#5: “Arrested Development.” [TV Aughtrospective]

Without a doubt, the funniest television series of the decade: a show that rewards first-time viewers with a variety of gigglesome characters and situations, but that’s so skillfully composed that it only gets better with repeated viewings. At times, the subtle references — to the actors’ past careers, future events in the series, and trends in the culture at large — are almost overwhelming, but they are always held in check by the series’ devotion to straight-up comedy. This show is so awesome, it even makes puns seem cool.

For genius comedy that tickles your cerebrum and busts your gut, we name “Arrested Development” the 5th best television show of the aughts.

Ron Howard, the ultimate Hollywood veteran and renowned pimp, came up with the idea for a highly-scripted, heavily-rehearsed sitcom that would be shot by handheld cameras like a reality show. He started discussions on the theme at his development shop, Imagine Entertainment. Screenwriter Mitchell Hurwitz, an alum of Georgetown and The Golden Girls, seized upon the idea of chronicling the fall of a “riches-to-rags” family, inspired by the 2001 economic collapse and the failure of large corporations like Enron.

“Arrested Development” tells the tale of the Bluth family, McMansion developers who have run afoul of national and international law through the various shady dealings of the patriarch, George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor). The series opens with George Sr. being arrested by the SEC for fraud and corruption, forcing his son Michael (Jason Bateman) to take the reins of the sinking ship that is the Bluth Company. Throughout the series, Michael struggles to keep the company and the family afloat, as the rest of the characters behave in selfish and absurd ways that constantly undermine his efforts. Howard narrates the series, interjecting great commentary along the way.

Unlike some of the other series for which we’ve penned profiles in greatness this week, “Arrested Development” is featured in a wide variety of YouTube clips for our collective enjoyment. Thank God, because we’re running out of ways to say “This TV show rules” and it’s much easier to just show you:

Jason Bateman resurrected his once-proud TV career with a masterful performance in “Arrested Development.” In a show filled with ridiculous clowns, it’s not easy to play such an effective straight man, but Bateman is an inspiration. Michael is seemingly the only Bluth concerned with keeping the family and company out of trouble, but he is also naive to think that he can corral his family or contain their deleterious effect on the business. Nonetheless, he soldiers on throughout the series, even though he’s surrounded by lunatics — even his parents, played by Tambor and Jessica Walter, are selfish jerks. The many scenes in which his family mocks him with the “chicken dance” illustrate this point nicely (sorry for the subpar video, but this clip is great):

This series is packed full of great characters, but it is very difficult to top Will Arnett’s performance as Gob, the idiotic eldest brother. Gob (his name is short for George Oscar Bluth Jr. and pronounced like the Biblical character, though often mispronounced in the show) is an arrogant womanizing dolt who thinks of himself as  a master magician. When he isn’t riding a Segway emblazoned with his initials or performing with the Hot Cops male stripper group, Gob is staging absurd “illusions” and making an ass out of himself.

Youngest brother Buster, memorably portrayed by Tony Hale of “Mr. Roboto” Volkswagen commercial fame (referenced in the series, of course), is the clearest case of “arrested development” in the bunch. He clings to his controlling mother Lucille and behaves like a helpless child. After his hand is bitten off by a “loose seal,” he wears a hook or a prosthetic hand — but in this memorable moment of rebellion against Lucille, he puts on Gob’s ventriloquist dummy Franklin.

Portia di Rossi plays Lindsay, the boys’ sister, a shallow dimwit whose only interests lie in promoting various silly causes and courting marginally-available men. Her husband, Tobias Funke, is played brilliantly by David Cross — if Gob is the funniest character on the show, Tobias is a close second. For instance, he is a “never nude” who has a psychological aversion to being completely naked, and sports a pair of cutoff jean shorts at ALL times. Tobias spends most of the series as a struggling actor who often obliviously spouts gay double entendres, but as he explains in this clip, he once had a prestigious professional career:

“Arrested Development” also featured the breakout of Michael Cera as George Michael, the son of Jason Bateman’s character. (Three “Michael”s in a sentence violates the ROTI style guide.) George Michael is a docile lad who specializes in painfully awkward moments. He’s in love with his cousin Maeby (Alia Shawkat), the daughter of Lindsay and Tobias; George Michael spends most of the show in anguish over his forbidden passion. It’s unlikely that any television comedy has riffed so memorably on incest jokes to the extent that “Arrested Development” did. Here’s one very funny example:

Another great element of “Arrested Development” is its deep roster of excellent guest stars. Longtime Ron Howard associate Henry Winkler played the family lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn, until he was fired and replaced by Scott Baio as Bob Loblaw (author of “Bob Loblaw’s Law Blog”). Carl Weathers plays himself in a very funny series of appearances in which he mentors Tobias. Zach Braff did a two-episode stint as a never-nude Joe Francis-alike. Ed Begley Jr. plays Tambor’s rival Stan Sitwell. Veteran LA newsman John Beard often appears as himself on the series.

