It was the comedy about the Bluths, a family of immoral, self-absorbed, incestuous millionaires, that somehow failed to get mainstream America laughing. But Arrested Development was also the comedy that would not die.
Not that its network, Fox, didn’t try. Seven years ago, they ran the final four episodes of the abbreviated third series concurrently, then took their corporate shovel to the back of the show’s head, rolled its body up in carpet and dumped it out in the woods, next to the remains of other huge mistakes, like Woops and Models Inc..
The show was as unwatched as it was critically acclaimed – and acclaim was plentiful – and in many ways its getting canned was the biggest and best thing to happen to it. It galvanised a fiercely loyal and evangelical cult who set about converting friends, buying DVDs and watching reruns – it helped that it was perfect for repeat viewings – and above all clamouring for its return.
Well, after years of dedication to the cause, they got their wish. Netflix commissioned a 15-episode fourth series and will release the whole thing exclusively online today.
It’s the online/Sky+/box-set way of doing things that has made the way networks want you to watch TV seem ludicrously outdated. And, when you think about it, this is a significant cultural moment.
In terms of original content, Netflix has already successfully updated the BBC’s House of Cards, and again made all episodes available. Now, with Arrested Development, it has rescued a show that was too niche for networks that are inherently motivated by mass appeal, but far too good to let go.
HBO has shown the influence of subscription-based channels in driving the steady output of brilliant TV viewers have benefited from in recent years, and Netflix, with its online platform and ability to release content in one almighty tranche, has the hallmarks of the next evolutionary step, and another nail in the coffin of traditional TV networks.
But balls to culture. The real reason to be excited about Arrested Development’s return is that it is absolutely, unbelievably wonderful. In fact, I’m going to stick my neck on the line and say it’s the best sitcom ever.
Some of you will agree with me, some of you will think I’m talking nonsense, but the majority of you who haven’t yet seen it have a week to get up to speed. People who get in on the ground floor are undoubtedly better placed to appreciate the show for all its comic glory. The audacious layering of running gags, in jokes and subtle references means that a throwaway line about a $6,000 suit can leave die-hards belly laughing while flying miles over newcomers’ heads. And believe me, you want to be with the in-crowd on this.
That’s not to say that episodes don’t stand up as one-off watches; Pier Pressure with its introduction to family patriarch George Snr.’s elaborate, terrifying lessons to his kids (always utilising his go-to amputee, J. Walter Weatherman) is a personal favourite, while a plethora of jokes such as Dr Tobias Fünke’s Analrapist business cards (half analyst, half therapist, in case you were wondering) need no build up to trigger hysterics.
Played brilliantly by David Cross, Tobias is many fans’ favourite character – and there’s no doubt that his uncertain sexuality, not to mention his pathological fear of nudity, provide some of the very best moments – but each character is brilliantly drawn and perfectly portrayed. That goes for the show’s innumerate cameos too. Ben Stiller’s Tony Wonder is as intense as he is ridiculous, Carl Weathers fictional parsimony is superb and Henry Winkler’s character, family lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn, is indescribably good.
At one point, Zuckerkorn jumps over a shark, conveniently laid on the dockside, in homage to his most famous contribution to pop culture. Unlike Happy Days, Arrested Development was never given the time to decline the first time round, and along with the giddy excitement over the return of the Bluths and their magnificent band of friends, colleagues, advisors and rivals, and the promise of fresh material to pour over religiously, it would be understandable if there were doubts.
Will it be as good as it once was? Will the seven year hiatus be all too obvious? Will Jason Bateman’s omnipresence mean we sympathise with him quite as much? Only time will tell. But as the clock ticks down to Series 4’s release today, what’s clear is that this is the show that, more than any other, deserves to be saved.