When Mitch Hurwitz and his collaborators began making the Fox sitcom Arrested Development 10 years ago, it was loaded with jokes — in-jokes, recurring jokes and just plain bizarre jokes — that rewarded viewers who watched more than once. But even though it won the Emmy for best comedy series one year, not enough viewers bothered to watch it even once, so the show was canceled in 2006 after three seasons. And that would have been it, except for a loyal cult following that built up once the show was released on DVD and the Internet. So finally, on Memorial Day weekend, Arrested Development was reborn with 15 new episodes released all at once through Netflix. I binge-viewed them all immediately, and loved watching them that way.
It's the structure of this new season of Arrested Development that impresses me the most. Like Larry David's Curb Your Enthusiasm, it's got a season-long story arc, as well as tightly sculpted plot twists within each installment. And the new season tries something daring by focusing each episode primarily on a specific character from the large and talented ensemble. This allows the show to revisit the same moments from various points of view, in a way that becomes its own running gag. Those legs you see in one episode? You'll find out who they belong to many, many episodes later. Hidden identities, sudden surprises, perplexing mysteries — they're all unfolded slowly, in intertwined fashion, like some sort of comedy double helix. And watching everything in one sitting helps to make those connections even clearer.
It also helps to watch in large doses because the season's plot doesn't fully reveal itself until episode four. That's when Jason Bateman's Michael Bluth, the sane center of a mostly insane family of misfits, is approached to make a movie about his unusual relatives. He sorely needs the money — at the time, he's driving one of those photo-taking Google Maps cars — and is excited to pursue the offer.
But here's where it all gets complicated, and where it illustrates how Arrested Development is so wonderfully twisted. While Michael is driving in his Google car, his lawyer, played by recurring cast member Henry Winkler, phones with the movie offer. Later in the same scene, Winkler is defended by another lawyer played by Scott Baio, who, along with Winkler, became famous through the '70s sitcom Happy Days, playing, respectively, Chachi and the Fonz. And the Hollywood producer-director who is seeking to make a movie about Michael's family? That's Ron Howard, the Happy Days star who not only is one of the executive producers of Arrested Development, but also serves as its narrator.
Since each cast member gets to take center stage for at least one episode, it seems almost unfair to single out any of them — except for Bateman, whose dry delivery is the gravity that keeps this whole enterprise from spinning off into space. But it would seem just as unfair not to heap extra praise upon Jessica Walter and Portia de Rossi — Michael Bluth's mother and sister, respectively — for their fully committed, truly funny work here.
So much about this new Arrested Development season had me laughing out loud, and often. Sometimes, it was the revival of a running gag I'd forgotten about, like the use of the music from A Charlie Brown Christmas to indicate sadness, or the simple use of the phrase "Get this."
And get this — these 15 episodes are loaded with guest stars, from Kristen Wiig and John Slattery to recurring players Liza Minnelli and James Lipton. Ron Howard even shows up on screen, playing himself. And I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but years after being on camera on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days, Howard still knows how to deliver a punch line.
It'll be very interesting to see, at the end of the TV year, if Netflix's Arrested Development earns its way into one of the nominated spots for a best comedy Emmy. It's eligible and it's been there before — and even though it's no longer on TV as we used to define it, it deserves to be nominated again.
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