This essay was originally written as my final paper for my Script Analysis and Audience Response class, taught by Helena Medina, in Spring 2014 at The New School.

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The patriarch of a dysfunctional family is arrested, and his only sane son is forced to save the family business.

The Bluth family consists of George, Sr. and his wife Lucille; their children George Oscar II, a.k.a. “Gob” (pronounced like the Biblical Job), twins Michael and Lindsay, and Byron “Buster”; Lindsay’s husband Tobias Fünke; Michael’s son George Michael, and Lindsay and Tobias’s daughter Mae, a.k.a. “Maeby”. George is the CEO of the family Bluth Company, located in Orange County, California. Michael, his second oldest son, has worked for the company for ten years and expects to be made partner on the occasion of his father’s retirement. But George appoints Lucille as the acting CEO, and it soon becomes clear why when he is arrested and the Securities and Exchange Commission freezes the company’s expense account, thus making it difficult for the Bluths to maintain their lavish lifestyles.

Eldest son Gob is a magician, though he prefers the term illusionist. Lindsay spends most of her time as an activist. Tobias is a psychiatrist who has lost his license for giving CPR to a man who was not having a heart attack. Youngest Bluth Buster still lives with his mother, lacking both social and any marketable job skills.   Michael, feeling underappreciated and fed up with his family’s vanity, is just about ready to leave town and sever all ties with them. But, convinced that he is the only one competent enough to take charge, combined with George Michael’s desire to spend more time with his extended family, he ultimately decides to stay to oversee the company’s recovery.

One notable subplot in the pilot is George Michael’s burgeoning crush on his cousin after she kisses him to make her parents freak out. This taboo attraction is a continuous element throughout the series.

Arrested Development is a sitcom, particularly of the mockumentary variety. It was one of the first American mockumentary sitcoms (if not the first), and the influence of a format that was novel in 2003 is now strongly felt with the popularity of such shows as The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Modern Family. AD is made up almost entirely of ridiculous characters, with one straight man – Michael – forced to deal with their ridiculousness. George Michael may also fit the role of the straight man, though he is generally not assertive enough to establish his straightforwardness. Still, he is definitely not as kooky as the rest of his family and is in many ways a junior version of his father. AD’s humor style is typically that of farce, with its focus on absurd situations, misunderstandings, and (often risqué) wordplay. It has some dramatic elements, though not as much as a typical, more grounded sitcom, and it can be jarring when it does get emotional, such as when George Michael suddenly hugs his Aunt Lindsay in the pilot. As strong as those tonal shifts can be, they tend to work, as the characters stop just short of being full-on cartoons and just manage to come across as actual human beings.

Arrested Development originally aired on the Fox network, following in a line of edgy sitcoms such as The Simpsons, Married… with Children, Family Guy, and Malcolm in the Middle. It initially seemed to be a good fit, airing in the same Sunday night block as some of these very shows in its first two seasons. Ultimately, it proved to be too unusual to garner a large enough audience for a national network. I believe that if it were to have debuted on 2014 on Fox, it could have ended up lasting longer than the three seasons of its initial run. The audience size demanded for a network show is not as large as it once was, Fox has recently shown patience with some of its critically-praised but moderately-rated sitcoms (such as New Girl, The Mindy Project, Brooklyn Nine-Nine), and AD could even be scheduled with some of the shows that it was originally scheduled with (Simpsons, Family Guy). But AD is a unique enough show that it always would have been a good fit for a cable channel with a more specifically defined audience than a national network. Comedy Central could have been a good home; while it usually treads in more mainstream comedy, it has lately been developing more alternative shows such as Nathan For You and Broad City. But I would consider the most ideal channel to be IFC (formerly the Independent Film Channel), home to offbeat programming with a hybrid sensibility. And indeed, IFC has aired re-runs of AD. Its intricate plotting, subtle visual gags, and callback jokes make it ideal for binge viewing, so it was appropriate that it became popular post-cancellation on Netflix, which then revived it for a fourth season in which all its new episodes were released at the same time. But these elements were not fully present in the pilot, and streaming television was not a viable option in 2003, so it was understandable that AD did not originally air on Netflix.

