I occasionally play poker with a group of professors from a local university, and while they’re good guys, about 75 percent of their non-poker conversation is about campus politics, interspersed with impressions of co-workers, running jokes, and searing mockery of the culture of higher education. They laugh their heads off, and I sit there, strained smile on my face, checking my hole cards for the hundredth time.
I imagine that’s how some TV viewers felt the first time they watched Arrested Development—especially if they didn’t start with season one, episode one. Throughout the show’s three-year run (from 2003 to 2006), critics and fans regularly lamented that such a funny, Emmy-winning series couldn’t find an audience. Many blamed Fox, a network with a history of failing to support its best shows. But that wasn’t entirely fair, since Fox did keep Arrested Development on the air for three years, and for some of that stretch even scheduled it in a plum timeslot. Audiences were given ample opportunity to sample the show. But even though Arrested Development’s comedy was hardly highbrow—at least not exclusively—it never connected broadly enough to become a hit.
That’s both because of and in spite of scenes like this one, from the season-two episode “Good Grief:”
Even out of context, there’s enough in that scene to make most people laugh. You’ve got a man whose heartfelt eulogy for his father gets interrupted by the noise from a blender. You’ve got that man’s sister saying her own teary-eyed goodbyes while wearing a “SLUT” tank top. And you’ve got the dearly departed himself, who’s actually alive and watching ruefully from the attic, while waiting for his grandson to bring him some finger food.
But the scene is even funnier for those who’ve watched the entire episode (attentively, not while checking their e-mail or making a snack in the other room). And it’s funnier still for those who’ve watched the 25 Arrested Development episodes that precede “Good Grief,” all of which inform this moment where people gather to pay tribute to a man who’s pretending to be dead. To understand this 50 seconds of television—fully understand it—takes a lot of unwinding.
So let’s start with the blender.
The man running the blender is Ice (Malik Yoba), a bounty hunter hired by George Oscar Bluth, Jr. (a.k.a. G.O.B., played by Will Arnett) in the previous episode to track his brother Michael Bluth to Mexico, because G.O.B. suspected Michael of trying to flee the country and stick him with the sputtering family business and all its attendant legal woes. In actuality, Michael (Jason Bateman) was looking for his fugitive father, George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), and eventually hired Ice himself to find the elder Bluth. Ice works as a bounty hunter to finance his first love, party planning, which is what he’s up to at George Sr.’s wake.
Unwinding further: The woman in the SLUT tank is Michael and G.O.B.’s sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), who is experimenting with an open marriage even though she, in her own words, “can’t seem to give this away.” Lindsay wants to catch Ice’s eye, and is being helped by her daughter Maeby (Alia Shawkat), who needs her mom to start sleeping around so Maeby will have grounds to divorce her parents. But Lindsay has been so shaken by her father’s death that she’s a blubbery mess, far from the sex bomb Maeby needs her to be. It takes a lot of encouraging from her daughter for Lindsay to pull herself together and say, “I’m going to throw on a skirt, take off my underwear, and make your Pop-Pop proud!”
And unwinding further still, we come to Michael, the man who gets interrupted by Ice blending ice. Up until the moment that he gets distracted, Michael is trying to finally deal with his feelings about his father’s death. Earlier in the episode, Lindsay’s therapist husband Tobias Fünke (David Cross) accuses Michael of trying to be “John Wayne” and tamp down his emotions. Then Tobias inadvertently proves his point by flipping out when his hard-boiled eggs go missing from the refrigerator.
The little gag at the end of Tobias’ freak-out—where he slumps away, Peanuts-style, while Vince Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here” plays on the soundtrack—is repeated throughout “Good Grief,” beginning with a shot of Michael’s son George Michael (Michael Cera) slouching home after his girlfriend breaks up with him, and continuing as a stinger to everything from George Sr. seeing his wife kissing his hippie brother Oscar to G.O.B. getting slagged in a magic magazine.
The Peanuts gags don’t stop there, though. The title of the episode refers both to the Bluths’ collective reaction to George Sr.’s “death” and to Charlie Brown’s usual expression of exasperation. When George Michael is walking through the neighborhood, we see a Christmas tree (albeit not a scraggly “Charlie Brown Christmas tree”) and a dog sleeping on top of a doghouse, à la Snoopy. And at the start of the episode, when George Michael is talking to his then-girlfriend Ann Veal (Mae Whitman), the sign behind them at the Bluth family frozen-banana stand reads “The Frozen Banana Maker Is… Out,” just like the sign on Lucy’s psychiatry stand in Peanuts.
