Arrested Development (2003 – 2006): The Complete Series – Starring Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Jeffrey Tambor, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, David Cross, Jessica Walter, and Ron Howard.
Regular readers here at the Anxiety will notice it’s been rather quiet here of late. Partly this is a result of me getting ready for the Pertwee re-watch/review that will start as soon as the Stanley Cup is finished. Partly this is a result of me getting my next book ready for publication (the proof arrived today). And partly this is a result of me having just watched the entire 53-episode run of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.
I try to stay away from “Best of” lists and overly hyperbolic statements like, “This is the funniest show ever,” but ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT would definitely be on the former and could make a claim on the latter.
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT focuses on the Bluth family, a dysfunctional, wealthy family that’s just seen the family patriarch arrested for a whole slew of crimes (everything from embezzlement to treason) related to his real estate development company. Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) is the middle son and prior to his father’s arrest had expected to be named CEO of the company; when he’s passed over, he decides he’s going to take his son, George Michael (Michael Cera), and leave, but he ends up staying in order to keep the company afloat and the family together.
What makes ARRESTED so good is that all of the characters have both admirable and deplorable characteristics, running across a spectrum from George Michael (the most innocent) to Lucille (the most manipulative). Mitchell Hurwitz and his team of writers do an excellent job working the characters’ admirable and deplorable characteristics against one another, and while Michael is the star of the show and the “good son,” he’s far from perfect. Michael is the most self-aware of what his own father (Jeffrey Tambor) did to him and his older brother Gob (pronounced like the Biblical Job), and he’s determined to have a close, loving relationship with George Michael instead of one based on manipulation and lies. And he does, but he misses the larger picture and in his own way, Michael is just as smothering, continually attempting to balance his focus on work and handling the rest of the family by forcing George Michael to continue to do things they did when they were younger.
Jason Bateman is fantastic as the mostly decent would-be savior who loves his family despite his continual contempt for their behavior. He wants to be wanted, and it’s to the credit of the show that they eventually call him on this point, mocking his repeated insistence that he’s leaving them behind and taking George Michael away to live someplace else. It’s a really brilliant narrative move – had we known this at the start, of course, the whole tenor of those opening episodes changes, but when it gets revealed later on that he’s done this over and over again, it makes the character seem all the more complex and flawed.
Unlike most sitcoms, where every character has a function to play, in ARRESTED everyone has an arc to undertake. The result is that even though the characters typically generate the same kind of humor from episode to episode (George Michael’s awkwardness, Gob’s ego, Buster’s mother issues, etc.), the show can do quite a bit with them as they take that comedy through some actual … wait for it … development. We see George Michael’s awkwardness with his dad and with girls as he grows away from the first and towards the latter as he tries to become his own man. Likewise, Buster (Tony Hale) is constantly trying to grow away from his mother and towards any sense of self-individuation. Gob is constantly looking for his father’s approval, which has resulted in him having an ego that far outstrips his abilities as a son and a magician.
The show also wrings a tremendous amount of humor out of its use of a narrator. Ron Howard does the uncredited duty (though he does make an appearance in the final episode) and he’s the most likable character on the show. His almost folksy approach helps to balance the acidity of the characters which is needed because these really aren’t very likable characters. Almost all of them struggle with issues related to self-esteem and so it’s a brilliant decision to have Howard, who has always seemed to be completely comfortable with who “he” is (meaning, his characters).
The show isn’t perfect, because what could be perfect over 53 episodes? You do have to at least question any show that doesn’t take full advantage of its greatest talent, and even though they give him two roles to play (George, Sr., and George’s twin brother, Oscar), I wish the show could have found more to do with Jeffrey Tambor. George spends the first season in prison and the second living in the attic, and while the show needs to keep him locked up, he’s the one character that doesn’t really get an arc to fulfill. He’s in jail, he wants out, but when he gets out he has to stay hidden in the attic. Oscar just doesn’t match up with George as a character; he’s a stoner in love with his brother’s wife and the weakest character on the show. It’s to Tambor’s immense talent, however, that he makes these two brothers so completely different.
There’s a weak set of stories in season 3 involving the British. George Sr. tells Michael the Brits have set him up and made him a patsy, and Michael ends up involved with a British woman (Charlize Theron) and her uncle (Dave Thomas). He falls for the woman, but then thinks she’s involved in what’s going on with his dad and things blow up. Then they get together and he realizes she’s mentally challenged. It’s not bad, and Theron and Thomas are good, but the story just doesn’t work as well as what surrounds it.
On the other hand, it contains one of the absolute funniest moments in TV history when we learn, via flashback, that Buster once destroyed the family kitchen because he was mad at the Bluth’s housekeeper and he thought that’s where Lupe lived. Later, we see his throwing a dust buster at a public transit bus, and we’re told that Buster thinks he’s throwing Lupe’s favorite toy at her car.
There’s several great guest shots over the course of the show, with Henry Winkler chief among them. Playing the Bluth’s hapless attorney, Winkler is tremendous in his ineffectualness.
In-jokes are all over the place, too, such as Justine Batmeman appearing in the episode “Family Ties,” a reference both to her being Jason’s real life sister as well as “Family Ties” being the name of her former show. There’s a few Fonzie references for Winkler, and Will Arnett’s real life wife shows up to play his in-show wife.
It’s the variety of humor – sometimes clever, sometimes absurd, sometimes referencing the internal narrative and other times referencing the external world – that really sets ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT apart. This is a fantastic show that cleverly rips on its own characters. What the creators know is that they’ve got some unlikable and shallow characters here and it skewers them for us, and it humanizes them by making their faults real. They’re a family of selfish people that love each other because they’re stuck with each other.