The Summer Speed-Watch: “Arrested Development,” Season One

Arrested

I didn’t love Arrested Development right away.

(If you’re invested in me loving the show, don’t worry: this story has a happy ending.)

I watched the pilot and nearly got whiplash trying to keep track of all of the characters and the intricately plotted storyline. This show is complicated, I thought to myself. And it is! But now I see: that’s what it makes it great.

The second time I watched the pilot, my response was quite different. Now that I was expecting the show’s rhythm to be so fast-paced, I paid closer attention and found plenty of rewarding material. In fact, I now think this pilot is magnificent. I’m not sure there’s ever been a television show that’s introduced its nine principal characters in such brisk, hilarious fashion. The show establishes its entire foundation in the first five minutes, and unlike most comedy pilots, the show’s tone remained consistent from the pilot to later episodes. The writers on Arrested Development were so confident in their vision that they didn’t bother with slowly unfolding the characters’ personalities over the course of the first season. Instead, they got right down to business.

With such efficiency in the pilot, the writers were able to focus on taking the show to greater and greater comedic heights over the subsequent twenty-two episodes. As the Bluth family finds itself in all sorts of pickles and jams, and each character tried not-so-very-hard to balance their personal desires and the needs of the family, Arrested Development forges a fairly unusual path for a network sitcom. So often, characters on these shows feel sanded down, often at the request of the network, their rough edges giving way to traits like “likable” and “friendly.” By contrast, Arrested Development isn’t afraid to portray everyone from the ostensibly decent protagonist Michael Bluth to the conniving minor characters (secretary Kitty, lawyer Barry Zuckercorn) as selfish, backstabbing, manipulative, judgmental, reckless and ignorant. The show feels like a critique of the subtext of the American consciousness: even when we think we’re being good to others, we’re probably just feeding our own interests.

Remarkably, though, the show rarely forgets that the audience wants to root for these characters even as they do horrible, horrible things. Throughout the first season, we get a sense that each character has some amount of decency within him. Lindsey (Portia de Rossi) often points to her brief dalliances with activism as a thin example of her compassion, but we occasionally see her latch onto a cause after she joined it for superficial reasons, as when she protests the Iraq War. Michael really wants to hold the family together, even if he sometimes loses his way when he sees something he wants (Gob’s girlfriend Marta, for instance). Even mother Lucille (Jessica Walter), arguably the most diabolical character of the bunch, occasionally demonstrates affection for her kids; when she gives Michael a tender bear hug, Michael’s enemies had better watch out. The show pushes the characters right to the edge of unlikable without quite sending them over, and the successful balancing act enriches the show.

In the plot department, Arrested Development owes more to Lost and other mythology-rich dramas of the 2000s than it does to other sitcoms, which are typically light on plot and high on situation. The show demonstrates an astonishing degree of what Daniel Fienberg has called institutional memory. A throwaway joke in episode 14 (Michael Bluth notices that the architecture in Saddam Hussein’s mansion bears some odd resemblances to the furniture in his model home) pays off with the entire narrative of the season finale eight episodes later. The show is also extremely conscious of Chekhov’s rules of drama: minor jokes in the first minutes of an episode often provide clues to the resolution, as when George Bluth’s penchant for teaching his kids lessons using the stylings of J. Walter Weatherman proves to be unexpectedly resilient in “Pier Pressure.” Most television drams would do well to follow the Arrested Development template for narrative structure.

It’s interesting to watch this show ten years after it first aired, now that many of its regular characters have gone on to some degree of movie or further television stardom. I’ve never understood the appeal of Jason Bateman in movies like the execrable Identity Thief, but now I see that given the right role, his slightly seedy everyman vibe can be perfectly entertaining and multi-dimensional. Seeing the brilliance of David Cross as the onetime-Nevernude Tobias Funke makes me even sadder that he’s had to resort to roles in tripe like Alvin and the Chipmunks. It’s also my first time seeing Portia de Rossi, wife of TV host Ellen DeGeneres, in an acting role. She’s funny!

Most surprising for me, though, was Michael Cera. I’ve always thought of the onetime Superbad star as something of an onscreen wet blanket: even in the very fun Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, his squeaky-voiced awkwardness never excited or charmed me the way it did for others. In this show, though, I see Cera’s full potential on display. His character is dorky and juvenile, but he’s also surprisingly observant when the time is right, as well as very confident in his (often questionable) humor. I particularly enjoyed his insistence on maintaining the run-on joke about Take Your Daughter to Work Day. Maybe the kid hasn’t lived up to his full potential on the silver screen yet, but now I see why people keep giving him chances.

With such a high degree of difficulty, it’s no surprise that Arrested Development very occasionally falters, relying a bit too heavily on the characters needing money from Michael as an episode’s inciting incident. Tony Hale’s delightfully strange blend of juvenile naivete and maturation angst as Buster sometimes falls out of sync with the show’s other events, disappearing for episodes at a time.

But these minor flaws fall away when I think of the hundreds of brilliant jokes in these twenty-three episodes. “There’s always money in the banana stand.” The chicken-dance. The cornballer. Mr. Bananagrabber. Hot Cops. The yacht. The Alliance. “No touching!” Maritime law. The whistles. “Blind” ambition. “Daddy horny, Michael!” I could keep going on, but if you’ve seen the show, you know what I mean. If you haven’t, you’re probably looking for some context on these quotes and non-sequiturs. I urge you to find it.

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