“Now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together. It’s Arrested Development.”
“Arrested Development” is a mythical beast. Like the cult sci-fi series and film, “Firefly”, its snowballing reputation appears to owe as much to its cancellation as its content. It is a totem to short-term and narrow-minded TV executives failing to see beyond their PowerPoint projections and test audiences – a victory ultimately for quantity over quality. And so it was, like a moth to a cool kid flame, Pop Lifer chose to make “Arrested Development” the first foray into its recently acquired Netflix subscription. Pop Lifer wasn’t just testing the streaming ability on a tired laptop but a bona fide actual cult.
Well, the laptop stuttered only occasionally and “Arrested Development” proved to be worth every knowing recommendation.
“Arrested Development” is a sublimely misanthropic tale of a desperately unlikeable rich family clinging to their ill-gotten privilege. It began in 2003, won awards, acclaim, but no audience and was cancelled in 2006.
It’s format is original. A dry, knowing narrator (Ron Howard whose idealistic Happy Days beginnings wilt when compared) picks our way through a daft, convoluted plot driven by characters who are, mostly, each uniquely awful (actually Happy Days may not be so different after all). The show’s anchor, Jason Bateman’s widower Michael and his son Michael Cera’s George Michael are offered up as the victims of this haphazard greed, but even their complicity and ignorance ensures that this is no morality play. Instead we are asked simply to revel in the absurdity and the hubris, the selfishness and the self-denial. And all the while we are tossed around by a format and plot which makes little sense but produces many, many outstanding moments (a few are included below but seriously, just take advantage of Netflix’s free month trial and watch the lot).
“Arrested Development’s” context is both of its time and is prescient as well. It was supposedly inspired by the collapse of Enron back in 2001. Although any grand socio-political hypothesis sits uncomfortably with the its deft and daft approach, it may explain the show’s continuing appeal. A story about the feckless rich, who are protected from justice by their wealth and the ineptitude of institutions is a comedy worth watching – then and even more so now. Certainly, a corrupt and corrupting cold father figure frustrated at his offspring’s incompetence to protect the empire he built brings to mind Rupert and his Murdochs. An irony given a sweeter taste considering it was Murdoch’s own 20th Century Fox Television which cancelled the show.
Another recurring source of amusement is the invasion of Iraq. Jeffrey Tambor’s George Snr, cementing his place as a fine thing after his Hank on The Larry Sanders Show, is criminally implicated into dealings with Saddam pre invasion. Alongside this, Tony Hale’s Buster, the Bluth’s over protected idiot son, is enrolled into the armed forces, courtesy of an act of spite from his own mother. Consequently, a series of unapologetically bad taste gags are embedded into the show at the expense of the grand folly aka the biggest foreign policy mistake since the Treaty of Versailles. In keeping with the show, this is done with neither anger nor judgement. It just is. And it just is very funny.
The key to the show’s sneakily enduring popularity, however, is not socio-political commentary but the grotesque that is so skilfully written and portrayed. Portia Di Rossi’s Lindsay, spoilt, glamorous, inexplicably unable to get laid and embark on the affair she craves; David Cross’ Tobias Funke, her husband, perpetually in denial about his homosexuality, stumbling into every line with revealing double-entendre; their daughter Alia Shawkat’s brilliantly named Maebe, whose tentative romance with her cousin George Michael is the show’s only flirtation with something genuinely touching; Will Arnett’s Gob, the cowardly, unloved and conspicuous failure of a magician and the oldest son, unloved and unlovable (and a character that has hijacked and elevated Europe’s ‘The Final Countdown’ to Himalayan heights of naff). Bateman and Cera offer necessary ballast but at the other end of the spectrum are the agents of all this manipulation and corruption. Tambor’s moody, unpredictable, unravelling patriarch (a King Lear with share options) and Jessica Walter’s incredibly cutting, self-serving matriarch (a Lady Macbeth with botox and a double V&T). Both are irredeemable, both magnificent.
“Arrested Development” is to be reborn. That it requires a renaissance in the first place is a monument to the folly of the well paid decision maker.
That it is happening is also testament to something perhaps more enduring, though much less enjoyable than even this great comedy, – word of mouth. Or as we know it today, the internet.
It wouldn’t have taken much research beyond a Google dabble to realise that “Arrested Development” had a growing and loyal fan base. A new series is to be unleashed in May courtesy of Netflix, and is to be followed by a concluding feature-length film. This kind of format and this kind of decision is potentially to terrestrial and satellite networks what Amazon was to the High Street. It would be tantalisingly appropriate, with a dash of hubris, if this commissioning trend added yet another nail in the coffin of the Murdoch’s News Corp empire*.
The Murdochs – a family for who this show was not written but could have been. It’s a welcome development.
* Pop Lifer suspects however that Rupert will just buy Netflix as a Christmas present for James.