Stunted Development

The final season of Arrested Development on DVD
By RYAN STEWART  |  September 7, 2006

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STUNTED DEVELOPMENT: George Michael Bluth (Michael Cera) and Tobias Fünke (David Cross, in mole costume) survey the wreckage.
When the final episodes of Arrested Development aired on Fox earlier this year, the question was asked all over the place: how can people not ­love this show? Why can’t the average TV viewer appreciate — indeed, enjoy — a show that’s smart, sophisticated, and funny?

But in watching the third and final season, out now on DVD, it becomes clear why the show didn’t find a larger audience. The series rewards multiple viewings and requires the kind of viewer-commitment to running storylines reserved for action-dramas like Lost or 24. And episodes frequently call back — and forward — to lines and events from other episodes. Even Soap, TV’s previous standard for comedic soap opera-style serial storylines, didn’t reference specificities from other episodes much. For those who’ve watched the show from the beginning, it makes you feel part of an in-joke. So besides the manic mix of physical humor, subtle political satire, creative near-profanities, and pop culture references, you get the little bonus jokes, too, as if the writers lob those references out as thank-you’s for the faithful. But if you haven’t been watching all along, it’s easy to get left behind, both in terms of storyline and humorous references. That, more than anything, probably accounts for why the show couldn’t build a larger audience.

And by the time the third season came around, they weren’t trying to. These thirteen episodes are less accessible than those of the previous two seasons. Would anyone who hadn’t seen the show be won over by a five-episode-long arc in which Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) thinks his British girlfriend is spying on his family, only to learn that she’s actually mentally retarded? Even if it was Charlize Theron in the role of the girlfriend? Not likely. And unless viewers had picked up on the numerous hints that George Michael (Michael Cera) and Maeby (Alia Shawkat) might not actually be cousins, the episode in which they get married might fall a little flat. They even made an episode poking fun at the show’s doomed status, in which the narrator (Ron Howard) butts in with things like “tell your friends about this show!” and the characters reference the possibility of getting picked up by HBO or Showtime. Again, funny, self-referential in-jokes for fans, but for the casual viewer?

The impenetrability of season three’s material was only exaggerated by the comparative brilliance and hilarity of season two, one of the funniest and most creative seasons of television in recent memory, rivaling the best of The Simpsons, Seinfeld, and The Office. It could only go downhill. It could also be argued that everyone involved knew that cancellation was imminent, and as a result the priorities shifted towards tying up running storylines and away from comedy. That, too, is excusable. But some characters became disturbingly one-note, like Tobias Fünke (David Cross,) who was never onscreen for more than 30 seconds without referencing to his closeted homosexuality. Or the Oedipal manchild Byron “Buster” Bluth (Tony Hale) who went from being one of the show’s funniest characters in the first two seasons to one of the weaker ones in the third, thanks to over-the-top line readings.

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