Wednesday, 7 April 2010

The GREATEST Television Programme Of The 00s

Finally. So, after forever, it’s all over. We can finally reveal the BEST television programme of the noughties. It’s not The Wire. It’s not The Office. It’s not The West Wing, or Deadwood, or The Apprentice. Instead, it’s a show that wasn’t even seen as much of a hit, despite being one of the greatest television series of all time.

It’s the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.

imageIn the Simpsons episode “Brother From Another Series”, Krusty points out to Sideshow Bob’s brother Cecil that the misfortune of others – such as a custard pie in the face - is only truly funny “when the sap’s got dignity”. Arrested Development proved, quite conclusively, that the misfortune of others is even funnier when the saps have got the delusion of dignity.

Created by Mitchell Hurwitz and broadcast on Fox in the US, on BBC Two and BBC Four over here, Arrested Development followed the fortunes of the Bluth family. For the most part, the Bluths are a pampered, selfish, obnoxious bunch of freeloaders, utterly reliant on the money generated by the family’s real estate development firm, and utterly unwilling to earn any of it. The notable exceptions to this are George Sr (Jeffrey Tambor, almost unrecognisable from his role as Hank Kingsley in The Larry Sanders Show), patriarch and CEO of the Bluth Company, and middle son Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), the only one of the siblings to take an active interest in the running of the company. On top of this, Michael is sole parent to his nervy but well-meaning and goodhearted son, George Michael Bluth (Michael Cera), after his wife Tracey had died of ovarian cancer, leaving Michael with the juggling act of spending as much time as possible with his son, as well as with the company.

At the beginning of the pilot episode, at a party thrown to celebrate the passing of the CEO position from George Sr to another member of the family, he is caught, arrested and sent to prison after a notable amount of “creative accounting” had been uncovered by the US Securities and Exchange Commission. As a result, it is soon left to Michael, still seething after it turned out the family member being handed control of the company wasn’t going to be him, to become head of the family. Not only must Michael try to keep the company business afloat, but he must also try to prevent his family from taking any more company cash for their ‘personal expenses’.

This proves to be anything but easy, as the extent of George Sr’s sticky fingering (so to speak) soon becomes all too clear, especially as the other members of the family expect their pampered lives to carry on in much the same way as before. Certainly, there is little sympathy from Lucille Bluth, family matriarch (Jessica Walter), who expects no interruption to her decadent lifestyle. Vain, domineering, effortlessly bitchy and Machiavellian, she will go to extraordinary lengths to make a point. This is especially true when it comes to youngest son Buster Bluth (Tony Hale), a socially inept manchild, terrified of just about everything (sheep, seals, birds, closed spaces, open spaces). Lucille keeps Buster on a metaphorical short leash, which for the most part Buster happily plays along with (indeed, one episode sees George Sr remark that Buster left “claw marks” in Lucille’s womb when he was delivered), but at times he clearly longs for escape. Lucille is always ready to punish Buster if he wrongs her, with one early episode having her bloody-mindedly (and drunkenly) adopt a young Korean child just to spite Buster. In the second season, Lucille makes a point to Buster by volunteering him for the US Army, when challenged to by a Michael Moore lookalike.

imageWhile the other two Bluth children would like to think they’re a little more independent, neither can cope for too long away from the family cash-teat. Lindsay Fünke (Portia de Rossi) is Michael’s twin sister, bored wife to disgraced psychiatrist Tobias (David Cross), and mother to Maeby (Alia Shawkat). Despite not getting on very well with her mother (who tends to use any excuse to call her daughter overweight), she has many of the same traits, such as her vanity, flirtatiousness and drinking habit, though without the devious intelligence, and with a lazy disinterest in her daughter’s fortunes. Meanwhile, Tobias is trying to make the move from psychiatry to acting, and is blissfully unaware of his overtly camp mannerisms. Maeby, it soon becomes clear, has a level of self-awareness that both her parents utterly lack, but she is hampered by a lifetime in schools that lean more towards “positive reinforcement” than actual learning, and as such has little actual common sense.

Lastly, and leastly in the eyes of his parents, comes George Oscar “Gob” Bluth (Will Arnett), an egomaniacal part-time magician. In the grand traditions of television comedy, he’s not a very good part-time magician, his tricks (sorry, ‘illusions’) regularly failing, and him being frequently overlooked by “the Magicians’ Alliance”. After getting little attention from his parents as a child, Gob puts on a show of being a cocksure womanizer, but will often burst into tears, or take dramatic measures to disguise his self-loathing. Often, he will make short-lived attempts to ingratiate himself with the other members of the family, but will often soon tire of this, and take up a contrary viewpoint. So, while he may offer to help Michael by mailing an important letter, he’ll soon be trying (and failing) to dramatically throw the letter into the sea.

