Well, That Was a Freebie: Arrested Development

Arrested Development cast

Now, the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together…

Born from the accounting scandals of the early 2000’s, Arrested Development tells a tale of the dysfunctional Bluth Family and their company – the imaginatively named Bluth Company – as they struggle following the jailing of the family patriarch and company CEO, on charges ranging of fraud, embezzlement, and treason (light), in a one-of-a-kind manner that, well, is just brilliant.

However, as a live-action comedy airing on Fox, especially one so unconventional, it really didn’t stand much of a chance. After three seasons and fifty three episodes, development was arrested, though a fourth series is currently in the works, and a film has long been discussed.

Character-wise, Jason Bateman is brilliant as Michael Bluth. He conveys quite effortlessly the role of the righteous-minded, somewhat honourable son, (or an impotent manboy, depending on which of his siblings you ask). Jeffrey Tambor plays a dual role as the corrupt, manipulative CEO patriarch George Sr, and his twin brother Oscar, an ageing, stoned-out hippie, a duality which is worked into the plot on many occasions. Jessica Walter is Lucille Bluth, a Grande Dame of the highest order, materialistic, as manipulative (if not more so) than her husband, and permanently drunk. She is still firmly in charge of her youngest son, Buster, (Tony Hale), leading to him displaying many child-like traits, despite being 32. Michael’s other siblings are G.O.B., aka George Oscar Bluth II (Will Arnett), a failed magician with a womanising streak, and Lindsay Fünke (Portia de Rossi), a materialistic and highly superficial social activist. She’s married to, in my opinion, the star attraction of the show, Tobias Fünke (David Cross), a failed analyst/therapist – thus the world’s first licensed analrapist – turned actor, who suffers from being a Never-nude (it’s exactly what it sounds like) and mannerisms that allow plenty of double-entendres and jokes playing on the fact that Tobias is completely oblivious about his (assumed) homosexuality. Closing the cast are the children, George-Michael Bluth, played by Michael Cera, in a career-defining performance (ie, every role he’s played since has pretty much been George-Michael), and Alia Shakwat as Maëby Fünke, a sharp witted teenager as manipulative as her grandmother (if not more), who cons her way into being a film executive. Both share a heavy crush on one another, which is played on throughout the series.

What makes Arrested Development really stand out from every other sitcom is all in how the comedy is performed. The show is shot in the manner of a documentary with executive producer Ron Howard, who somewhat becomes an unnamed character in his own right with his omniscient narration. The humour is highly topical. The show was born from the accounting scandals of the early 2000’s, and reflects on and make light of then-current events. The Bluths, for instance, parody  the Bush family on many occasions, down to the brother with a biblical-sounding name. The Iraq War is parodied many times, from George Sr’s Saddam Hussein impersonation, the Abu Ghraib pictures, and myriad plot holes and contradictions explained away by a casual “It’s in the P.A.T.R.I.O.T. Act. Read it!”

Recurring in-jokes are heavily relied on: for example, each character has their own variation on a “chicken dance”, which looks nothing like a chicken – has anyone in this family even seen a chicken? – and is called on whenever a character feels another is being a coward, rightly or wrongly. There are also several sets of lines that everyone utters at least once such as “her?” in reference to George-Michael’s second season girlfriend Bland-I’m sorry, Ann, or “well, that was a freebie” whenever someone gains an advantage over someone else that they thought they’d have to fight over.

The Bluth chicken dances

Has anyone in this family even seen a chicken?

In the same manner that topical events are worked into the plot, a certain measure of intertextual self-awareness pops up frequently, from the subtle, such as references made to cast member’s prior works or other shows that aired during that period, to the obvious, such as season 2’s Motherboy XXX, which refers to the lawsuit brought by the similarly named hip-hop group, and Season 3’s S.O.B. – Save Our Bluths – which parodies gimmicks used by failing shows to grab audiences, such as 3D moments, guest stars, live performances, etc).

From a technical standpoint, there is little of the standard sitcom single-camera setup and no fourth wall (though it is broken several times), allowing the show a vast degree of freedom in following characters about on their daily business, so that the story can just jump from one character to the other with nothing more than a few words from the narrator.

Cutaways are also heavily called upon. Unlike a Family Guy setup, though, they’re always relevant to whatever’s being discussed: they generally provide information, from flashbacks to childhood or to a few years prior, to security camera footage or other clips and information that enhance the comedic effect, while playing on the documentary angle.

While callbacks are also played with, foreshadowing is heavily used, from the obvious “next time on Arrested Development” non-sequitur epilogues that provide a joke but often no actual revelation of what’s coming next, to the more subtle clues. Buster’s dismemberment is hinted at several times, from him finding a chair shaped like a hand he’d had as a child and uttering “I never thought I’d miss a hand so much”, an advertisement for army careers on a bus bench being partially obscured to read “arm off” from “army officers”. Rita Leeds’ disability is also similarly hinted at.

The use of extensive and subtle clues is the key to the show’s greatest feature: endless replay value. You can hold multiple, back to back marathons to find each little clue, and yet, you’ll still find one randomly when you least expect it. And somehow, the combination of the acting, writing, in-jokes, references, callbacks, callforwards, cutaways, references, etc keep the show from going stale and remaining consistently funny. Especially Tobias’s Fire Sale advert audition.

Arrested Development is a unique beastie in the sitcom world, and you know what? I could spend all my life dissecting the thing, and I still couldn’t transfer on just how damn funny it is. So do yourself, and the cast and crew a favour. Buy the DVD and watch the show. You’ll laugh.

I’d give this show 4.8/5. (.2 points lost for extensive use of the same tired English stereotypes)

D. Bruce Fraser (Suffers from arrested development. Like Rita Leeds)

The first three series of Arrested Development available as a DVD boxset from Amazon.

This entry was posted in Issue Seven, Reviews, TV and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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