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Arrested Development: Perfection in Sitcom

Updated: Aug 5, 2021

A while ago, I made a bold claim stating that I believe Bojack Horseman to be the natural evolution of sitcoms. I want to differentiate it from the idea of the peak sitcom. Bojack Horseman is the piece of art that is a meta-commentary on that particular type of art, but it is not the one you run to when you wish to understand it. What is the epitome of situational comedy, a show that utilises those two words to its maximum potential, creating unnatural endings through completely logical and natural premises? The show I speak of was far too ahead of its time for its own downfall, making it realistically unenjoyable for a time when TVs were smaller, there was no pause button and no one binged.

Having praised the narrative loop of Dan Harmon through the nose, I have to say that I have not seen episodic writing anywhere better than in the first three seasons of Arrested Development. The premise works so well with the show’s structure, it's unbelievable. The story follows a group of spoiled elites who perfectly encapsulate the static sitcom characters that are flawed yet never seem to carry their development past one episode. The show cuts out the hollow transformation that other shows may go for and lets us sit with these archetypes as they are. There is one exception though.

Almost every episode is about Michael’s development, or better put, it is to have Michael avoid taking on the influence of his family and tarnish his relationship with his son. Whether it be burning down the banana stand so that George Michael doesn’t grow up fearing his father’s authority or letting go of Marta as he cannot be seen as someone who would steal someone from his hermano, Michael’s endgame has to be sacrificing a bit of himself.

But the real crux of the show, as mentioned earlier, is the situational comedy. Many bad, even great sitcoms end up falling for the B-Story trap, where completely unrelated stories are told simultaneously to avoid wear-out and overly-long stories, but end up making the episode disjointed. A show that does it excellently as well as disastrously is Brooklyn Nine-Nine. When all of your stories converge into the A story to create one large fulfilling climax, you have made a decent episode. When you can do it every single episode, you have a great sitcom going on.

Arrested Development ensures that everything comes to fruition for a cathartic climax. When Michael burns down the banana stand, it is also about Gob’s failure to deliver the letter, Maeby’s manipulation of George Michael and, right before the climax, the plot converges with that of Lindsay, setting up a domino which was only possible with every piece in its place.

One can see this as contrived writing. Every coincidence in your story takes you one step away from reality. However, Arrested Development avoids that classification quite brilliantly. Firstly, given its comedic tone and the narrator, the contrivance is played as part of the joke. When Michael and his son are separately hiding behind either side of the Ten Commandments figure, Lindsay and her activists have it lifted only to have them face each other awkwardly. Comedic, sure. But good writing? Also yes.

You see, everything there was set up. Maeby was advised by Lindsay herself to abuse the legal system at the courthouse. George Michael was told by Michael not to do so, but he had to tag alongside her. Lindsay had already stated her victory in the separation of state and church. Michael thought he was one step ahead of Maggie Lizer and was hiding from her to avoid a confrontation before his “big moment”. What can we do to take all of these situations and produce comedy? Inject some perfect timing.

Any of this works only because everything happens together, all these storylines converge at some point, whether it is the finale or anytime before that. No thread is left loose to create a dangling storyline.

Another good way of understanding this interconnectivity is to put your own mind to the test. If I give you one beat or one storyline from a given episode, can you map out the rest of the story? Let's take the time Lucille went to rehab. If you think about the plot, you will remember the reason Michael made the decision was because she interrupted a deal with an important business associate. She became uncontrollably high because she took Buster's painkiller when he lost his hand, and ended up having a drinking contest with Kitty, who kidnapped George Sr. from the attic after seeing the episode of Scandalmakers, which made Ron Howard criticise the shoddy narrating. The whole event was, of course, taking place during spring break near the banana stand, tying together the theme of self-esteem with the three women of the Bluth family, Lindsay, Lucille and Maeby.

There is one more aspect of the show that makes sure you can re-watch this fifty times: The foreshadowing.

Foreshadowing is not an element that is strongly associated with sitcoms, but it is a wonder why it is not given how well it blends with Arrested Development. Did the “Army Officer” bench behind Buster reading “Arm Off” really mean anything to the first time viewer? It absolutely didn’t, and was thus not a strangely ominous line where someone says, “Boy, that’s a great arm you have there, don’t lose it.”

But there IS a strangely ominous line, where Buster says, “I never thought I would miss an arm so much.” However, this is regarding his arm chair and STILL comes off naturally! The foreshadowing in the show never spoils any upcoming narrative beats. The show drops a million hints as to what is about to happen and laughs at us for getting shocked at those events. It uses misdirection. The magic happens right in front of your eyes but you are distracted by everything else going on. If you closely observe the magician that is Arrested Development, you will find yourself predicting its tricks.

I cannot end without mentioning the absolute peak Arrested Development episode, the finale of season 3. What would be the perfect ending for this sitcom thematically, narratively and one titled “Arrested Development”? How about an episode titled "Development Arrested", an exact reversal of the pilot episode?

Throughout the show, Michael has given everything to his family, only to become distant from his son and the problems he is going through. Michael started the show happy that he decided to never see his family again, but ended up staying with them. So what makes you think Arrested Development will not end with Michael crying that he has to live with those people forever, only to end up abandoning them?

That’s right, throughout the show, no one became a better person. From the master manipulators Lucille and Maeby to the self-centred and spoiled Lindsay and Gob, the family is essentially the same. As the first episode ends with Michael and Lindsay reconnecting their relationship as siblings, Lindsay pushes it to romantic territory the minute she learns that she is adopted. Gob starts out high-fiving George Michael and ends up being punched by him. Michael thus ends the show at the exact same place he would have three years ago, only now, he has no doubts about the future.

The ending also introduces us to the man himself, the to-be producer of the story of Bluth family who sees their story as more of a movie rather than a TV Show, Ron Howard.

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