In addition to the main members of the Bluth clan, there are also a large number of supporting characters, but more of that later.

The three seasons of Arrested Development each take in different stages in the life of George Sr. For the first season, he is in prison on bail, awaiting trail. In the second season, he is on the run, having escaped from his trial after faking a heart attack. In the final season, he is under house arrest, again trying to escape, but this time to get away from Lucille’s affections. The other characters also go through a number of changes as the series progresses, George Michael’s affections switch from his cousin Maeby, to his girlfriend Ann. Maeby’s lies see her accidentally land a job at a film production company. Michael begins dating again, with mixed results. Buster begins dating for the first time, most explosively with his mother's best friend, also called Lucille, as well as undergoing an even more shocking development. Gob finds he has a son, and somehow, a wife. Lindsay and Tobias both decide to see other people, though not necessarily, different ‘other people’. All with, as you might expect, splutteringly hilarious consequences.


Arrested Development is a blissful mash of contradiction soup. It has a simple enough premise – “rich family becomes poor, but doesn’t stop spending”. And yet, despite there being plenty of chuckles contained within each episode to satisfy the occasional viewer, it’s probably the smartest situation comedy we think we’ve ever seen, with an extraordinary amount of care taken over the content of each episode. Indeed, so mindbogglingly crafted is the writing, there are jokes in season one that can’t even be identified as jokes until you watch seasons two and three. That’s right, jokes that take up to three years before you reach the punchline – now that’s clever writing. It’s more fun if you discover those slow-boilers for yourselves, and while we’d love to toss you a bone here, we’re so wary of spoilers we’ll restrict ourselves to mentioning a seemingly throwaway line starting with the words “I don’t know what I’d do without my…” in an early episode.

As mentioned in our preamble, the show sadly wasn’t the ratings hit it really deserved to be. The second season averaged about six million viewers in the USA, not helped by Fox kicking it around the schedules, right into the path of live NFL coverage in many US states. As a result, the second season was cut down from a 22 episode order to just 18, with much of the season already having been recorded, resulting in frantic last minute re-writes. Worse still, the programme continued to suffer in the Nielsen ratings at the start of the third season, resulting in the order of episodes for what turned out to be the final season being slashed from 22 to just 13, the final four episodes being thrown out in one go, in a dead rubber slot against the 2006 Winter Olympics opening ceremony.

image(images mostly via the excellent AD fansite

However, this did allow for some delicious swipes at the programme’s broadcaster to be added during the frantic script changes. An episode recorded just after the decision to cut the size of season two included a weary resignation from Michael that the Bluth Company's order to design and build 22 homes has been reduced to just 18. Similarly, in a third season episode, where many media commentators were talking about rumours the show might be sold to a cable network, Michael and George Sr can be heard musing over how financial help from the “Home Builder’s Organization” is unlikely to be forthcoming, and that they should put on a big event to woo other investors. Or, more specifically, “Yeah, the HBO is not gonna want us. What are we gonna do now?” “Well, I think it’s Showtime.”

Similarly, despite (relatively) heavy promotion from the BBC, with a plum 10pm Wednesday night slot on BBC Two, and the following episode going out on BBC Four at half-ten each week, it wasn’t a ratings smash in the UK either. Possibly, it wasn’t helped by the Beeb using fairly unhelpful, and not especially funny when out-of-context, scenes from the show in the trailers – if David Cross hadn’t been in the show, we probably wouldn’t have given it a chance. It was soon going out in just the BBC Four slot, and the second and third seasons only saw BBC Four showings originally, though they did finally reach BBC Two in 2007, when the whole series was somewhat surprisingly scheduled between 1am and 3am, with two episodes going out every Saturday night. Of course, if it had proved to be popular over here, Sky would have just nicked the rights to it. At least it remaining a cult hit over here meant everyone who wanted to could legally watch it without a Sky subscription.

Despite a lack of bums on seats, it was a critical smash on the scale of a previously undiscovered Seinfeld episode guest starring Groucho Marx, Bill Hicks and Jesus, thanks to the miracles of time travel. Entertainment Weekly’s Tim Stack pondered "Is it beating a dead horse to once again state that this underappreciated gem is the best sitcom on TV? Too bad. 'Arrested Development' is the best sitcom on TV!" The Guardian’s Alison Powell called the programme “a farce of such blazing wit and originality, that it must surely usher in a new era in comedy." The AV Club named Arrested Development as the third greatest television programme of the decade. Paste Magazine named it the greatest television programme of the decade. And do you know what? So do we.


WATCH IT NOW ON: As far as we’re aware, it’s not currently airing on UK television, Happily, the DVD box sets are affordably cheap. Most trips to your local HMV are likely to bring you into contact with each of the season box sets for less than £13 each, but if you prefer to shop online, are selling Season 1 at £9.99, Amazon and Play are both knocking out Season 2 at £13,99, and it’s back to for Season three at under a tenner.


