In 2003, 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, re-imaginings 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. 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.
And it's just as crazy, confusing and problematic as ever. And some of those problems aren't even on-screen.
After the original Arrested Development folded on Fox, Jeffrey Tambor—who played George Bluth Sr., the rotten-to-the-core patriarch of the show's deeply dysfunctional Bluth clan—landed the lead role in Amazon's of-the-moment comedy Transparent. Over the course of four seasons, Tambor's portrayal of a trans father on that show won two Emmys. But in late 2017, Tambor was accused of sexual harassment and was officially fired from the show a few months later.
Netflix didn't follow Amazon's lead, however, and it kept Tambor on for the second season of Arrested Development. But during the promotional lead-up to the show, Tambor (who denies the sexual harassment charges) admitted that he had behaved unprofessionally with Jessica Walter, who plays his wife, Lucille, on that show. (That unprofessionalism wasn't sexual in nature but was, all parties admit, abusive.) During a bizarre interview with The New York Times, the show's male co-stars, especially Jason Bateman, seemed to defend Tambor's off-screen behavior.
"Again, not to belittle it or excuse it or anything, but in the entertainment industry it is incredibly common to have people who are, in quotes, 'difficult,'" Bateman told the Times. "And when you’re in a privileged position to hire people, or have an influence in who does get hired, you make phone calls. And you say, 'Hey, so I’ve heard X about person Y, tell me about that.' And what you learn is context. And you learn about character and you learn about work habits, work ethics, and you start to understand. Because it’s a very amorphous process, this sort of [expletive] that we do, you know, making up fake life. It’s a weird thing, and it is a breeding ground for atypical behavior and certain people have certain processes."
The ensuing backlash forced Bateman to apologize profusely on Twitter, further overshadowing the new season.
Call Me Out, Maeby
For those who need a quick recap of the show itself … well, forget it. The antics are just too convoluted.
It all sounds so simple at its core—or was back in its Fox days: 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, including: 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. Or the fact that as Season 5 opens, Michael and his son, George Michael, are both in a relationship with Rebel Alley, the fictional daughter of the show's real-life narrator, Ron Howard. Or that liberal Lindsay is running for Congress on a platform to "build a wall" between the U.S. and Mexico. Or that George Sr. briefly dresses as a woman (as, you'll recall, Tambor did for Transparent) while Howard intones, "His impression of a woman wasn't going to win him many awards …"
A few constants remain: The Bluths are still a financial and familial mess. They're still scheming and plotting and cheating 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. 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 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 15 years 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."