Not convinced yet? OK, peep these names: Charlize Theron, Ben Stiller, Christine Taylor, Amy Poehler, Dave Thomas, Jeff Garlin, James Lipton, and Justine Bateman all turn in great performances. Most memorably, Liza Minnelli is awesome as Lucille Austero:

The show’s writers showed a particular knack for coming up with funny catch phrases — usually, catch phrases in a sitcom are the mark of laziness and lameness, but “Arrested Development” managed to pull off some pretty great ones. One classic is “Douche chill,” a phrase Tobias utters to describe the unpleasant sensation of watching someone humiliate themselves:

To get a sense of how sweet this show is, if you haven’t already, here’s a recap of the episode entitled “Pier Pressure,” adapted from its Wikipedia page, with some subplots excised:

Michael is disappointed in George Michael’s A-minus on a math test. Lindsay says that Michael puts too much pressure on George Michael and is as bad as their father, George Sr., who used a one-armed former employee named J. Walter Weatherman to scare his children into learning what he considered valuable life lessons.

Michael overhears George Michael berate himself as he struggles with a math problem and realizes that maybe he is pushing him too hard and tells him to take some time off and relax. George Michael grows bored, though, and decides to go back to work in the family’s banana stand, where he is confronted by his uncle Buster. Buster tells George Michael that his girlfriend Lucille Austero’s vertigo is acting up, and by trying to fight it without medicine, she’s experiencing some nausea; he wants George Michael to buy pot for Lucille.

Shyly walking around the docks looking to buy pot for Buster, George Michael doesn’t find G.O.B. on the yacht and leaves a note asking if he can buy him some pot. G.O.B. does so, but tells Michael about it first. Michael quizzes his son, who nervously denies all knowledge of nefarious acts. Michael knows that George Michael is lying to him and reconvenes with G.O.B. – who is now smoking the pot he bought – to ask what he should do, when he decides to teach his son a lesson like his father used to teach them. Michael visits his father to get access to the one-armed man so he can teach his own son a lesson. But George Sr. refuses, telling Michael that his lessons were wrong, and that Michael should just talk to his son. With G.O.B.’s help, Michael hires some Hot Cops to stage a fake drug bust.

Later that night, George Michael boards the yacht and G.O.B. flashes the lights. Quickly, two men appear with a bag of pot and George Michael reluctantly completes the deal. That’s when the Hot Cops – plus one “construction worker” spring into action – cranking some music and dancing around. Michael appears and tells George Michael a lesson has been instilled. But Buster, deciding to stand up for himself, comes forward and admits that the weed was for him, not George Michael. Michael, upset with Buster, tells him to take George Michael home.

Just as they leave, though, two real drug dealers, having seen G.O.B.’s light flashing, come forward with a supply of weed looking to make a deal. But before G.O.B. can explain, a police boat comes up, flashing its lights. The dealers, thinking they were set up, pull out their guns, and Michael and G.O.B. become trapped in the middle of a gun battle. The brothers are terrified, until one of the dealers loses an arm, and they look up to see the face of J. Walter Weatherman. Michael realized that, once again, his father had taught him an elaborate lesson – not to teach his son lessons.

Michael tells George Michael that he should have told him what was going on, and that he should always feel comfortable to be honest with him, to which George Michael responds by admitting to having a crush on Maeby. Michael, however, does not believe him.

Paste Magazine named “Arrested Development” the best show of the decade, and here’s why:

Mitch Hurwitz’ sitcom about a “wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together” debuted six weeks after Two and a Half Men, but never gathered the audience to keep the show alive. Still, Hurwitz packed a whole lot of awesome into three short seasons. How much awesome? Well, there was the chicken dance, for starters. And Franklin’s “It’s Not Easy Being White.” There was Ron Howard’s spot-on narration, and Tobias Funke’s Blue Man ambitions. There was Mrs. Featherbottom and Charlize Theron as Rita, Michael Bluth’s mentally challenged love interest. Not since Seinfeld has a comic storyline been so perfectly constructed, with every loose thread tying so perfectly into the next act: The Oedipal Buster spiting his mother Lucille by dating her friend Lucille, and eventually losing his hand to a hungry loose seal; George Michael crushing on his cousin only to have the house cave in when they finally kiss; the “Save Our Bluths” campaign trying to simultaneously rescue the family and rescue the show from cancellation.

Arrested Development took self-referencing postmodernism to an absurdist extreme, jumping shark after shark, but that was the point. They even brought on the original shark-jumper—Henry Winkler—as the family lawyer. And when he was replaced, naturally, it was by Scott Baio. Each of the Bluth family members was among the best characters on television, and Jason Bateman played a brilliant straight man to them all. The show was canned three years ago. Meanwhile, Two and a Half Men is still trotting out new episodes. What the hell is wrong with you, America?

Although we knocked some shows to the honorable-mention list for brevity, “Arrested Development” did more in its three perfect seasons than many sitcoms did in a decade or more. Simply put, this was the funniest show of the decade, startling in its originality, screencraft and talent roster.

Although the rumored movie makes us a bit apprehensive — TV show movies don’t often go well — let’s not look a gift horse in the mouth. If this team of masterminds comes together again to create anything from a movie to a telephone book, we will be first in line to enjoy it.

TV Aughtrospective:
Introduction and Runners-Up
#10: “Six Feet Under.”
#9: “It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia.”
#8: “The Daily Show.”
#7: “South Park.”
#6: “Mad Men.”
#5: “Arrested Development.”
#4: “American Idol.”
#3: “Lost.”
#2: “The Sopranos.”
#1: “The Wire.”

About Alpine McGregor
Just like you, man. I got the shotgun, you got the briefcase. All in the game, though, right?

One Response to #5: “Arrested Development.” [TV Aughtrospective]

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