It was a decade ago, in 2003, when Fox first rolled out a clever, quirky and crass sitcom called Arrested Development. Produced and narrated by Ron Howard, It eschewed laugh tracks, studio audiences and two-beat punch lines, and instead embraced handheld cameras, smart dialogue, and convoluted, envelope-pushing plot lines—making it unlike everything else on television at the time. (Scrubs may have been the closest comparison point.) Critics loved it … and no one else watched it. So after three seasons, six Emmys and countless snooze-worthy ratings, Fox arrested the sitcom's development and moved on.
But in Hollywood—the land of reboots, reimaginings and a legion of zombie movies—nothing ever truly dies. Not if there's money to be made. The show continued to land on critics' "Top Television Shows of All Time" lists. And new fans discovered old episodes on DVD. Soon, entertainment journalists were reporting noises from the Arrested Development gravesite. Might Fox bring it back? Could the characters find new life in a movie?
No. And no. When Arrested Development finally lurched out of its tomb—with Howard and the entire original cast amazingly intact—it shambled over to Netflix for a special 15-episode season, made available in its entirety beginning May 26, 2013.
And it's just as clever, crazy, confusing and—for families—unkind as ever.
For those who need a quick recap of the show's first three seasons … well, forget it. The antics are just too convoluted.
It all sounds so simple at its core: A riches-to-rags story in which the once powerful Bluth family is humbled after paterfamilias George Bluth Sr. gets busted for fraud and embezzlement. Michael, George's underappreciated middle son, does his best to keep the family together and out of the poor house (and, often, jail). But underneath that central plot lies a psychedelic stew of crazy characters and outlandish situations:
George Sr. escapes from prison and sends his hippy twin brother to the clink in his stead. Youngest son Buster does a stint in the army—cut short when a seal bites off his hand. Daughter Lindsay attempts (and fails) to procure a lover in the midst of her open marriage. Lindsay's husband, Tobias, masquerades as a British nanny (Mrs. Featherbottom) and desperately tries to join the Blue Man Group. Eldest son Gob has an association with the male stripper group Hot Cops. Grandson George Michael develops an ongoing infatuation with his sorta-cousin Maeby.
And, really, that's just the cheese-stick appetizer. We haven't even talked about the Bluths' adopted Korean son, Annyong, or Lucille Two or any number of ridiculous tangents the show scampers down.
Fast-forward through seven years of undocumented downtime, and a few constants remain: The Bluths are still a financial and familial mess. They're still scheming and plotting and cheating and whoring and embarrassing Michael at every turn. And it's just as impossible to make real sense of the onscreen shenanigans without regular (nay, religious) watching as it ever was. Even reviewing it, I felt like I could've used some sort of SparkNotes guide. Just sampling one or two episodes, given their interlaced nature, feels almost unfair. This is a show that has no patience for anyone arriving late to the party. To get it, you have to watch.
But is it worth getting?
What Plugged In's Steven Isaac said about the series in 2003 is still quite accurate today:
"At its best, Ron Howard's pet project uses social satire and reverse logic to show the downsides of emotional sabotage, greed, lying and mean-spirited manipulation. At its worst, it sneeringly fixates on sexual attraction between young cousins, homosexual 'misunderstandings' … bitter acts of revenge, irreverent gags and obscene rants."
It's called Arrested Development—a title that could well refer to most of the childish characters it showcases. But it also sums up the whole show. Not only have the characters been stuck for a decade in their sorry states of dysfunction, but the program has too. It's still funny. It's still foul. It's remarkably free of any redeeming content. Again quoting Isaac, "That's hardly good news for families looking for big clean laughs on the small screen."
"Flight of the Phoenix"
After his solo business venture goes awry, Michael moves into his son's dorm room, often asking for help with passwords, computers and his smartphone calendar. "It's, like, stuck in 2003," he says. But his dad's presence cramps George Michael's style, and George Michael votes him out of the dorm. Michael leaves and tells Lucille Two (who has had affairs with many of the Bluth men) that he'll sleep with her—perhaps in exchange for her forgiving the $700,000 he owes her. (The episode suggests that he goes through with the deal.)
We see flashbacks of smooches, sexual interludes, women in scanty clothing and men in drag. George Michael still seems infatuated with sorta-cousin Maeby. References (some of them visual) are made to sex and homosexuality. Michael ogles women.
Gob takes what he calls "forget-me-now" pills (relaxants more widely known as "roofies"). Alcohol gets screen time. Bluth parents insist it's demeaning to African-Americans to tip them. A mailman dies. Michael makes a few gestures that reference Eastern religion. Two bad words are obviously bleeped, while a third is obscured by background noise. We hear "d‑‑n" and "h‑‑‑" (once each), and a half-dozen misuses of God's name.