Arrested Development was never above those kinds of winking pop-culture references—or even to making references to current events. (One of the reasons George Sr. is on the run is because in the midst of all his shady business dealings, he built homes in Iraq for Saddam Hussein; in the second episode of the second season, the Bluths construct a flimsy model home and hang a “Mission Accomplished” banner on it.) But the Peanuts references are significant, for a couple of reasons. For one, when Arrested Development debuted, it was frequently compared to Wes Anderson’s The Royal Tenenbaums, which also uses Guaraldi’s “Christmas Time Is Here.” For another, one of the major elements Arrested Development has in common with Wes Anderson’s films and Peanuts is a cast of characters so simplified in their manners of dress and expression that they become easily identifiable. It’s Fundamentals Of Comedy 101 to give a group of characters competing, unshakeable motivations, then enjoy the friction as they bump off each other, but Arrested Development took the next step, by thickening the lines around each character and making them into cartoons.
Arrested Development let all its characters be cartoons, too; there was no calm center for audiences to hold fast to. Michael Bluth is meant to be the smart, sane one in his family, but even he can be ignorant, incorrect, or just mean-spirited. From the moment he meets his son’s girlfriend Ann, for example, he runs her down, often unconsciously, by calling her “Egg” or “Yam” or “Bland.” Ann shows up at the wake anyway because Michael invited her, for George Michael’s sake, though when Michael sees her, he says, “Good, you got my message!” and Ann has to remind him, “It wasn’t a message, we talked.” And when he tells George Michael that he and Ann are meant to be together, Michael adds, “It’s as Ann as the nose on plain’s face.”
And here’s where the interconnectedness of the gags on Arrested Development reaches an almost manic level. Consider this: Tobias gets angry when he sees his hard-boiled-eggs are missing; Michael calls Ann “egg” because he once saw her eating an egg; and when Michael sees George Michael taking Tobias’ plate of eggs up to the attic, he assumes George Michael is sneaking up there to have sex with Ann. None of this is underlined or highlighted by the show’s writers, directors, or cast in any way. Either viewers catch it, or they don’t. The show moves on regardless.
In actuality, George Michael is taking the eggs to his Pop-Pop, George Sr., who begs him to bring food every time he visits. (“If you pass a Mini-Mart… Pop-Pop gets a treat?”) George Sr. faked his own death to escape Mexico (where he went to escape jail), even going so far as to pay the locals to hold a fake funeral, complete with a casket filled with a papier-mâché corpse and heaps of candy—a silly sight gag that takes up about five seconds of screen time, but probably took Arrested Development’s producers half a day or more to set up. But because Ice is on the case, news of George Sr.’s death reaches his family, confirmed by dental records and the patriarch’s appearance in a political cartoon in a leading Mexican newspaper—a paper that still holds a grudge against him for once selling faulty corn-frying appliances south of the border.
When the family gets the news, they each try to spin it to their advantage, whether it’s George Sr.’s wife Lucille (Jessica Walter) immediately asking about the will, or Maeby asking if Ice can cater the wake. They all excuse their selfishness with the line “I don’t know what I’m saying,” using that good, good grief as a justification for the way they usually behave.
The oddest reaction to George Sr.’s demise? G.O.B.’s, which involves him burying himself in the place of his father’s absent corpse, so he can re-emerge in an illusion impressive enough to land him on the cover of Poof! magazine, a trade publication for magicians. (When Michael hears G.O.B. asking about “the new Poof!” he assumes his brother is referring to The Bluth Company’s new gay employee Gary, a mistake G.O.B. compounds by saying things like “I’d kill for that ass!” and “I should be in this Poof!” whenever Gary is around.) G.O.B. is trying to compete with rival magician Tony Wonder (played by Ben Stiller, albeit only in a still photograph in this episode), who’s planning to bake himself into a loaf of bread, then emerge from a giant sandwich to feed the troops. This steps on G.O.B.’s original idea, which was “to boil myself live into a chowder and then get ladled into a giant cauldron to entertain and feed the firemen.”
To assist him in the resurrection illusion, G.O.B. enlists his brother Buster (Tony Hale), even though the family has decided that Buster is too sensitive to learn that George Sr. is dead. (When he was a kid, Buster was so angry at the family’s housekeeper Rosa for accidentally killing his parakeet that he trashed the kitchen because he thought that’s where she lived, and threw a Dustbuster at a passing city bus because he thought that was her car.) Instead, everyone pretends that the wake for George Sr. is just a morbid surprise birthday party, poking fun at Pop-Pop for getting old. Buster throws himself into the spirit of things by buying his dad a card with a Grim Reaper on it. Meanwhile, he tries to convince his mother that he’s honored her request that he join the army, even though he has to come up with excuses for why he’s still hanging around the house (“The army had half-a-day”) and he has to borrow one of G.O.B.’s military-themed stripper costumes.
