'Arrested Development' Is Not Just One of the Funniest Television Shows Ever
Image: Andrew Hunt | Design: Dustin Ames
You're going to see and hear dozens of stories this weekend, if you haven't already, about the return of Arrested Development. They're all going to follow the same script: about how brilliant the FOX comedy series set in Orange County was, about how it's inexplicably returning from the dead seven years after its cancellation, about its run on Netflix for a 15-episode arc (with the possibility of a film to follow) starting Sunday, about how brilliant the show remains even in its new incarnation. Random lines about there always being money in the banana stand and never-nudes and no touching and "Her?" will appear in your Facebook and Twitter feeds, along with memes, drinking games and all other sorts of merriment—for a program that lasted just three seasons.
But what you have to remember, above all the buzz, is black men cheated out of a tip.
Watch the Arrested Development episode that airs this Sunday called "Flight of the Phoenix" that show creator (and Costa Mesa native) Mitch Hurwitz has deemed the season premiere of this new run, even though he's releasing all the episodes simultaneously. There's going to be a scene involving George Bluth, head of the shallow family at the center of the series, thanking two black delivery men for a job well-done . . . and then not offering even a buck. The show's moral center, middle son Michael, looks on in disgust; the show's moral center, as usual, is ignored. When I saw what unfolded next, I laughed bitterly—this was barely a week after an Asian-American fraternity at UC Irvine made national news because one of its members put on blackface for a music video, an incident that reminded the world again of Orange County's embarrassing attitude toward its minuscule African-American community. Just like what Arrested Development will do.
The day after watching "Flight of the Phoenix," I drove to the Sheraton Universal City for an Arrested Development press junket. Reporters from around the world were snaking their way toward a poolside buffet, near rooms where they would talk with six of the program's stars after a joint interview session. Oblivious to the reporters at the hotel's entrance were two of the Sheraton's usual clientele of beautiful people, waiting for their top-of-the-line car. It pulled up; a black valet got out. The couple got into the Euro-wheels . . . and that was that. No tip.
Thank you, Jeebus. The message hidden in Arrested Development, the message glossed over by all of its fans and critics, the message that makes it so much more than one of the funniest television shows of all time and the greatest commentary on Orange County ever—that message had just manifested itself right in front of me, right before a press conference about the show, as both prophecy and pronouncement: America has turned into Orange County, and that's why we're so gloriously fucked.
* * *
If you've never seen an episode of Arrested Development and don't understand what all the fuss is about, then here's the briefest, most general recap possible. The show focuses on the Bluth family, a clan of underachieving narcissists who have long depended on the withered teat that is the family business: The Bluth Co., a shady development firm. In the series' 2003 premiere, patriarch George Bluth Sr. (played with dry humor by Jeffrey Tambor) gets arrested by the feds for securities fraud. Before being hauled off to jail, he holds a lavish ceremony on a yacht at which he transfers the company not to his heir apparent, Michael (Jason Bateman), but to his perpetually drunk mother, Lucille (Jessica Walter). She presides over an empire in decline, placing more faith on magician son George Oscar "GOB" Bluth (Wil Arnett); eternally befuddled son Byron "Buster" Bluth; and daughter Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and her is-he-or-isn't-he-gay husband, Tobias Fünke (David Cross). Michael, despite his hurt feelings, nevertheless tries to keep the family and the business together. Add the Fünkes' is-she-or-isn't-she-their-biological-child daughter, Maeby (Alia Shawkat); Michael's only son, George Michael (Michael Cera); and a single model home in a desolate housing tract, and you have a dysfunctional family not seen on the boob tube since The Simpsons—and did I mention it's set in Orange County?
Put Arrested Development's main actors in a room, and hilarity is guaranteed. Add a supporting cast of beloved thespians (Henry Winkler as the bumbling lawyer, Scott Baio as the smarmy one, Liza Minnelli as the lover of two Bluth brothers and perpetual rival to Lucille, Charlize Theron as a dim-witted spy), a third ring of guest stars playing minor characters (Jane Lynch, Amy Poehler, Martin Short, Ben Stiller), another layer of walk-on roles (Bob "Super Dave Osbourne" Einstein, Ed Begley Jr., Carl Weathers, Zach Braff), a constellation of cameos (Conan O'Brian, Andy Richter, Andy Samberg, Jack Black, even series producer and narrator Ron Howard) and a stream of character actors too numerous to mention, and you had one of the most talented collections of madcap actors since It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World.
This roster fed off superb writing that coined multiple catch-phrases, a documentary-style production subsequently copied by nearly every U.S. ensemble television show since, and a belief by Hurwitz that loyal fans should be rewarded for their attention with multiple in-jokes and subplots, making viewing episodes multiple times not just a pleasure, but also obligatory. And for those of us at home, it documented Orange County better than anything before, since or after, from the vapidness of Newport Beach to the bemused natives of SanTana (see Matt Coker's accompanying articles for further proof).
It was a fabulous show, it was hailed by critics as one of the smartest in years, it had a devoted fan base—and it stood no chance of surviving.