With its focus on a family who has lost its sizable fortune, Arrested Development would appeal to people who would enjoy seeing the rich get their comeuppance. But the Bluths cling on to their lavishness as best they can, so in portraying the lifestyles of the rich (much of the pilot takes place at a party on the family boat), it can also act as wish fulfillment. So, socioeconomically it would likely appeal to the middle class – people who are not particularly rich but can reasonably hope that they might one day be rich. The Bluths are an eccentric bunch – Gob is a magician (he prefers the term “illusionist”), Buster is a chronic graduate student who has studied “everything from Native American tribal ceremonies to cartography,” and Tobias switches careers on a whim from psychiatry to acting. Eccentricity is a stereotype of the extremely wealthy, which leads me to believe that those in a higher tax bracket might also be able to relate. AD also appeals to the politically liberal, taking aim as it does at George W. Bush-era neoconservative politics. This is indicated by a patriarch and eldest son both named George and a last name that is similar to Bush. The political satire is more incisive later in the series, with references to WMD’s and the Guantanomo Bay prison scandal. In the pilot, its digs are directed at the powerful more generally, as in Lindsay’s chronic, presumably ineffectual, activism. Generally the satire, though often sharp, is silly enough that it is not likely to offend every conservative viewer. With its wordplay-based humor, AD is designed to appeal to an intellectual crowd; college students would be an ideal audience. Its flashback-heavy, non-linear narrative style makes it attractive to viewers with a deep familiarity of television and thus unique types of televisual grammar. Thus, the ideal target audience for Arrested Development is a liberal, middle-class, college-educated, twenty- to thirtysomething crowd. But since every character on the show can be a target of ridicule, the best possible audience member could be anybody, as long as he or she doesn’t take anything too seriously.

The theme of Arrested Development is definitely the importance of family. This is expressed directly in the first scene with George Michael, in which his father asks him, “What have we always said is the most important thing?” The answer that Michael is going for is, “family.” But George Michael’s initial guess of “breakfast” indicates that AD utilizes a goofy execution to express the importance of family. The point of George Michael getting the question wrong is not to show that he does not recognize the importance of family but to show that he misunderstood the question. (He thought his father meant, “of the things you eat.”) But the importance of family is not easy for the Bluths to accept; this is actually particularly true for Michael, even though he is the one who specifically emphasizes this theme. In the pilot episode, he speaks highly of family only when he believes he is being treated right. His conversation with George Michael occurs on the morning of the day that he expects to be made partner. When he is passed over for the position, he is all set to completely sever ties with his parents and siblings. So, there is a conflict here, in which even though Michael espouses the value of familial loyalty, he needs to be convinced that it is worth it to make that commitment. This is a conflict that can be repeated on a weekly basis. A big reason that Michael is so upset with his family is their profligate ways of using the company’s finances as their own personal piggy banks. When he does agree to get the family’s affairs in order, there is not really any promise on the part of his family to stop behaving so irresponsibly.

The George Michael-Maeby subplot also touches on the importance of family but demonstrates how that value can be wildly misapplied. This is the lesson that Maeby supposedly wants to teach Lindsay when she plans on saying, “Mom, if we saw each other more this wouldn’t happen,” after kissing George Michael (but really, Maeby is just an agent of chaos). George Michael is the most receptive to internalizing the importance of family, but without anyone in his family to model regarding that value, he ends up developing incestuous feelings for his cousin without any guidance on how to handle them. Incest is actually a big theme in Arrested Development, with the pilot also hinting at it with Lucille and Buster. Their relationship is not strictly incestuous, but it does have undertones, as Buster is the ultimate momma’s boy.

