Arrested Development creator, Mitchell Hurwitz, once wrote an article for The Guardian listing eleven reasons for the show’s cancellation. Number eleven read, “Make a show for British sensibilities and then show it in America.” But is Arrested Development solely a comedy for British sensibilities?
Arrested Development is an awkward comedy. That is to say that comedy programs featuring laugh tracks are predominantly punch line comedies, and shows like Arrested Development, in part, derive humor from the awkward silence following lines such as, “Michael, you are quite the cupid. You can stick an arrow in my buttocks any time.” Awkward doesn’t quite sum it up.
Now, to be sure, Hurwitz was exaggerating, if not joking in this article, but it raises the question of what exactly prevented the show from being an immediate hit and led to its cancellation. In fairness, the show lasted three seasons and was critically acclaimed, winning six Emmy Awards and a Golden Globe. This did not, however, translate to millions of viewers week in and week out. Arrested Development’s success has largely come since its cancellation, solidifying its position as a new cult classic TV show. Perhaps Arrested Development’s lackluster ratings performance can best be attributed to its alienating cast of characters, pioneering sitcom style, and mix of high and low humor.
Before Arrested Development, plenty of sitcoms had been built around dysfunctional families. Dysfunctionality is at the heart of network comedy. The Bluth family, however, took dysfunctional to an entirely new awkward and uncomfortable level. For a show whose gags often resulted in character interactions with incestuous undertones, uncomfortable is putting it mildly. The Bluths as a whole are materialistic, selfish, manipulative, and wholly unsympathetic characters. They lead extravagant lives, and most are petty and irredeemable. Michael, the series’ straight-man, has decent intentions but can be just as selfish as the rest of his family. George Sr., Lucille, and Gob are controlling and self-serving. Lindsey is painfully attention seeking, and her husband, Tobias, is the definition of pathetic. Teenagers George Michael and Maeby certainly feel the pressure of being part of this dysfunctional family and rebel in their own ways.
Saying that the show’s style was a turn-off to viewers now sounds hard to believe, but at the time, Executive Producer Ron Howard’s idea to create a comedy series using handheld cameras in the style of reality TV was unique and original. Arrested Development aired before The Office made mockumentary vogue, before NBC scheduled two straight hours of sitcoms without laugh tracks. In 2003, a comedy without laugh tracks that made extensive use of cutaway gags was ahead of its time. Picking up the show mid-way also proved to be difficult for new viewers at the time, due to its unique and often impenetrable self-referential recurring gags that evolved over multiple episodes. Life lessons from J. Walter Weatherman, anyone?
The comedy of Arrested Development is a brilliant mix of high and low brow humor. Physical comedy melds with witty dialogue seamlessly. The show employs pratfalls, misdirection, wordplay, sexual suggestiveness (often incestuous), cross dressing, and more. And that may be just one episode! The result is a convergence of disparate comedy, which may not appeal to everyone. Jokes range from profane tirades to innuendo-laden wordplay like, “That’s a little cornball.” Visual punch lines are also a favorite of show writers. They frequently make use of cutaways to Bluth family photos, flashbacks, and security camera footage to drive home the jokes. Today, viewers are much more accustomed to such cutaway gags, thanks to shows like 30 Rock and even Family Guy.
Despite what anyone says, you never can know which TV shows will be instant hits, which will gain cult followings, and which will quietly fade into static white noise. Arrested Development never caught on with viewers as a whole during its three-year run. Thankfully, its genius has since been recognized, and it is viewed as one of the best TV series of the past two decades, if not of all time. Now, the passion of the show’s diehard fans has made it possible to see the creators’ vision for the end of the series. Let’s hope they haven’t made a huge mistake.
New episodes of Arrested Development will be released May 26th on Netflix.
– Katherine Springer