. Lines as seemingly bland as “I’ve made a huge mistake” or “Hey, brother” had become catchphrases for initiates, novices probably didn’t notice them at all.
Some fans have claimed that Arrested Development was too smart for its own good. But The Office is also intelligently written, and Arrested Development had its share of self-evident jokes, such as Tobias’s double entendres and family-sailing vessels named The Seaward and The C-Word. Ultimately, the very qualities that made up Arrested Development‘s unique genius—the unpredictability and bizarreness—made it unsustainable. But The Office, by rooting its unconventional approach and sharp comedy in more familiar scenarios without losing any of its edge, has proven there may still be life in the sitcom set-ups Arrested Development left for dead.