Top 10 TV shows of the decade – #10

Arrested Development


In my head, I sort all American comedies into two categories. The first category; Everybody Loves Raymond, Mad About You, Dharma and Greg, Will and Grace – that notion of shrieking audiences, and set-ups about an Everyman husband with a slightly intimidating wife, flat characters walking through the one built side of a sound stage living room and speaking in one liners and unfunny put-downs while the crowd whoops. Those are the bad kind, the kind that I’ll go out of my way to never watch. The mere trailers for Two and A Half Men make me dry heave. Then there’s category two, the good kind; Seinfeld, The Office, Parks and Recreation, and Arrested Development. It took me a long time to take the plunge with AD, because I had that mental image of King of Queens, “I’ve got mud on the carpet, the wife’s going to kill me!!!” I haven’t been so glad to be wrong since I tearfully announced to my family that I was dying because of the two equally sized round protuberances I found hanging underneath my penis in a pink sack.

Arrested Development is a labyrinthine show. It has all that rare good stuff that you hope for in a sitcom; incredible lines, well-rounded, fantastically performed characters and twisting plot-threads that come together in ways you don’t see coming, but AD’s punch comes from the glorious swirl of meta-references upon meta-references, call-backs and call-forwards, and everything folding back in on itself many times over, like M. C. Escher falling down and up some stairs at the same time. In that respect, it’s almost a comedy version of The Wire, with understated references flying towards you at a frightening pace, although never at the expense of the comedy. Rather than confusion, the subtle meaning of certain lines or bits unexpectedly creep up on you later, like a night-time burglar whose only intent is tickling you in a non-sexual way and leaving with a funny dance. Even the topical pop-culture references that, on lesser shows, would have amounted to nothing more than an arbitrary smugly intonated mention of MySpace to show how on-the-button they were, were slipped in under the radar, and not “Why don’t you put that in your Facebook update?” “*crowd whoops*”

One of its real strengths was, even with an enormous ensemble cast, managing to completely avoid all of the sitcom character stereotypes that you can usually pick out just by looking at the promo shots from that year’s Fall line-up of new shows. “Well that’s the husband and wife, so that one must be the wacky friend/neighbour/in-law/parole officer…” They’re all so richly drawn, and with so many different aspects, they’re hard to even categorise. Wildly arrogant yet deeply self-loathing magician? Cluelessly closeted therapist-cum-wannabe actor and devoted father? Even Buster’s mother’s boy role was intelligently complex, and laden with more unaware Oedipal angst than Pike from Dads Army or Sorry’s Timothy Lumsden, while Lucille’s shrewish matriarch was infinitely more layered than the lazy scary sitcom “worst mom ever!” clichés permeating Roseanne or Malcolm in the Middle.

It’s often said that there are no new ideas, and it’s especially true in most sitcoms, where a relatively small number of plot devices get endlessly recycled in different settings – looking after a neighbour’s pet that dies, an entire episode where the characters are trapped in one room, or the most overdone of all, the cast go on holiday. Arrested Development completely bypassed this comedy-rut with 53 episodes that probably didn’t contain a single idea that had ever been covered before, at least not from that angle, and often with things so outright bizarre or fucked up, you look back and wonder how they ever got them on the air. It’d be ridiculous for me to start listing things, as you’ve either seen the show and know how great it is, or need to buy the DVDs immediately and see for yourself, but they did create this enormous and hugely original self-contained world that blows 99% of all other sitcoms into the surface of the sun.

It’s a sign of just how good it was that for a show that got pretty dismal ratings and was eventually cancelled, most of the cast were immediately plundered for bigger things. Most notably, Michael Cera taking his Cinema vérité Rainman persona mainstream and becoming Hollywood’s mumbling king of awkwardness, while Will Arnett and his prickish GOB ticks have become almost as ubiquitous as Will Ferrell, and gladly so. It’s no coincidence that to a man, they’ve become type-cast into playing big screen versions of their AD roles, but that’s more of an admission by Hollywood’s supposed creatives that they wish they’d been able to create such fresh characters for themselves, and have to make do with transposing them directly into their worlds. On the other side of the coin, the Ray Romanos and the whatever that guy’s name is from Will and Grace haven’t exactly been lighting up the big screen recently, so maybe quality does out in the end after all.

For fans like myself ever mourning the show’s demise, there’s still the tease of the movie that’ll probably never happen. I just hope it’s more the Inglourious Basterds type of never-gonna-happen, rather than the Anything Robert Rodriguez Says He’s Definitely Currently Working On kind.


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~ by Stuart on November 24, 2009.

3 Responses to “Top 10 TV shows of the decade – #10”

  1. “I’ve got mud on the carpet, the wife’s going to kill me!!!” would be a great name for a sitcom.

  2. […] # 10 – Arrested Development […]

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