But that’s not all the Arrested Development fun we’re having today. Here are a couple more rundowns, in which we hope to clumsily cram in all the things we wanted to mention about the show, but couldn’t find room for in amongst the last few thousand words. So, in no particular order:


"Everything they do is so dramatic and flamboyant. It just make me want to... set myself on fire."Lucille, on her party being interrupted by a gay rights protest.

“Okay, Lindsay, are you forgetting that I was a professional twice over - an analyst and a therapist. The world's first analrapist.”Tobias, reminding Lindsay of his professional past.

G.O.B: “Anyway, it involves us making some money with our Mexican friends from Colombia.”
Michael: “I think they're called Colombians.”
G.O.B (sarcastically): “Oh, I forgot we’re being politically correct now.”

Tobias: “Yes. Lindsay and I are planning a night of heterosexual intercourse.”
Michael: “You can just say intercourse.”

“I'm an ideas man Michael. I think I proved that with ‘Fuck Mountain’.”Gob, proving a kind of point to Michael.

George Michael: "Are those strippers?"
Michael: "If I know your uncle, they're at least strippers."
- on seeing Gob’s banana stand ‘mascots’.

Michael: “Gob, I'm going to need you to sneak Mom out of rehab.”
Gob: “Gee, I didn't think the woman I'd be checking out at Spring Break would be Mom.”
Buster: “She's better than the whores you date.”
Gob: “Don't call my escorts whores.”
Buster: “Mom's still got it.”
Gob: “I don't date whores.”
Lindsay Funke: “Stop it, both of you. This objectification of women has got to stop.”
Michael: “It's just Mom and whores.”

George Sr.: "The Brits set me up. I heard nothing about Iraq."
Michael: "Dad, we have a picture of you and Saddam Hussein."
[Cut to picture of George Sr. shaking hands with Saddam Hussein. Caption says "Bluth-Hussein Meeting 1998." ]
George Sr.: "I thought he was the Soup Nazi. I was just congratulating him on a great job. "

Waitress: "Plate or platter?"
Lucille: "I don't understand the question and I won't respond to it."
- Lucille reacts in the only way she knows to having her country club membership reduced to ‘pool’.

“George Michael was getting ready for school when he came across a box of love letters he'd written, but never sent, to his cousin Maeby. One letter, titled "If you weren't my cousin," was particularly incriminating.”The Narrator.




Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler)

The longstanding legal representative for the Bluth family, Barry’s mind often appears to be elsewhere when dealing with the family’s affairs. Certainly, he does seem to have a habit of getting into trouble himself, with his first appearance coming just after he’d been sued by his homosexual assistant for using discriminatory language in the workplace. It’s behaviour like this, despite (or more likely because of) his own repressed homosexuality, that leads Michael to tire of Barry’s incompetent behaviour and poor grasp of the law, and finally sack him. Barry is eventually replaced by excellently named attorney Bob Loblaw, but not before providing the series with one of it’s most deliciously subtle sight gags. After meeting Michael at the harbour after Gob’s escaped seal has been found in the belly of a shark, and where a number of plot points happily slide into place, Barry (played by an actor best known for playing Fonzie in Happy Days, of course) nimbly hops over the expired selachimorpha. A move better known as, of course, ‘jumping the shark’. A joke purely for internet telly geeks? We likey.

Kitty Sanchez (Judy Greer)

George Senior’s fiercely loyal personal assistant. Oh, and mistress. As a result of her loyalty to George Sr, she makes no secret of her dislike of Michael, obstructing him from getting his way at every opportunity. However, that doesn’t stop her from flashing her bare chest at Michael at any given opportunity, generally accompanied with a shouted claim that he won’t ever get another chance to see ‘those’ again, punctuated with a load “WOO!”. Her loyalty to George Sr does waver when it comes to other members of the Bluth family, with Kitty hooking up with Gob and Tobias at various times in the series.

Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli)

Best friend, next-door neighbour and social rival of Lucille Bluth, chronic sufferer of vertigo, widow, and sometime sixty-something girlfriend to Buster. Generally referred to by the Bluths as “Lucille Two”, and really, you rarely get two characters in the same show with the same first name, do you? Clearly, it’s done here to heighten Buster’s feeling that he’s subconsciously dating his mother, but it’s a nice touch. After all, in any extended family, group of friends, school or workplace, you often get two people with the same first name, often meaning one of them is afforded the prefix “Big-“, “Little-“, “Old-“ or “Fat-“. But, you don’t often see it in fictional television shows. So, nice to see it here.