Arrested Development debuted in 2003, the same year as its fellow Orange County-based FOX program, The O.C. The timing suited the teenage drama far better than the comedy, happening in that brief era when national correspondents decided to drop their eternal ridicule of us as wealthy, ignorant right-wing lunatics and instead cast us as—as USA Today wrote—America's "capitol of cool." County civic leaders and residents fully embraced that spin, which meant favoring one show over the other. The choice was easy: Arrested Development was a burr not only in Orange County's saddle, but also in the ass of America, a far-too-cynical, far-too-mocking, far-too-smart look at a place no one wanted to acknowledge, satire for a country that didn't want to hear it. Whereas Newport Beach officials gave The O.C. cast the keys to the city and a former supervisor only half-jokingly suggested rechristening John Wayne Airport as The O.C. Airport, David Cross was relegated to performing benefit shows at Detroit Bar.
The fun seemingly ended for Arrested Development in 2006, as it died a quiet death marked with a collective shrug by an Orange County too enamored with its leased Mercedes-Benz S-class parked in front of $700,000, two-bedroom, North County homes to notice. The cast went on to do other projects; the show's die-hards contented themselves with reruns on obscure channels, DVDs and websites devoted to all the quotes, pictures and trivia nights one could bear.
Then, as with the Bluth family model home, the cracks in Orange County's veneer turned into full-fledged fault lines—and it happened to America, too. We had decided to follow in the footsteps of the avarice celebrated by The Real Housewives of Orange County, Laguna Beach: The Real O.C. and The O.C. instead of heeding Arrested Development's cautionary advice. The Great Recession hit, fueled by the housing crash, and we all became Bluths. In the immortal words of Fünke, when he decided to audition for the Blue Man Group, we blue ourselves.
Seeing the original run now, the humor is sharper than ever, its characterization of Orange County's excesses even more ruthless and hilarious. It was a show far too ahead of its time, but perfect for the here-and-now. And that satirical world-view continues with Arrested Development's latest season. I've only seen "Flight of the Phoenix" once thanks to a temporary Netflix link, but I remember enough to reassure the hardcore fans: It's as though the show never went off the air. The humor remains—the ever-present air of awkwardness, the hilarious interludes, the cameos and perfect non sequitors, all seamlessly hewing to its Orange County setting. The plot of the first episode references the Great Recession, takes place mostly at UC Irvine, and even throws a shout-out to OC's perpetual hatred and co-opting of anything Mexican. There's a bit of rust, for sure: Some jokes linger longer than they should, and some jokes don't make sense because Hurwitz has promised a nonlinear approach that requires viewers to watch all the episodes multiple times to fully grasp everything—an easy thing for the die-hards, but something that might limit its mainstream reach. But that's the beauty of Arrested Development: It's happy to stand as a giggling Cassandra, content with knowing almost everyone will ignore its warnings—and if the heathens don't want to listen to its Gospel, then they deserve the OC-ification they're going to get.
Am I reading too much into the show? Probably not enough. Hurwitz (who wasn't made available for an interview) grew up middle class but had family in Newport Beach. Knowing this, the show easily reads as one giant fuck-you to that city's 1 Percent—and, by extent, the OC (don't call it that) that ruled this county for so many years.
And that's where we return to the poor black valet at the Sheraton Universal.
* * *
The Arrested Development press conference went without a hitch, save Cross asking a reporter, "Why do you keep pointing at your tits?" because she was trying to show off her T-shirt bearing the Bluth family crest. Cross, Bateman, de Rossi, Shawkat, Cera and Walter took questions from a packed house, following the script you're going to read or already have. The six enthused about how the new lease on life was "vindication" for the show and "satisfying." "It should have continued," Bateman said, to the satisfied murmers of the reporters.
I asked the cast what they felt about Orange County and whether they had spent any time there to research their roles.
"It's wild out there," Bateman finally replied. "Those are some strange folks."
"I once took a trip there," Cera added. "All that weirdness down there trickles downhill into that landscape."
"It's a big shopping mall full of blond women who shop a lot," Cross said. "And then you have these 15-, 16-year-olds, all privileged, saying, 'Life sucks, man.'
"Wait . . . I just got it," Cross exclaimed. "That's why [the color scheme] is all orange!"
"For me, [the color] represents prison," de Rossi threw out.
"I thought it was all about the Cincinnati Bengals," Bateman shot back.
The questions went on, but I got the final one of the afternoon: What, if anything, does Arrested Development mean? How was it a commentary on Orange County or the United States?
"It's that we're all idiots," Bateman replied. "Nobody is perfect. It highlights this society, where we've become self-obsessed and greedy."
"This family is shot as a documentary," Cross added. "But we're so inured to" that style now, in this world of reality TV populating broadcast nearly nonstop, "that the idea of what's real and what's fiction is blurred." The society depicted in the original and coming Arrested Development, he concluded, "now even more so in 2013—that's the reality."
Quotes set, I let another Weekly writer get the exclusive with Cera and Cross. I went to the valet area, they radioed someone to get my beat-up Toyota pickup . . . and he emerged: the black valet.
Prophecy and pronouncement. I tipped him extra-well and drove off, laughing at the incredulity of the day. What did Michael Bluth do when confronted with the same scenario? You're going to have to watch Sunday night—and learn, America, learn.
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