Late to the Party: Arrested Development

Izzie Glover 1 December 2020
Image Credit: Christopher Verdery on Flickr

Late to the Party is an ongoing feature that takes on the wildly praised, the underground acclaimed, and the cult classics that you just missed the boat for – and now can’t understand why on earth everyone finds the name ‘Inigo Montoya’ worthy of an on-the-spot monologue.

Arrested Development, despite airing in 2003 and all its flip-phone glory, lives on fervently, wildly, passionately in 2020, held aloft by reddit users and manic pixie dream girls alike. In fact, you’ve almost certainly seen it without realising; some would argue Lucille Bluth’s endlessly captionable content was the impetus for the sophisticated, intertextual, post-post-modern memes we thrive on. Arrested Development has given us a lot, but when you finally settle down to watch it on Netflix, faced with 5 seasons and an unexplainable season 4 ‘remix’, met with the sexual assault allegations charged at Jeffrey Tambour and the terrifying image that is Michael Cerain his twenties, it’s daunting.

It’s even worse when you try to follow the plot: every season for the first three seasons, Michael Bluth vows to leave his money-guzzling, co-dependent family. He never does. Every season for the first three seasons, his father tries to escape from prison – he lives in the attic, impersonates his identical twin and even joins the blue man group – but ultimately, either himself or his brother will end up arrested and incarcerated once again. Every season for the first three seasons, cousins George-Michael and Maeby Fünke teeter dangerously around incest, darting in and out of a few clandestine kisses with the looping will-they-won’t-they repetition of Ross and Rachel. Oh, and they all live in a poorly built model home identical to the one a collective of Saddam Hussein lookalikes share in Iraq. There is no character development and the plot weaves itself into a dizzyingly cyclical web for reasons that remain utterly baffling and wholly frustrating if you try to see the show in terms of traditional narrative order.

Which is why you shouldn’t. To truly appreciate the artistry of Arrested Development you must disregard the plot entirely and focus only on the show’s wordplay. This means both not searching for an over-arching series-wide story nor aiming to follow the plotline each episode claims to contain. It’s a writer’s show, and to find yourself howling at the TV you’ve got to understand everything about AD through a series of intricate puns that stretch ridiculously and gleefully throughout the show. Reductio ad absurdum, if you will.You’ve also got to confine yourself to only watching the first three seasons (after that it makes you sit back on the sofa, sighing like my dad did during the seventh season of Modern Family and say Americans just don’t know when to give up a good thing, bloody Americans) but anyway, back to those puns.

I’ll admit, until this year I didn’t get it. I love narrative, I love character development, I distinctly did not love Tobias’ toxic hair graft that left him green and immobile and unspeakablydisgusting. I was infuriated when Buster lost his hand in season two to a loose seal but now, I see the beauty and the forethought and the sheer audacity of wordplay that led to that moment. I’ll try to do this justice, if I can, but there’s no doubt I’ll have missed more and more jokes buried deep into thesubstratum of the AD universe.

(In case you didn’t know, AD centres on the Bluth family, headed by George Snr. and Lucille Bluth, their children are the ever so sensible Michael, the selfish Lindsay, the prodigal son and all-round joke Gob and the much-mothered, socially-anxious and continuously disappointing Buster.)

At the end of season one, Gob, due to a series of escalating dares, marries Amy Poehler’s unnamed character. Poehler’s character is a seal-dealer, selling seals and, when she meets Gob, she has two she needs to get off her hands. But this is irrelevant, or so you think. The plot focuses on their disastrous marriage, and we all move on. In that same episode, a school play has Captain Hook lose the hook on his left hand. But again, irrelevant. Later, in season two, Buster is in his mother’s housekeeper Lupe’s house, where he discovers that all his old toys and furniture from childhood have been given to Lupe and her family. He looks down at an old red hand-shaped chair he used to own and remarks innocuously ‘I never thought I’d miss a hand so much’. It’s all coming together now. In episode six of season two, Buster, avoiding his army duties gets hooked on playing with a claw grab machine and wins a toy seal. Two episodes later he’s being shamed for being so dependant on his mother, Lucille, and by episode eleven, a full seventeen episodes after Gob met Poehler, Buster has his hand bitten off by one of the seals she needed to get rid of. It turns out that this was a seal of Poehler’s that Gob took for a magic trick, accidentally gave a taste for mammal blood and then let loose. And the lasting joke, both foreshadowed and referred back to after this moment is that Buster, in an attempt to not be taken down by his overbearing mother, Lucille, instead is brought back to her, having had his hand bitten off by a loose-seal.

It’s funny stuff. And it’s funny stuff that gets funnier with bouts of re-watching. I recommend watching it with someone that’s seen it before, like getting to grips with a cryptic crossword. And I leave you now with this small example of what Arrested Development does so wonderfully; I can only hope it allows you to set the reddit-subthreads ablaze with your newfound appreciation of what appears, on the surface-level, to be a very, very silly series.