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Arrested Development: a glorious comeback?

Yes, Arrested Development is daring and clever, but it has more traditional sitcom tropes than people realise.

David Bowden

Topics Culture

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I know that hipsters are not popular culture’s favourite milieu of wealthy, hedonistic, kitsch-loving urban youth. In the UK, they’re the subject of entertainingly sneery videos and blogs; in the US, they’re charged with upping beer prices and representing the decline of American culture. But, if you do know any, please spare a thought for them this Bank Holiday weekend. Maybe even let them have your Netflix password. Because on Sunday, the net-based broadcaster is going to unleash a brand new series of hit comedy Arrested Development, and we could have a real mess on our hands.

Even if you’ve never seen this programme – and given its generally low ratings over the years, that will be the case for most people – it will have been difficult to ignore the excitement around its return. Since first appearing in 2003, the quirky comedy about the wealthy and dysfunctional Bluth family, engulfed in an Enron-style fraud investigation, has become the stuff of legend. It helped launch the careers of David Cross, Will Arnett and Michael Cera, while resurrecting those of former teen idol Jason Bateman and veteran character actors such as Jeffrey Tambor. It regularly features in critics’ polls of the greatest sitcom of all time. Its influence can be widely felt in much contemporary comedy, from hit sitcoms Modern Family (professed favourite show of both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney) and 30 Rock to Hollywood films such as Juno and the Hangover series.

Yet rather than being viewed as another example of a creatively exhausted revival of a much-loved classic, Arrested Development’s return is being anticipated more as vindication than nostalgia-fest. It was cancelled by broadcaster FOX midway through its third series in 2007, following poor ratings and a notoriously fractious relationship between network bosses, indifferent to its awards and critical success, and creator Mitchell Hurwitz. Now ensconced on internet broadcaster Netflix, and greeted with much warm fanfare, the fourth series of Arrested Development is being hailed as the resurrection of a pioneering show for a more enlightened and less hostile television market.

Certainly, on viewing its original 53 episodes, the show’s status as a critical darling, shunned by a conservative public, is easy to understand. Appearing in the same year as The Office and Peep Show were starting to make an impact in the UK, it shares those two series’ evasion of stereotypical sitcom techniques (laughter tracks, self-contained plotlines, obvious set-ups). Indeed, it demolishes those old techniques to an alarming degree. As Hurwitz has observed, Arrested Development didn’t so much rewrite the comedy rulebook as devise an entirely new manual for televisual suicide, including: absurdist jokes which built up over episodes, even series (rather than seconds); an appetite for distasteful subject matter (including incest, repressed homosexuality and racism); and an anarchic approach to narrative that meant the show could be deliberately disorientating to the casual viewer.

Of course, much of this mythology lies behind its cult status. This is a comedy for the true sophisticate, someone who can rise above the cheap fripperies (narrative, recognisable characters, punchlines) which imprison the masses and who is sufficiently well-schooled in postmodern cultural critique to really understand why it’s funny that Henry Winkler’s character jumps the shark and can geek out to its myriad in-jokes (without needing them to be explained). This is comedy for the kind of people who get ‘it’.

It’s a shame that this has become its defining trait, however, because Arrested Development is, at heart, a supremely silly show, whose true cleverness lies in its delivery. Narrated and produced by Ron Howard – whose films Apollo 13 and The Da Vinci Code hardly class him as an avant-gardist – the show may not always signpost its gags, but it rattles them off at a machine-gunners’ pace. Those lines are delivered by a cast of oddball characters (from a double-entendre spouting queen to a grouchy, world-weary patriarch) who are as familiar as any in sitcom history. Despite its cultural references and in-jokes, you do not need a PhD in Cultural Studies to understand a man covered in blue paint announcing ‘I blue myself’ or an invasion of Iraq hinging on a misunderstanding of pictures of a scrotum; its layering up and careful building of jokes recall the subtle craft of farce, rewarding a bit of patience (and occasional suspension of disbelief) with a broad belly-laugh of pay-off.

Like the best sitcoms, it rewards repeat viewings. Despite its seeming credibility, it really should be emphasised that it deserves to be ranked alongside, rather than supersede, some of the all-time great popular comedies, from The Phil Silvers Show to Father Ted. Yet it certainly does not beat genre colossus The Simpsons as a truly remarkable marriage of popular appeal and genuine intelligence – and remember, The Simpsons did find a long-term home on the much-hated FOX.

Herein lies the tension ahead of the forthcoming series (and expected film). All great comebacks by once-innovative performers are motivated by a desire to prove yourself again in more favourable conditions as much as they are by a desire to cash in. But perhaps we should brace ourselves for disappointment: for all the myth-making, Arrested Development’s lustre may well have been saved by FOX’s decision to cancel it just after it hit its peak, amid a shaky third season. Like any reliable old friend, it’ll be good to have it back in your life after a long absence. Yet here’s hoping that, in coming back for one last big pay day, this show hasn’t shot its wad too early.

David Bowden is spiked’s TV columnist.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Culture

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