REVIEW: ‘Arrested Development’ puts ambitious spin on dysfunctional family comedy

Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman, left) juggles the responsibilities of his work, the demanding battle to get his father out of prison, and his personal desire to spend time with his son, George Michael (Michael Cera, right) in “Arrested Development.” Artwork courtesy of 20th Century Fox Television.

The holidays prove to be stressful times for many. Whether it’s the tense conversations at the dinner table or the awkward interactions between family members you forgot existed, everyone can agree that there are times when having all your relatives together in one room seems more disastrous than celebratory. Thankfully, there is comedic entertainment to be found in the episodes of Arrested Development, where eccentric characters and witty dialogue make the average dysfunction look juvenile.

In November of 2003, this sitcom impacted the screens of American television. Starring the likes of Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, and Jessica Walters, it immediately stood out for its quirky yet inventive nature. Despite receiving critical acclaim, it suffered due to low ratings and has had two revivals since its initial departure in 2006 to reach a total of five seasons. Still, its innovative techniques and sharp humor has given the show cult status.

The show follows the Bluth clan, a family that lives comfortably with the wealth that their successful Bluth Company provides. Soon, however, it all falls apart when the family patriarch is arrested for fraud. With George Senior behind bars, Michael, a son longing for power, control, and a title, must rise to the challenge of saving the company while simultaneously keeping his chaotic family together.

Arrested Development is told in a serialized format, meaning that a particular plot point is continued throughout the show. This is atypical of the average sitcom, where each episode usually takes on a new event in the characters’ lives, with only certain jokes being repeated. On the contrary, George Senior’s bizarre stay in prison is the main storyline of the first season, as his family members not only try to get him out but also flail in the depths of their own comedic misfortunes.

A unique component of the show is the techniques used to film and showcase it. Handheld cameras, flashbacks, and found-footage segments provide context to situations and make everything that much more peculiar. Ron Howard provides narration, an additional feature that allows the show to flourish beyond the animation of its characters. Instead of relying solely on the content of each episode, Arrested Development covers all fronts by creating an immersive viewing experience that distinguishes itself from other sitcoms of the same nature.

In this particular flashback, Gob (Will Arnett, right) meets a woman (Amy Poehler, left) at a bar, engages in a night of heavy drinking and extreme dares, and ends the night by marrying her, a ceremony he believes at the time to be fake. It’s not. Artwork courtesy of 20th Century Fox Television.

Frequent pop culture references and running gags decorate the show’s borders, but it is truly the characters and each of their unique personalities that elevate the show above the amateur sitcom. Leading man Michael (Jason Bateman) is the perfect middleman, as he uses his peaceful nature and matter-of-fact logic to keep his family members in line. Still, he has his own moments of immaturity and jealousy, such as when he believes that his Latina love interest Marta is cheating on him with another man named “Hermano.” His older brother Gob (Will Arnett) fights to prove himself as both a reliable brother and a worthy magician, with his handy segway adding to his jocular and nutty persona.

Lindsay (Portia De Rossi) fights for attention nonstop, whether it’s by trying to flirt with George Senior’s fellow inmates or protesting the Iraq War due to her hairstylist being deployed. The family matriarch Lucille (Jessica Walters) relies heavily on her high social status and uses manipulation and pettiness to provide pure TV gold. Her most memorable moment of season one is when she adopts a Korean boy to make her clingy son Buster (Tony Hale) jealous. She and the rest of the family proceed to call the child “Annyong,” the Korean word for “hello,” a fact they are all oblivious to.

Instead of relying solely on the content of each episode, Arrested Development covers all fronts by creating an immersive viewing experience that distinguishes itself from other sitcoms of the same nature.

The most outlandish jokes come from arguably the most dim-witted of the clan, Tobias Funke (David Cross). A former doctor and husband to Lindsay, Tobias has an ongoing mission to make it as an actor, a job he describes as his true passion in life. He goes to extreme lengths to get practice, even going to prison and bunking with actual criminals just to prepare himself for the role of Inmate #2 in a film. It’s his general cluelessness that sets him apart from most of the family, however. In the pilot episode, Tobias randomly dresses as a pirate and joins a protest for homosexuals, believing it to be some sort of party. 

With this many laughs, it is clear that these characters are not only amplified by the actors who bring them to life, but also the stellar screenplay with which they work. The writing is filled with innuendos, intelligence, and intention. The show does not have a laugh track, and the slight pauses between each scene transition allows the previous joke to set in on its own. This allows for the audience to laugh when they feel the need, not just when artificial noise does. It also provides the chance for many of the jokes to go over someone’s head.

Promotional artwork courtesy of 20th Century Fox Television

In this situation lies the show’s biggest weakness: it is definitely a hit-or-miss. A viewer will either love its oddball atmosphere and appreciate its relatable commentary, while others will not be able to keep up with the fast-paced humor and criticize the use of dark, blunt jokes. This fact should not damper the show’s quality, as comedy is one of the most, if not the most subjective genre of entertainment. Not everyone will appreciate everything, but the distinctive quality of Arrested Development is one that every sitcom lover should give a chance. 

So, if one happens to find themselves drowning in the chaos and mayhem of family this holiday season, Arrested Development may just make the situation a bit more tolerable. It’s a nice alternative to losing your mind at the dinner table. Better yet, it may be just the thing you need to fight this wintertime blues.

Clearly, the blue part is the land.

BEST OF THE BEST: In “Development …”

Season 1, Episode 17: “Justice is Blind”

Michael finds himself enthralled by jury-manipulating prosecutor Maggie Lizer, who just so happens to be blind. Wait, she isn’t. Or is she? With his father’s life on the line, Michael finds himself in a moral predicament that Tobias, with his “on all fours … like a cat” moves, hopes to solve.

Season 2, Episode 6: “Afternoon Delight”

Gob has somehow maneuvered his way into becoming President of the Bluth Company, but he gets offended at the annual Christmas party and fires all of the employees. Michael now has to throw another Christmas party to get everyone back, but not before singing a highly inappropriate song with his niece, Maeby.

Season 3, Episode 1: “The Cabin Show”

Searching for his father, Michael travels to Reno. Searching for Tobias, Lindsay travels to Reno. Searching for peace and quiet, Lucille travels to Reno. Unfortunately, none of them get what they are searching for.

Season 4 (Remix), Episode 1: “Re Cap n’ Bluth”

After the original version of Season 4 aired, the creators of the show decided to “remix” it, with new angles, cuts, jokes, and creative techniques. In the newly edited season premiere, Michael decides to leave his family (again). Also, the age of George-Michael, who is played by Michael Cera, is acknowledged: “The time at sea had clearly aged the boy.”

Season 5, Episode 3: “Everyone Gets Atrophy”

Lindsay, who is now living in Mexico, is furious to learn from Lucille that Donald Trump stole her idea to build a wall and is making the Mexicans pay for it. So, she returns to the U.S. to run for Congress with the help of her overly ambitious family.

All five seasons of Arrested Development are currently streaming on Netflix.

Alex Prince is a pop culture critic for Oswego East High School’s online news magazine the Howl

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