Which brings us back to that scene at the wake, which I still haven’t fully unwound. For instance, I could point out George Sr.’s shirt, which bears the logo of the Bluth family banana stand, a running bit of self-reference dating back to Arrested Development’s earliest episodes. I could note the presence of Henry Winkler, playing the Bluths’ hapless attorney, Barry Zuckerkorn. (When he thinks George Sr.’s dead, he starts making up reasons why he can’t get his hands on the will; at the end of the episode, when the family learns that George Sr. is actually alive, he can be heard offscreen saying, “And I just found the will!”) I could talk about Jeffrey Tambor’s secondary role as Oscar, who’s been enjoying running around Lucille’s house in the buff now that George isn’t around. (Lucille: “Oscar, close it. You look like the window of a butcher shop.”)
There are just so many jokes in “Good Grief,” some of which are funny in and of themselves, but most of which require so much setup that a newcomer would likely be completely at sea. There’s a reason Arrested Development’s opening-credits sequence features arrows and extra text, all circling and connecting and explaining. Even the four fairly simple comic moments in the clip below could take a wall-sized chart to adequately explain.
When Arrested Development debuted in 2003, it became an immediate critics’ darling and eventually won a small but devoted cult audience, who hailed the show as wholly original. But of course, nothing is wholly original—on television, at least. I’ve mentioned the similarities to Wes Anderson already, but the show also owes a debt to the late ’70s sitcom Soap, to Christopher Guest’s mockumentaries, and to the dense comic mythologies of shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons. And because creator Mitchell Hurwitz worked his way up in the business on straight-ahead sitcoms like The Golden Girls and The Ellen Show, he knew how to construct jokes the old-fashioned way, by setting up second-act puns and pratfalls in the first act.
Arrested Development’s greatest innovation was in borrowing the techniques of independent films and vérité documentaries, which allowed Hurwitz and company to shoot large amounts of footage in a short period of time, while giving the cast the freedom to play with their lines and performances. Though the show eschewed the talking-head structure of most modern mockumentaries (going instead with a fanciful narration, voiced by producer Ron Howard), Hurwitz did allow the seams to show in the editing, letting scenes look jumpy and raw so he could keep the pace lightning-fast and use only the funniest takes, even if they didn’t match exactly. And the show’s shooting style allowed Hurwitz to move his cast and crew to new locations for the sake of a single joke, like the casket-piñata in “Good Grief,” or each week’s “Next time on Arrested Development” teaser, which was always a backdoor epilogue for the current episode, not a true preview for the next.
Since Arrested Development went off the air, a few comedies have borrowed aspects of it, with varying degrees of success. Modern Family is like a much sweeter variety of Arrested Development. It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia makes good use of AD’s guerrilla shooting style. The late, lamented Better Off Ted blended wackiness and social satire as well as any show since Arrested Development. And then there’s 30 Rock, which has won Emmys and has held its own on a ratings-challenged NBC, lasting long enough that it’s suffered some of the backlash that Arrested Development avoided by being cancelled early. (That backlash would’ve come, though, surely; Arrested Development’s third season was already starting to show mild signs of creative exhaustion.)
Since Arrested Development ended, there’s also been a lot of talk about reuniting the cast for a movie, but I’m not sure a big-screen version would work. Hurwitz was fortunate to land this particular group of actors at this point in their careers—can you imagine the Michael Cera of Scott Pilgrim in Arrested Development now?—and fortunate to have so many hours of television time to populate the show’s comic universe. Great comedy is like a high-wire act, and Arrested Development strung a lot of wires, leaping from one to the other fearlessly in a way that wouldn’t be possible in the running time of a feature film.
No, I think Arrested Development will have to be content with remaining one of the best, most beloved TV sitcoms of the ’00s. With its intricate, interconnected structure, its cast of dangerously self-absorbed characters, and its tiny but fiercely loyal audience, Arrested Development will always be a vivid record of what it was like to be alive in the early 21st century. It’s the entertainment of our times: all narrowcasting and hypertext.
Next time on A Very Special Episode: The Brady Bunch, “Dough Re Mi.”