It’s lamentable but hardly a surprise that this is the end of the road for Arrested Development, a truly brilliant sitcom that television critics all over the nation branded as “too good” for its audience, almost as though America wasn’t worthy of it. Say what you will about the tastes of the people, but they don’t like being told that they’re stupid. So while the blame for its untimely demise can certainly be placed at the feet of the Fox network, who repeatedly toyed with its airtime, sold it short with a lackadaisical and dumbed-down promotional campaign, and repeatedly booted it from its timeslot, Arrested Development is dead for the very reason it was celebrated” because it never compromised.
Arrested Development was repeatedly branded as a “smart” show, and its intelligence lay in its quick wit and unusually sharp characterization. Here was a sitcom family unlike any other, capable of making traits such as deception, greed, and selfishness seem loveable without resorting to episode-ending group hugs. Its true genius, however, was in its dense layering; the way that its jokes sprang forth from an internal logic germane to the storyline rather than situational humor. Unlike more traditional sitcoms such as Everybody Loves Raymond, Arrested Development episodes were never based on palatable, self-contained set-ups such as “Ray wants to go golfing but his wife won’t let him.” Instead, the series-long premise that sustained the show followed the Bluth family, whose patriarch, George (Jeffrey Tambor), was arrested in an Enron-like scandal, forcing his son Michael (Jason Bateman) to take charge of both the company and his family while trying to clear his father’s name. The complex details of George’s misdeeds unfolded over the course of the show, leading in the third season to accusations of treason—this over revelations that the British government may have tricked him into building model homes for Saddam Hussein. Try as they might, no hugs will ever resolve that.
Very often jokes were set up two, three, even 30 episodes prior, meaning that the casual viewer who just happened to catch the show (on whatever night and time it was currently banished to) would be completely in the dark if they hadn’t been watching since the beginning. It would be akin to theatergoers wandering in during the second act of a British sex farce, confused as to why these people were all ducking in and out of closets. In the third as in all previous seasons, besides the central conflict of Michael trying to clear his family’s name, there are plenty of other problems that have been there from the show’s start.
His twin sister, Lindsey (Portia de Rossi), is still in a marriage full of lies with her sexually confused husband Tobias (David Cross). Her daughter, Maeby (Alia Shawkat), is still successfully masquerading as a movie studio executive despite being only 16, and Michael’s son, George Michael (Michael Cera), is still harboring a deep crush on Maeby, despite the fact that she is his cousin. Michael’s brothers Gob (Will Arnett) and Buster (Tony Hale) are dealing—or not dealing, rather—with their own issues of fathering an illegitimate child and losing their hand to a seal, respectively. Add to that a host of ancillary characters and throwaway jokes that often turn into vital parts of a character’s mythology, and you have a show worthy of academic study in its complexity—something that Fox assumes most people naturally resist in their television anyway, let alone in a 30-minute “sitcom”.
For devoted fans, however, this is where watching the show regularly becomes its own reward, especially when viewing the episodes back-to-back on DVD. By this third season, show creator Mitchell Hurwitz and his writing staff seemed to have lost any pretension of trying to appeal to anyone but their own devoted fanbase, peppering the episodes with frequent call-backs and references that would only make sense to those who have been paying attention. A split-second visual gag about a series of videos called “Boyfights” George produced to encourage competition between his sons is subsequently referenced in every episode leading up to the finale, while a seemingly forgotten tertiary character from the first season makes a splashy surprise return that manages to tie up the whole series. Such things are eminently satisfying for the devoted fan, but for the uninitiated, they can be baffling to the point of being exclusionary.
It’s a shame that the casual viewer couldn’t get involved, however, because by this season the show’s cast had truly hit its stride and made the characters his or her own. Bateman—himself a repeat victim of the sort of shallow, “hit the reset button” joke-fests at which Arrested Development thumbed its nose—shines with an understated cynicism as the show’s only truly human center. As his pathetically attention-starved brother Gob, Will Arnett delivers a show-stopping character racked with insecurity and poisoned with cockiness both; he’s like The Office‘s Michael Scott mixed with every drunk-on-power frat boy on Earth. And despite his character’s potential for turning into caricature, David Cross wrings laughs out of even the most telegraphed jokes as the perpetually delusional Tobias. In one scene set in a wig shop, Tobias is asked if he’s there “to buy” or if he’s “just curious”, to which Cross responds, “I suppose you could say I’m buy-curious.” It’s the mannered, prideful lilt and total lack of self-awareness that Cross adds to this sort of line that elevates it above the realm of rim-shots.
Season three also called in the big guns in a last-ditch effort to save the show, with nearly every episode boasting guest stars galore. Most memorably, Charlize Theron turns up in a five-episode arc as a British woman interested in Michael, though he begins to suspect there is more to her than meets the eye. Her true identity is both completely unexpected and mordantly funny, and too delightful of a surprise to spoil here, but it’s safe to say the show once again wrings humor out of the most unlikely—and uncomfortable—of places. During the very meta episode “S.O.B.s”, which stands for “Save Our Bluths”, the family throws a fundraiser to help pay for their new lawyer while making not-so-subtle allusions to saving the show itself, and the party attracts walk-on cameos from celebrities such as Andy Richter, Ben Stiller, Zach Braff, Andy Dick, John Larroquette and Richard Belzer. Other episode guests include Scott Baio as divorce attorney Bob Loblaw (of the “Bob Loblaw’s Law Blog”) who catches the eye of both Lindsey and Tobias, and a welcome return to comedy from Judge Reinhold, playing himself as the host of a courtroom TV show entitled (what else?) Judge Reinhold.
Despite the pedigree of its guest stars and the strength of its central characters, however, the show simply couldn’t find an audience. While both the network’s bungling and the labyrinthine plot development shoulder most of the blame, one also cannot overlook the show’s willingness to be nasty. Though they are loveable in their own dysfunctional way, the Bluth family—even its most humane character, Michael—is a collection of shortsighted and selfish misanthropes, capable of deception and delusion to a self-destructive degree. Similarly, the show frequently flirts with the taboo, most obviously in its frequent allusions to incest. Besides George Michael’s continuing affection for—and even accidental marriage to—his cousin, Maeby, there are jokes about inappropriate relationships between all of the main characters, culminating in a season-ending revelation that not only pushes boundaries, but burns them to the ground. In another of the show’s trademark meta-twists, Justine Bateman guests in several episodes as a woman whom Michael believes to be his sister, only she takes his interest in her as a come-on. “This is wrong on so many levels”, Michael remarks in one scene, which is as good as any summation of the squirmy situations the show reveled in time and again.
Off-putting as it may be, uncomfortable humor is also some of the richest, as shows such as The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm have proven time and again. The fact that a worthy colleague such as Arrested Development was cut down in its prime while its contemporaries are rewarded and its imitators will surely flourish is a sad commentary on the politics of network television. Thus, a sense of bitterness naturally pervades the episode commentaries here, and a featurette on the last day of shooting mostly reveals a lot of sour faces going through the motions. But even though the show’s cast and crew were told time and again that they wouldn’t live to see tomorrow, and as the third season progressed their death became more and more a certainty, they never stopped delivering the same top-notch writing and acting that made the show so unique. As an epitaph, there can be none more fitting than the fact that Arrested Development never stooped to conquer. Even in its final season, even at an aborted 13 episodes, Arrested Development still outshines nearly every comedy show on TV, past or present, and its influence will be felt for generations to come.