I was one of the few people who watched Arrested Development when it was on Fox and I loved the show. Unfortunately, most viewers didn’t, and the show ended up being cancelled after a shortened season 3. Since cancellation the show has found its audience and become a cult classic. It has an extremely dedicated online fan base and its DVD’s are bestsellers. Many blame Fox for the show’s failure, claiming that the network didn’t know how to properly market Arrested. While it may be true that Fox didn’t quite know what to do with this quirky series, I don’t think marketing was the main problem. I think the problem was that the show was not written for network TV. Arrested was a show that viewers needed to dedicate time to. It was a show that looked completely different than any other show on TV with its strange, shaky, single camera documentary style. People were no doubt thrown off by the narrator. But what really made Arrested different was its absurdity that was based in traditional television. Arrested Development took conventions that television watchers were used to seeing and turned them upside down, and this (along with witty wordplay) is where the comedy came from as long the viewers were able to understand it.
Sitcoms about families have been around for almost as long as television. My parents grew up with family shows like Leave it to Beaver, My Three Sons, and The Brady Bunch just as I grew up with The Wonder Years and Full House. The family sitcom has endured through the ages and audiences have become used to it. They are familiar with the episodic structure and the overused storylines. Uh oh it’s school picture day! I’m sure the problem will get resolved by the end of the episode.
Arrested Development takes this format that American television audiences are accustomed to, the sitcom centered on a family, and makes it totally dysfunctional. Thus, absurdity ensues. Audiences will notice immediately that the show looks and is structured very differently from traditional family comedies. The show abandons the traditional cold open and starts with the credit sequence. The show is shot with handheld cameras that are often shaky to create a strange documentary style. There’s also a narrator, frequent interruptions to insert photos and other footage (like security tapes and home movies), and no laugh track to signal the jokes. The show further differentiates itself through its quirky characters who get into absurd situations. The Bluths are a family like none other seen on television. Here’s a clip to demonstrate just how messed up this family is:
Previously in sitcoms, a dysfunctional family meant that the family was without a mother or had a crazy uncle. In Arrested Development, every single character (except for Michael) is absolutely crazy. Audiences aren’t used to this, they can’t relate to this, and they are completely thrown off by this. There was never a son who dated his mother’s best friend on The Brady Bunch (although it is rumored that Barry Williams dated Florence Henderson in real life).
Arrested Development doesn’t just make the family crazy, but they also take traditional television situations and adapt them to the ridiculousness of the Bluth family. Example #1: The reluctant romance. Nearly every sitcom has one. Audiences love to go through the will they or won’t they, and there’s always a climactic episode when the two love birds finally get together. Arrested Development has the reluctant romance too, but it’s between two cousins. As you can see in the clip above, George Michael is desperately in love with his cousin Maebe. He knows that they can never be together, but he’s hopeful nonetheless. Here’s the scene where they finally get together:
Instead of feeling that sense of joy and relief that these two finally got together, the situation is awkward. Audiences don’t know what to feel. Here this romance has been building for the entire series, but they’re cousins, so that’s just wrong, right? It’s confusing and leaves many longing for the simplicity of Ross and Rachel. That was a romance people could really get behind.
Example #2: twins. It’s such a cheesy thing to do, but think of how many shows through the years have had the appearance of an evil twin. It’s always absurd shows too, like soap operas and Gilligan’s Island (which oddly had 3 different twins show up to the island). Turns out that George Bluth Sr. has a twin brother Oscar, but instead of the traditional evil twin, Oscar turns out to be a much better guy than his brother. He’s just a peaceful pothead. Of course with any twin situation in TV world there’s bound to be mistaken identity. Oscar gets confused for his brother and gets put in jail.
Oscar also is involved in a love affair with Lucille, George’s wife, which brings us to another traditional television plotline: the love triangle. But a love triangle that involves having an affair with your husband’s brother, well that’s not the way that the story usually goes.
When it seemed certain that Arrested Development would be cancelled, there was an episode (season 3 episode 9) that plainly made fun of gimmicks that shows often use during sweeps periods to garner more viewers, although once again, Arrested put its own absurd twist on it. The episode advertised 3D effects, a live finale, and announced that someone would die while flashing a montage of the main characters. Based on other television shows, viewers might expect some interesting 3D visuals and for one of the main characters to shockingly die. Instead, what viewers got was Gob randomly throwing a tomato, one line being delivered live, and the death of an unknown old lady. This episode was hilarious if viewers were able to get the joke, but if they were expecting the traditional gimmicks of other TV shows, well then they were probably disappointed.
All of these twists on traditional television conventions are just one of the aspects that make Arrested Development so funny, but they also make it hard for the show to gain a large network audience. Since the show is so absurd, viewers often can’t predict what will happen as they can with many other sitcoms. Arrested Development is not a show that people can come into the middle of or half pay attention and still know what’s going on. It requires attention and a knowledge of past episodes, and these are requirements that viewers expect of a drama, but not a sitcom. However, these are the qualities that make Arrested Development so suited to viewing on the internet and DVD’s. These formats allow people to watch the show on their own time when they have the proper attention to devote to the episode, as well as the ability to look back to other episodes to understand what is going on. Since broadcast networks are trying to appeal to the greatest possible audience, it seems that the traditional will continue to prevail, but for dysfunctional and bizarre shows like Arrested, they can find a home on the internet.