Hi everyone, and welcome to another Review of the Week column! My apologies for skipping last week: it’s a busy time of year for me, and I haven’t been getting out to see new movies or had nearly as much time to check out new TV shows as I’d like. That said, I finally managed to finish something the other day, and I decided I could finally talk about it with all of you. It’s a full review of one of my favorite sitcoms (and overall TV shows) of all time.
NARRATOR VOICE: It’s Arrested Development.
Arrested Development focuses on the Bluths, a wealthy family of California socialites who face a series of scandals on their way to financial ruin, from shady business dealings to political missteps and even “light treason”. The series follows Michael, the middle child of the family and the only one close to a responsible adult in the bunch, as he deals with the various schemes and slip-ups of his mother and father, his two brothers, his sister, his brother-in-law, and his own son and niece as the family careens its way from catastrophe to catastrophe and he struggles to keep them all together.
To look at Arrested Development properly, I think you have to break it down by eras of the show—for those unfamiliar, it ran on Fox for three years before being cancelled in 2006, and was then revived by Netflix in 2013 for a fourth season. Since then, the fourth season has gone through a re-release in 2018, along with the first half of a new fifth season this year as well.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way…
Let’s just get one thing straight right now: Seasons 1 to 3 of Arrested Development are pure comedy gold. I don’t say that very often because comedies are so hard to objectively evaluate. You can talk all you want about what makes them funny and how closely they adhere to the established “rules” of comedy, but someone else may just not find them funny. But in a lot of ways I think this show blazed some new trails in sitcoms that other shows eventually followed and has set trends, but still remained unique on its own. The narrator who regularly points out contradictions to the audience and breaks the fourth wall with his explanations of the conflicting Bluth family schemes are dry, witty, and always hilarious. The characters themselves are wacky, loony, and perversely awful for the most part, but that’s what sets Arrested Development apart from old-school sitcoms like Happy Days: the laughs aren’t based on good people getting into unfortunate situations, they’re based on bad people getting their comeuppance from making poor decisions. And even still, you want them to succeed. You like them, even in spite of yourself, for their flaws—of which there are oh so many—and the fact that they’re just so funny. They don’t care what anyone else thinks, and at the oddest and most random times they’ll show flashes of humanity that prove they’re not just caricatures, but real people after all. There’s some genuinely uplifting moments in the show overall, even if they’re sparingly interspersed with many more cringe-worthy ones.
In addition, this show isn’t just going for cheap laughs. The humor is intelligent, earned, and comes from some impressively complex storytelling. I mean, to have this much stuff going on at the same time, for it all to make sense and allow viewers to keep it straight, and for things to converge at times as humorously and perfectly as they do, requires a genius amount of simplicity mixed with thoughtful writing, and I can really appreciate that. The story plays on simple human qualities like greed, selfishness, and self-esteem, and takes them in complex and wild tangents that usually come together at the last minute with hilarious consequences. Nothing happens by accident. Every event is important and carefully calibrated to matter within the context of the larger story. Arrested Development is very much a thinking person’s comedy, and the beauty of it is that except in a few cases, the characters themselves usually go on their way never realizing anything went wrong or was amiss—but we as viewers know, and their continued obliviousness is one of the most charming features of the show.
I could go on all day talking about how much I love the characters in the show too, because they’re all acted so perfectly and all so indispensable—the performances are pitch-perfect, and no one character could be cut out without the audience feeling their loss. Which was why Season 4, when it was originally released, was such a huge disappointment to me—only one character per episode? What is this? Where are my Bluths? I understand that the showrunners were trying to spice things up by doing something different and focusing on each individual character and their own development alone, but without the other characters it just didn’t work. There was no one to temper their own flaws and rein them in, and no familial interplay or verbal sparring that was the trademark of the original series and brought out most of the humor. It’s like some of the humor was still there, but the heart and soul of the show that I loved was gone.
Personally, I hated it. I told everyone I knew to ignore it. Which is why I was so happy to hear Season 4 had been remixed and rereleased this year so as to feature all the characters together again. And to be fair, despite some choppy editing and a few times where I got a little confused about the story—that narrator really had to work overtime—Fateful Consequences was much better than the original season. And to be fair, the brand-new Season 5 was also an improvement as it brought all the Bluths concretely back together again and took the show back to its roots somewhat as the family members struggled for control of their company and with their own internal power dynamics.
Still, though, I had some issues with it. The new seasons, in my opinion, just haven’t quite recaptured the deep yet harmless fun of the original series. The storyline has gotten so convoluted at this point as the writers keep feeling the need to outdo themselves that every episode now requires a recap at the beginning to explain what’s already happened. The side characters have lost some of their charm—sure, the old ones like Lucille 2 and Barry Zuckercorn are still great, but the new ones like Rebel Alley and Herbert Love distinctly failed to impress as I question their roles and importance to the story, as well as their humor value. They’re just not that funny. The whole show has started to buckle under the pressure of so many narratives and motives clashing that it’s begun to fold into itself and spiral down the drain of self-questioning its own relevance. It’s too in its own head, and I can barely even follow it anymore. The aging of some young characters like George Michael and Maeby also hasn’t helped—they can’t help that they’re getting older, but some of their childlike innocence that made the early years so charming has started to wear off, and they’re acting just like the depraved adults now unfortunately.
I’m also somewhat upset about the treatment Michael’s character has gotten recently—starting in Season 4, it seemed like there was a real effort by the writers to bring down Michael to everyone else’s level because they deemed him “too good” to be a realistic person. Let’s be clear—Michael was far from perfect, but compared to the rest of his family he was the classic comedy straight man, and the long-suffering fundamentally good guy we were all rooting for. As his respectable straight man role sort of evaporated and more of his own bad qualities were brought out—and those of his son as well—I started to feel like the core of the show, which has always been Michael’s attempts to do right by people and his loving relationship with his son, has been put on the rocks, and not in a good way. If you were looking for ways to make the show funnier, I don’t think that trashing the few actually likeable characters is the way to do it. Overall, I guess you couldn’t say there’s a ton of character development either. Arrested Development sees the Bluth family members change in various subtle ways, but they always fundamentally remain the same and usually revert to their old ways in times of crisis. The development part of the equation really comes into the changing power dynamics in the family—who’s on top in this particular episode or season and what they do with the power they’re given. The whole narrator’s breaking of the fourth wall thing isn’t for everyone—even in shows like House of Cards that make extensive use of this gimmick, it tends to get old after a while, and I’m feeling like Arrested Development is no exception. In summary, it feels like the show just isn’t aging well with time, and maybe a definitive ending sooner rather than later might be called for.
Seasons 1-3: 9/10
Seasons 4-5: 7/10
While it’s stumbled a bit since its 2013 reboot and lost some of the simple brilliance and charm that made it what it is, the fact is that Arrested Development is still a very funny, very influential show, and it continues to be better and funnier than most other things on TV. You have to admire the writing skill that goes into crafting these complex storylines, and creating characters that are so fundamentally unlikeable and yet so human that we love them anyway—or just love to hate them.