Even though family comes first on Arrested Development, it can be quite a joke. It can also be quite casually cruel, most strikingly in the moment when Lucille insists to Michael, “I love all my children equally,” and that is immediately followed by a flashback to her declaring, “I don’t care for Gob.” But even when the Bluths are at their worst, they are so ridiculous that their awfulness is played for laughs. Jessica Walter gives “I don’t care for Gob” a line reading as dry and as matter-of-fact as it is on the page. The sweet moments – such as the Monopoly game at the end of the pilot – can be a little jarring, because the show is otherwise so insincere. But even these moments are usually broken up with something crazy, such as George Michael’s look of panic when Michael tells him he may have to share a room with his cousin. Ultimately, AD’s outlook on family is genuine about its importance, but absurd in its execution; it is basically saying, “Sure, your family is completely ridiculous, but it’s the only one you’ve got, so you might as well make the best of it.”

Structurally, Arrested Development has a clever opening with a strong hook. It opens with a shot of Michael looking out over the bow of the ship, so it is clear that he will be the main protagonist and the entry point into this world. He is described by the voice-over narration (provided by co-producer Ron Howard) as “a good man.” So, before anything is clear, the viewer is supposed to be anchored by the knowledge that Michael is someone worth empathizing with. Then his mother and siblings are introduced in quick succession, and it is clear that he is fed up with their pettiness. As the family poses for a picture, the Narrator explains that Michael is happy “because he’s decided to never speak to these people again.” As this leads into the next scene, the audience is instantly hooked, wondering, “Why is Michael not going to speak to his family anymore?” and “How will this show continue if this family we have just been introduced to is about to be broken up?”

Arrested Development does not follow a straight chronologically linear sequence. It is flashback-heavy, with short scenes from the past entered in to quickly provide context. There are subtitles to make clear the time frame of those flashbacks. AD may have a somewhat complicated structure, but it does not go out of its way to be confusing. If the viewer pays attention, it is a rewarding experience. Besides the flashbacks and the in media res opening, the pilot follows a fairly conventional structure. There are a series of significant events in the middle of the episode that together serve as the major turning point: first George, Sr. announces Lucille as the new CEO of the company, then an SEC boat approaches the Bluth boat to arrest George, and finally, at the prison, Michael announces that he is done with his family. The last major turning point occurs when Lindsay catches Michael and George Michael as they are packing to leave and she and Michael have a heart-to-heart conversation that convinces Michael to stay. AD’s structure ends in unique fashion, with a gag that is not apparent on the script and will not come to fruition until multiple episodes can be compared to each other: each episode, beginning with the pilot, concludes with preview scenes of what will happen on the next Arrested Development, but none of those scenes actually appear in subsequent episodes (even though they would seem to fit within the narrative).

Michael Bluth, as the main character, seems like a reliable figure. He is the prototypical good son, who has put in years of hard work and waited patiently for the reward of a promotion. As genuine a person as Michael may (or may not) be, the audience is not completely relying on him for credibility, as the Narrator’s continuous presence provides an anchor in that regard. There is not really an antagonist. While most of the family may often be antagonistic towards Michael, that is generally not intentional, and, as Lindsay indicates, it probably comes from a fear of disappointing him. George, Sr. may have been the one who got the family into this mess, but he is less a villain (he passed over Michael so that the latter could not be considered an accomplice) and more of a fool (he believed that a husband and wife couldn’t be prosecuted for the same crime). And the SEC cannot really be considered an antagonist, because it appears clear that George, Sr. is actually guilty. Sitcoms do not necessarily need antagonists, and the Bluth family certainly does not, as they antagonize themselves well enough.

As for the relationships between the characters, there is not a whole lot of affection among the Bluths. But as this is a sitcom, that antagonism is played for laughs, and it works comedically, because it is often a matter of misunderstanding. Certain Bluths do not particularly like their family members. Michael really does not like anyone (with the exceptions of George Michael and Maeby – who he doesn’t interact much with in the pilot), either because of annoyance or disappointment. Then there is Lucille, who has nary a maternal instinct in her. Some Bluths are nervous around their family, especially Buster towards Lucille, or George Michael towards Michael, or George Michael towards Maeby – really George Michael towards anybody. Other Bluths are agents of chaos, either intentionally, as in the case of Maeby, who will rebel however she can against her parents (e.g., entering beauty pageants when her mother suggests she get a tattoo); or unintentionally, in the case of Gob, who just wants to show off his illusions no matter how much of a nuisance they are to everybody else. Then there are the Bluths who are just clueless, such as George, Sr., and Tobias, who probably still does not know that Lindsay married him just to make her parents angry. The characters on AD may fit into the role of stock characters, but they are so odd and their relationships so well-defined within the pilot that it is clear right away that it is a viable show for many episodes.

