Now the story of an hilarious series who got cancelled and the one streaming service who had no choice but to bring it back.
I was late to the party with Arrested Development. I’d heard a lot about it and knew that people were raving about it, but those very same people raved about The Office and that is what we technical people call a steaming pile of horse excrement that someone stepped into, plastered an ego on top of and snuck through quality control at the television stations. For the record I’m specifically talking about the British version of The Office, a programme which seems to be a vehicle for Ricky Gervais to do the sort of things you’d see in a basic cabaret on the sort of holiday that you’d willingly ingest a roofie to forget. I’ve only seen the first episode of the American version of The Office which I went into with low hopes as they’d obviously seen enough in the British version to want their own. Even that was a mistake as it stayed close enough to the British scripts that I again found myself not laughing at the very same unfunny jokes. If you’ve never seen either version of The Office, imagine it as the sort of jokes that your drunk uncle tells about his work life that nobody laughs at because they aren’t actually in the soul-crushing position that needs to laugh at something, anything at all, before they shoot up the office. According to Wikipedia, that was the original title of The Office.
So, as I’m sure you can imagine from my vitriol about one of the most beloved comedy shows of our generation, I didn’t have high hopes for Arrested Development when the same people recommended it to me. I was pleasantly surprised to find a quite funny show when I got around to watching it. Having taken the roofie to forget a certain workplace themed “comedy”, woken up next to a man who declared himself my new wife, and tattooed myself in a very tender area with a reminder never to subject myself to that again, I picked up the first and second seasons on DVD and we bulk watched them a few years back. The very next day I got up early and hiked down to the DVD store to buy the third season box set. The show was one of those rare ones that come along every decade or so and built on its humour in increasingly clever ways, rarely hitting a bum note even when resorting to the age-old trick of misusing similar sounding words.
You’re probably a fan of the show if you’re reading this, but just in case you’re one of those people who lived under a rock and thought drunken uncle workplace comedy was funny because you have nothing better to compare it to, allow me to give you an example of how the humour escalates. Buster is one character in the show who has an almost Oedipal relationship with his mother, Lucille. A lot of his jokes centre around that fact, and that would be it for most comedy shows. In this one he very early on gets into a relationship with the neighbour, a woman his mother’s age who is also called Lucille. He also gets his hand bitten off later by a loose seal. That’s just one early aspect of that character, and the neighbour and seal both tie into other stories which have elements that tie again into other stories. It’s one of those rare comedies that you own and just keep noticing more and more each time you watch, with insular references peppering each episode.
It was an absolutely hilarious show and seemingly made more for DVD sales than broadcast, as the show is so self-referential. I can understand why a cry went out across the world when Arrested Development got cancelled as it was one of the best produced comedy shows on the block. So much of the work went into the editing, putting the right music stings and editing the right flashbacks in at appropriate moments, and it seemed like there wouldn’t be anything that could approach that level again.
Since then there have been a couple of shows that have that same easy style of referential humour and reward knowing the characters that much, but not many. So it was with delight that I saw that Netflix were bringing back the show and would be dumping nine new episodes this year. Even more delightful was the news that they filmed more than they planned and would actually be dropping fifteen episodes instead of nine. “Get in there” I cried like someone attending some sort of sports match and actually understanding such arcane concepts as the offside rule. And so the day came that Netflix dumped all of the episodes on viewers at once, and said “Here you go worthless mortals. Suckle on this teat for your entertainment tonight.”
I was woken this morning by an excited Kimmie jumping up and down on the bed and demanding I get up as it’s here. Bleary-eyed I climbed out of bed, got ready to open my presents and give gifts, then realised that I hadn’t bought any. Mere seconds later as I stood in the gas station that I totally am not just making up this second in order to make this sound funnier than it is and I tried to come up with a reason why anti-freeze is such a romantic gift, I realised that it is the middle of summer and not Christmas after all. I arrived home to find that Kim was talking about the return of Arrested Development, which is one of her favourite shows, and not the pagan festival that was appropriated by Christians who have the nerve to complain whenever anyone tries to celebrate the festival in the original way.
We watched the first episode and, as the Arrested Development GIF above probably indicates, weren’t entirely enthused with it. The show was still funny but it seemed to have lost some of its charm. Callbacks seemed rather shallow compared with the original magic of the show and the new format seemed to stand in the way of things a little. And then we watched some more, and some more, and realised how wrong we were.
The format of the show has evolved somewhat. Realising that their bread and butter lies in people who own the show and will watch it over and over again, catching little pieces here and there that they didn’t before, the producers of this series of the show built it to capitalise on that. There are what seem to be throwaway references in the first couple of episodes that are revealed to be part of new ongoing jokes a little later on. Previously the show had been content to set up most situations before showing the reactions to them, but now the reason to some reactions was being kept until later on. Those feeling a little lost need look no further than the early on Anus Tart joke, which is much more sophisticated a joke than I can do justice to.
Unfortunately, despite the series moving on with their style of humour there were some problems that couldn’t be fully addressed. The new style of the show focuses on one member of the family at a time while the past shows were more of an ensemble. Each character either had a short story in the episode or some part of their longer storyline played out but that isn’t true for the new ones. In these one character is focussed on and, while other characters may come in and out of the episode, it isn’t often that you’ll see a lot of them together. Each storyline goes between the same few scenes, adding context as it goes along to what others were doing in those scenes and how they ended up in the position they were in, but apart from those moments it’s quite rare that we’ll see more than a couple of characters together.
For fans of the show this means that you get an episode full of Ann jokes while the majority of the Tobias championed misused phrases come in another one. Oscar and George Senior have their moment in the sun but we won’t officially see Maeby for a few more episodes or explore her role in the series. This sort of format allows for the sort of slow burn of jokes that you’ll see more of in later watches, but feels a little flat compared to the original episodes. In those we would have all of the different jokes playing out of the same scenes at the same time and the main reason you’d miss things is that you were already laughing at something else. Here, I find myself watching the same events over again having already had the laugh from realising how they came about, and now getting a little bored from seeing it play out again. Balancing that out somewhat, the new jokes and references come thicker and faster as the series goes on.
I can’t help but feel that keeping to the original plan of nine episodes would have paid off a little better. Yes, there would be less material to watch but a lot of it could have been cherry picked from what was filmed to find what was absolute gold, then edited together in ways that brought back some of the old magic the show once had. And this is where this gets difficult, because the show still stands head and shoulders above so many others. It is still the cream of the crop when it comes to comedy, but this cream has been left out in the sun a little too long it seems. The characters still sparkle, the writing is top notch, and the performances are spot on. In so many ways this is the Arrested Development that we grew to love years ago, and yet it isn’t quite there.
If this were almost any other show then the level this reaches would easily be a ten out of ten. But this is Arrested Development and the bar is set higher, so it sadly falls a little short despite still being a fun return of the family.