Oscar Bluth (Jeffrey Tambor)

George Sr’s stoned slacker of a twin brother. Despite Oscar’s hippy lifestyle, George Sr remains largely jealous and bitter about his twin, mainly because of Oscar’s stress-free lifestyle allowed him to keep the long, flowing locks that George had long since lost, and which Lucille still finds irresistible.  With George Sr safely incarcerated, Oscar soon gets more involved with the family, soon making no secret of the fact he is rekindling his earlier affair with Lucille, and that he may just be Buster’s biological father. [SPOILER ALERT] However, George Sr does finally get his revenge on Oscar when, having escaped from justice, he knocks Oscar unconscious, shaves his head, and leaves him for the police, who mistake him for his escapee sibling.

Dr. Fishman (Martin Mull)

A doctor at the local hospital with a frustrating habit of expressing himself too literally. So, [MORE SPOILERS] when Buster is rushed to casualty after being attacked by a loose sea lion, Doctor Fishman informs the family that Buster will be “all right”. By which, of course, he means Buster has lost his left hand. Well, clearly.

Franklin Delano Bluth

If you could pick one character to sum up the majesty of Arrested Development, it would surely have to be Franklin. In an effort to make his magic act more accessible to urban audiences, Gob introduces Franklin, a black puppet, for which Gob clumsily, and borderline offensively, provides the voice. Franklin proves to be a quick-tempered, foul-mouthed, misogynist loudmouth. Not unlike Gob, of course. For some reason, the entire family seems to love Franklin, almost treating him as if he were a real person. Quite unlike Gob, of course.

Franklin’s finest moment comes when Gob uses company money to finance an album of duets between him and his puppet, with the aim of bringing the races together through the medium of song. His best intentions go awry, as the first recording session of ‘Franklin Comes Alive’ is cut short after the first song, It Ain’t Easy Bein’ White, causes the black sound engineer to leave the studio in disgust. Sample lyrics:

Gob: “It ain’t easy beeein’ white…”

Franklin: “It’ ain’t easy beeein’ brown…”

Gob: “So much pressure to be briiiiight…”

Franklin: “I got kids all over towwwwwwn!”





AND… THAT’S IT. IT’S OVER. Except, it isn’t. We’ll be back in the next update with a special stat-based look back at the rundown, containing a brilliant ‘Top 100 of Top 100s’ mega list, and more charts than you could shake a Jeremy Vine at. Plus, news of a thing. Ooh.


8 .:

Rodafowa said...

"A wife can't testify against her own husband."
"I'm pretty sure that's not true, Dad."
*momentary pause*
"I've got the worst fucking attorney."

LewieP said...

Well I was all ready to be up in arms that Arrested Development had been missed out on your list after the wire took first place.

It is so fucking good.

Ben said...

Brilliant stuff sir although Dr Fishman is Ian Roberts from the similarly unloved but amazing Upright Citizens Brigade. Martin Mull plays, of course, master of disguise Gene Parmesan. (Lucille screams off-camera)

"Hey, where'd the producer go...?"

Steve Williams said...

Hooray, Arrested Development is brilliant and I'm thrilled to see it at number one. What I particularly like about it is that when I bought the box set of series one in Zavvi (it was a while back), the bloke on the till congratulated me on my excellent taste.

Just to point out, though, that the BBC scheduling was even worse than you point out. The first series was, as you say, on BBC2 with the next episode on BBC4, while the second was first shown on BBC4 on the Thursday then repeated on BBC2 late on Sunday, but the BBC4 transmissions stopped halfway through the run. The third series was only on BBC2, in a series of ridiculous slots including one episode at the wonderful time of 1am.

John the Monkey said...

Can't argue with that at all.

Good work, and congrats on an excellent series of posts.

Anonymous said...

Not an actor? Well excuuuuusssssseeee meeeeee.
Excuse me.

Mark X said...

Thanks Steve, I'll try and correct that scheduling info in the article when I get time later. I was a bit vague on the scheduling of S3, and I suspect it *might* have been shown first in the UK on Bravo. Bravo certainly picked up the repeat rights to the first two seasons around the time season three was (intermittently) airing in the USA, but I'm not sure if the Bravo showings of S3 pre-dated the BBC broadcasts.

One thing for sure, the BBC certainly did drop the ball on their scheduling of Arrested Development. A rigid slot of Wednesday night 10pm on BBC Four, followed by a post-Newsnight repeat on Friday night BBC Two, would have made more sense. It's a bit of a shame the whole Fantasy Football League/Larry Sanders/Is It Bill Bailey?/Duckman post-pub Friday night BBC Two comedy slot has long since gone.

trendthrift said...

Incredibly late to the party, as ever, but bravo on putting Arrested Development at the top of the pile. Fully deserved.

And outstanding work on the whole list, obviously.

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