The dialogue of Arrested Development is a great strength. One particular scene that stands out for its words and how they set up the actors well is George Michael’s conversation with Maeby at the frozen banana stand. Maeby is a budding con artist, with her intellect a little too wild for even herself to handle. She has a quick comeback always at the ready, an explanation always prepared for her most devious plans. George Michael, however, is the epitome of teenage self-consciousness. His lines are filled with nervous placeholders like “Yeah, ha!” and ellipses to emphasize his nervousness. This dialogue is tailor-made for Michael Cera to play up his performance with stammering and stuttering.

Much of the dialogue of Arrested Development is ridiculous, but that does not make it unrealistic. There are ridiculous people who actually exist, and the Bluths are meant to be ridiculous. And when characters say things that are particularly absurd, there is usually someone there to react incredulously (usually Michael) to ground the proceedings. When Buster tells his brother that he has switched his studies to cartography, Michael points out that all lands have pretty much already been discovered. Buster is more clueless than insane in this situation, so he tries to save face by countering that explorers like Magellan and Cortez did an all right job, “but… you know.” Michael also takes the opportunity to make jokes out of his family’s pettiness, as when Lucille complains that someone has cut off a foot from her fox fur scarf, and he tells his mother that she will be “splattered in red paint” anyway (presumably because a PETA protester will be present), so that will distract from the missing limb. And when people say something that is just flat-out wrong, Michael is there to correct them, as when George Sr. says that spouses cannot be prosecuted for the same crime, and Michael assures him he is fairly certain that is not true. Ultimately, the dialogue could be successful if it were just a bunch of ridiculous being insane with each other, but the presence of a straight man sets the tone in which the audience can have some semblance of normality amidst all the absurdity.

With its use of flashbacks and voice-over narration, Arrested Development subtly presents a moral point of view. It is not meant to be judgmental, but it does say, “Facts are facts.” The flashback to Lucille saying, “I don’t care for Gob,” after announcing that she loves all her children equally is a prime example of this. These are not the most upstanding people, and the viewer shall know that. The omniscient perspective of the narration nudges the audience towards a position in which they can feel assured of their own goodness because they are surely not as bad as the Bluths. But that actually may be a trap. That sort of judgmental position parallels Michael’s attitude, and as the protagonist, it may seem like the audience is being asked to identify with Michael’s position, but the pilot does something rather smart to catch the audience before they make snap conclusions. Michael and Lindsay’s conversation makes it clear that even though the family does look up to them, they do not appreciate how judgmental he is, nor should they. The question of whether or not the Bluths are categorically awful people may not be so simple.

Ultimately, the purpose of Arrested Development is mostly to entertain. It does also ask the viewer to have a social consciousness, as it suggests that a wealthy lifestyle is inherently absurd. It further extends that accusation to the broader political spectrum, although that it is not immediately clear in the pilot. This political point is tied up with AD’s entertainment purposes, insofar as it suggests that anything in life that is ever taken seriously is actually ridiculous and should be laughed at. But this show is best appreciated in terms of seeing its intention with how it fits in the medium of television and the format of the sitcom. Its mix of tight plotting, witty dialogue, vibrant characters, taboo themes, and structural experimentation had been a part of television before 2003, but never exactly in this combination and rarely done this well. Understanding that accomplishment is the best way to appreciate Arrested Development.

 

Works Cited

Hurwitz, Mitchell. “Pilot.” Arrested Development. Imagine Television, 2003 The Daily Script. Web. 18 May 2014. http://www.dailyscript.com/scripts/arrested_development__pilot_.pdf. Script.

Hurwitz. “Pilot.” Arrested Development. Fox. 2 Nov. 2003. Television.

 

 

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