Why Arrested Development failed (and how they tried to make it work)

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Arrested Development was probably destined to fail. This fact is usually overlooked by the show’s hordes of loyal and angry fans, who usually blame Fox for pulling the plug too quickly (wouldn’t be the first time: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RyxO0558KG0), but the cancellation is better explained by this response to an ask.metafilter.com post on the issue of Arrested Development’s untimely end:

“I’m serious though, I only saw one episode and it didn’t make any sense at all. There was an old dude living in the attic (I guess the father), I had no idea why. And then there was some sub plot about a seal that had bitten someone else in the cast released.

An estranged husband and wife hid in someone’s shower in order to collect a girl’s urine to see if she was pregnant, at which point they had sex or something in the shower.

And some kid wanted to join the army, much to the Chagrin of his mother, who was like the matriarch of the family.

I’m sorry, but it was like a collection of totally random elements. I have no idea why anyone would find it funny or certainly find it “character driven” The characters were facing completely bizarre situations and not acting that strange, I mean, how is it realistic to be worrying about your daughter’s relationship while your father is hiding in an attic and all this other crazy stuff. The show was nonsense.”

The guy was referring to the 11th episode of season 2, “Out on a Limb.” All of that stuff happens. The first instinct of anyone who is a fan of the series, or understands serialized television, or knows what “character driven” means, would be to tell that person that if you don’t have any idea why anything is happening, MAYBE you had to watch the episodes that precede it to understand the plot and characters. To us, this seems obvious: would the guy watch LOST and say, “The show is stupid. There’s some old guy who used to be crippled who can walk, some weird shit with whispering voices in a forest, and a fat guy who’s obsessed with some random-ass numbers. I dunno who said it was character driven, the show is nonsense”?

Therein lies the problem that was ultimately the undoing of the show: it’s too complicated for a network comedy. It’s a matter of viewer expectations: complicated dramas (LOST, 24, etc.) have a chance at success because viewers expect them to be serialized and complex, worthy of their intense focus. Sitcoms, on the other hand, are rarely serialized, utilize often-repeated setups, and have laugh tracks to alert the viewer that something is supposed to be funny. Arrested Development is serialized and creates a complex world of references, allusions, in-jokes, and foreshadowing (both subtle and unsubtle), all of which are essential to appreciating the show; The scenes and dialog move quickly, with no laugh track to coddle the audience; It featured an ensemble cast of well-developed main characters (9: compare to Seinfeld‘s 4 or Friends‘s 6 – neither of which were serialized and both of which had laugh tracks). Yes, we intelligent and attentive viewers can pick up on and appreciate the show’s idiosyncrasies and recognize a serial narrative when we see one. However, most viewers can’t: they’re dumb; they have miniscule attention spans; they watch Two and a Half Men. That’s why the show never got an audience. But they tried: the depth  and complexity of the narrative are very ambitious, and the creators of the show utilized several techniques to both cram necessary plot movements and character development into the 22-or-so minute episodes as well as facilitate the storytelling, either to aid the viewer in following the plot of a particular episode or to make it possible for one to jump in either mid-episode or mid-series and still more or less understand what is going on.

The crucial element of Arrested Development’s structure is its omniscient narrator, voiced by Ron Howard (the show’s executive producer). The narrator functions as the principal vehicle of plot exposition, provides segues from scene to scene (as well as to flashbacks, stock photos, etc.), brings the viewer up to speed at the beginning of episodes and the return from commercial breaks, and provides commentary that serves to do anything from provide insight, set up a joke, or metafictionally  interact with the show and its characters. The narrator is also important in making the show more accessible, making it easier for viewers to follow along by referencing events from prior episodes that factor into the plot. Each episode begins with the narrator explaining the setup of the present episode, often mentioning events of recent episodes in doing so. This is far more simple and efficient than to indirectly set the episode up via dialogue, allowing the show to move quickly.

In episode 5 of season 3, “Mr. F,” Michael (the show’s central character, played by Jason Bateman) is involved romantically with a British woman named Rita (played by Charlize Theron in a guest arc). When it is revealed that there is a mole in the family business leaking information to investors, the family (aside from Michael) all suspect Rita, as Michael’s father George (who is arrested in the show’s first episode and spends much of the show a fugitive) had claimed to have been set up by Brits. At 07:30, Michael, indignant, defensively claims to have never revealed anything about the family to Rita in the first place. The narrator  then explains at 7:43 that this was not strictly true, followed by a montage instances in past episodes of Michael revealing (literally) notebooks full of information on dates with Rita. The flashbacks are so over the top that they could be pass for Family Guy flashbacks, except here they actually happened episodes earlier and are 100% in context and essential to the conflict of the episode. When flashbacks refer to something as of yet unseen on the show, it will inevitably be referenced at a later point in the series.

Efficiency is a hallmark of Arrested Development: the storytelling almost always utilizes Chekhov’s Gun: Anton Chehkov, Russian short story writer, once stated, “If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” In one late episode, GOB (Michael’s miscreant older brother) manages to become a judge for an Inner Beauty Pageant (because he likes to seduce third place finishers). This seems like a simple plot device to explain GOB being a judge, but 9 episodes later in the season finale, GOB is revealed to be dating one of the regular characters on the show (who had finished in 3rd place). Often, seemingly innocuous catchphrases or solecisms are key instigators for the climax of an episode: in Season 3’s ‘Family Ties,’ the identity of a mysterious pimp is unveiled when he claims that his ho is “turning illusions.” (GOB, a magician, objects to his magical acts being called “tricks”). In the first season episode ‘Beef Consommé,’ GOB asks Michael, who is having a tryst with GOB’s hispanic soap opera girlfriend Márta, to help him track down a man named “Hermano” with whom he believes Márta to be having an affair.

Arrested Development often uses callbacks as rewarding in-jokes for loyal fans, as the show is littered with running gags. For example, in “Mr. F,” Michael’s discussion of prospective Japanese investors incites the family to demonstrate their various Godzilla impersonations. This is a reference to a recurring joke in the series, the family’s horrible chicken impersonations. A character’s whose name is mistakenly thought to be Annyong (Korean for “hello”) for 3 seasons is revealed in the final episode to be named Hel-loh (Korean for “one day.”) It’s particularly difficult to explain this to the uninitiated viewer: ask any A.D. fan how many times they’ve told someone, “oh, you’d get that if you watched the show more.”

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One Response to “Why Arrested Development failed (and how they tried to make it work)”

  1. davebergmann Says:

    Meant to include this: http://ask.metafilter.com/34860/Why-did-Arrested-Development-get-cancelled

    It’s the link to the aforementioned ask.metafilter topic, wherein people weigh in on why they think Arrested Development got cancelled. Pretty interesting. A few people, like the one quoted in the article, believe that the cancellation was justified because AD was a bad show. They are wrong.

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