Cult US sitcom Arrested Development returns to our screens this Sunday and, rather than the harsh and unforgiving world of network television, it has found a new home on Netflix. It would be unfair to blame Fox for the show’s failure to gather an audience during its original three season stint between 2003 and 2006. The network gave it a fair crack, but this idiosyncratic comedy couldn’t attract more than the proverbial handful of dedicated followers.
It wasn’t that the show was too clever or highbrow, just that it required commitment. Most popular sitcoms allow you to dip in and out casually, with the majority of the jokes being explicitly and verbally expressed; ‘there’s the uptight one getting annoyed by the lazy one, then the one with the great one-liners is about to deliver a great one-liner’. On AD, Ron Howard’s title-sequence narration spelt out the basic premise of the Enron-style downfall of a family-run construction firm (“And now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together”), but the myriad of inter-related storylines were far from simple.
Arrested Development’s greatest triumph, and ultimately its downfall, was the abundance of call backs, in-jokes, pop culture references, and visual gags that required some serious concentration and, at times, remarkable recall from the viewer. I can’t think of a greater example of this interweaving than in the second season episode ‘Good Grief’. In fact, I’m going to have to assume that you’ve already seen it, as to try and explain the set-up of this episode would take 5000 words alone.
The episode opens on G.O.B (Will Arnett) asking Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) “Did you see the new Poof?”. Michael thinks G.O.B is referring to the company’s new homosexual employee Gary, rather than the magician’s industry magazine. G.O.B didn’t even realise Gary was gay (which makes the flashback where he tells Gary he would “kill for that ass” seem like a come-on), and is instead jealous of rival magician Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller) making the cover of Poof by baking himself into a loaf of bread and then popping out of the resulting sandwich to feed the troops.
What makes this particular episode so strong though, is the way the entire Bluth family spend the majority of the episode in the same plot strand. Ice (who bounty hunts to support his real passion of party planning) arrives with news that George Snr has been killed in a Mexican jail. That this is proven by a political cartoon showing George being lowered into a ‘cornballer machine’ shows how deep the call backs go. The corn baller is a deep-fat fryer that George marketed in Mexico despite the US government banning it as hugely unsafe. To really find this funny you would need to have seen a particular episode in the first season, and that’s the point you realise why the casual viewers didn’t stay.
George Snr’s body hasn’t been recovered, but G.O.B spots an opportunity to “get in this Poof” declaring “I will be my father’s body”. His fake burial at George Snr’s wake is one of the crowning moments of the series. Standing atop a mound of earth, he dismisses the rest of his family, ”the speeches we have heard today are nothing more than words, but I will prove I loved my father more than anybody”, and proceeds to dance and pose to a gothic version of Europe’s The Final Countdown’. Again, hilarious if you’ve seen G.O.B perform magic before, but probably slightly bewildering if not.
In Good Grief we also get Michael in a less-than perfect light. In most episodes he is the grounded character, a beacon of sanity in a world populated by magicians, analrapists (Tobias Funke, the world’s first analyst-therapist), and Carl Weathers. However his son’s relationship with Ann Veal brings out the worst in him, frequently referring to her as Egg (after he once saw her eat an egg) and at one point telling George Michael that the love they share is “as Ann as the nose on plain’s face”.
I could reel off a whole list of brilliant moments from this episode. Buster telling the family that “Army had half-a-day” while trying to hide the fact that he hasn’t actually joined the army; George Michael’s eulogy to the man that he’s hiding in the attic; Maeby trying to set her mum up with Ice so that she can get divorced from her parents: “All Pop-Pop ever wanted was to see you with another man besides Daddy”.
But it isn’t just the funny lines, it also has the subtle details that are sometimes only spotted during (numerous) repeat viewings. Since this is the Peanuts episode, most of the male characters do the Charlie Brown head-down walk to ‘Christmas Time is Here’, while a Christmas Tree and a kennel with a dog lying on top can be spotted in the background of one scene. The Bluth Banana Stand has a sign saying “The Frozen Banana Maker is…OUT” in exactly the same format as Lucy’s psychiatrist stand.
Love this show with all your heart, and it will love you back.
Hopefully Arrested Development has found the perfect home on Netflix. It won’t need to worry about ratings, and people can discover it at their leisure. Then inevitably binge on an entire season over a weekend once they get obsessed with it.
Taste the happy!
Arrested Development Season 4 is available to stream on all Netflix regions from Sunday 26th May.