When good TV goes bad: Arrested Development

How did a show so knowing it once had Henry “Fonzie” Winkler jump a shark, jump the shark itself?

From Mr F to “Her?”, from “Marry me!” to Motherboy, Arrested Development’s smart callbacks and Easter eggs have maintained its cult following well into the fickle streaming age. As well as being highly meta, the series – which originally aired on Fox from 2003 to 2006 – borrowed from the single-camera world of reality TV to create a fresh and frantic portrait of a decadent, dysfunctional family. Without AD we most likely wouldn’t have 30 Rock or Community, or Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat (who has wowed of late in Search Party). Fast-forward to 2018, however, and the idea of the Bluths returning may well send fans fleeing their screens quicker than Buster evading a loose seal. But how did a series so knowing that it once had Henry “Fonzie” Winkler jump a shark, jump the shark itself?

Back in 2013, Netflix launched a new series of AD, which had acquired legendary status since its cancellation. The third series had ended abruptly, leaving a definite sense of unfinished business. Indeed, its finale contained plenty of plot points that could have been shark-jump material, had they been deployed earlier on – such as Lindsay finding out she wasn’t a Bluth and Lucille’s adopted son Annyong revealing himself as the source of the family’s ruin. But here, right at the “end” of Arrested Development, they felt just on the right side of surreal.

The trouble really began during the reboot. Rather than the brilliantly chaotic ensemble approach of old, each episode of the new series focused on a single character, due in part to the cast’s other commitments. The result is disjointed and repetitive, with the same stories told multiple times from different viewpoints. Besides, the plot is largely nonsense. Michael – “the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together” – has been reduced to a pathetic wreck, trying to crash in his son’s college dorm. Ron Howard – before merely an omniscient narrator – now pops up to fuel dull in-jokes about his career and personal life.

George Michael is now an unlikable lothario who ends up dating the same woman as his father (and, erm, she’s Ron Howard’s illegitimate daughter). There are also lots of “gags” about Tobias – a character built on hints and innuendo – being a sex offender. Cameos from Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig as a young George Sr and Lucille add little, but presumably took a nice chunk out of the budget. Only Jessica Walter as Lucille really manages to reach the bizarro heights of old, while the rest of the cast look as confused by the reworked format as the rest of us.

Last year, Netflix began promoting yet another season with the tagline “this time the Bluths are all together. Whether they like it or not”, presumably meaning no more of this separate timelines business. But, really, the damage has been done. With Jeffrey Tambor (George Sr) dismissed from Transparent over allegations of sexual harassment, maybe now is the perfect time to let AD bow out. There’s always money in the banana stand, but there ain’t always laughs.


Hannah J Davies

The GuardianTramp

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