It's not often a television show can make you reconsider the talents of a longtime celebrity. "Arrested Development," the nearly cancelled FOX sitcom whose first season is now out on video, has made me reconsider the talents of two: Ron Howard (whom I'd written off as a purveyor of tame commercial pabulum) and Liza Minnelli (probably best if I not detail my objections). Their mere involvement with "Arrested Development"--Howard as executive producer and folksy narrator, Minelli as a self-parodic supporting character--suggests I may have given neither adequate credit. Put simply, this is the best sitcom on television, a biting yet somehow endearing exploration of family dysfunction.
The family in question is the Bluths, a wealthy Southern Californian clan that falls on hard times when its developer-patriarch, George Sr., is imprisoned for fraud. His self-involved wife and self-indulgent children have never done an honest day's work in their lives, with the exception of fortyish middle son Michael. An earnest, hardworking widower with a teenage son, it falls to Michael to hold the family together: mother Lucille, the manipulative socialite; older brother George Oscar Bluth II (or "Gob," pronounced Biblically as "Job"), the Segway-riding ladies' man and part-time magician; younger brother Buster, the timid man-child; twin sister Lindsay, the dilettante activist; and her husband Tobias, the sexually ambiguous former psychiatrist and would-be actor. Further complicating the scene is the third generation of Bluths--Michael's over-parented son George-Michael, and Lindsay's under-parented daughter Maeby.
The mood of the show is set early in the first episode. As a show of support for Bluth Company, Michael and George-Michael have been living in the model home of the company's newest development, sleeping in the attic so it can remain a "pristine selling tool." As they wake up in adjacent sleeping bags one morning, Michael asks his son, "What comes before anything? What have we always said is the most important thing?"
George-Michael: "Family, right. I thought you meant of the things you eat."
With that exchange the show announces its subject matter: the family as omnipresent afterthought, frequently forgotten yet ultimately inescapable. After a decade in which the better sitcoms largely abandoned the domestic scene to revolve instead around artificial families made up of friends or colleagues, "Arrested Development" returns to the bosom of interpersonal horror, and thus humor. But even as the show revisits the family sitcom, it renews it. One reason for the decline of the genre is that it typically feels played out. We've had households run by married couples and singles, by stepparents and adoptive parents, and by housekeepers of both sexes. But for all their efforts to differentiate themselves (rich white parents with poor black kids! two dads and no mom!), family sitcoms virtually always follow the formula of loving adult caregivers watching over one or more precious, precocious kids. (This latter species is so irritating and overexposed that it may yet destroy not only the family sitcom but television itself.)
The genius of "Arrested Development" is that rather than present us with children who behave like adults, it offers adults who behave like children. Forced by their own indolence and incompetence to live together again (in the model home no less), the Bluth siblings recreate the painful dynamics of childhood--the selfishness, the insecurity, the competition for a parent's favor--but using the weapons of adulthood: money, sex, and a range of sophisticated lies and alliances. That the adults' rivalries and deceptions occur in front of (and frequently involve) their own children only tightens the screws. When, for example, George-Michael sees his beloved ethics teacher leaving the house one morning after a nocturnal tryst with his father, the latter kindly tries to protect his son's feelings with a fib: "Yes, your uncle Gob slept with her."
Jason Bateman, who plays Michael, is perfectly cast for this world of belated adolescence, with his boyish demeanor and sitcom-kid past. (Back in the day he had roles on "Little House on the Prairie," "Silver Spoons," "Valerie," and "The Hogan Family.") Michael wants desperately to be a good, responsible adult--and lords it over his siblings that they're not even close--but sometimes it just takes too much work. Discussing with Lindsay whether he should try to steal Gob's underappreciated girlfriend, he bemoans: "I'm a saint, you know, a living saint. And I get absolutely nothing out of it."
Lindsay: "Well, you get a false sense of superiority."
Michael: "I know. That is nice. But this time it's not enough."
The rest of the cast is equally superb. Jeffrey Tambor brings his customary comic excellence to the incarcerated father, George Sr. Jessica Walter, who 30-plus years ago played Clint Eastwood's murderous stalker in Play Misty for Me, renders Lucille with equal malice but subtler methods. And Aussie Portia de Rossi makes a far stronger impression as spoiled, lazy Lindsay than she ever did on "Ally McBeal." The show's great discovery, however, may be 16-year-old Michael Cera, whose George-Michael offers an indelible portrait of teenage self-doubt and longing--for his cousin Maeby, no less. His efforts to impress her by wearing false pecs under his shirt or casually describing his plan to buy a motorcycle and a leather jacket--"for when I'm riding on my hog and need to go into a controlled slide"--are achingly genuine.
For all its edge and originality, "Arrested Development" has echoes of some of the best television past. From "Soap," it borrows both its subject--the debilitating effect of wealth on a family--and its serial storytelling, with each episode standing alone but building on what has come before. (Although the show offers a "scenes from next week" teaser at the end of each episode, it's really just a final gag, not a preview of things to come.) From "Seinfeld" it gets its acerbic wit, irredeemable characters, and audibly capitalized labels (instead of Close Talkers, we get a Never Nude). The show takes cues from the big screen as well: Its absurdist deadpan and quasi-documentary feel (the episodes are shot on handheld camera without a studio audience or laugh track) recall Christopher Guest's improvisational gems. (Three members of Guest's usual ensemble--Jane Lynch, John Michael Higgins, and Michael Hitchcock--have played supporting roles on "Arrested Development.") But perhaps the show's most important resonance is with fellow FOX Sunday-nighter "The Simpsons." Like that trailblazer in domestic dysfunction, "Arrested Development" manages to be both merciless and somehow tender in its dissection of the nuclear family. Yes, your relatives may be selfish and clueless and embarrassing. But as Maeby tells George-Michael (at the most inopportune moment, of course), "It's better than the alternative."
The Home Movies List:
"The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes" (1994): With the release of this final set (which follows "The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes," "The Return of Sherlock Holmes," "The Casebook of Sherlock Holmes," and The Sherlock Holmes Feature Film Collection), all of Granada Television's wonderful adaptations are now available on DVD. Those who have seen them already know Jeremy Brett to be the greatest Holmes ever to appear on screen; those who haven't can look forward to finding out.
"The Office"--The Complete First and Second Series (2003): An extraordinary example of the comedy of discomfort. Actor/co-director Ricky Gervais creates one of the great little-screen grotesques of all-time in manager/motivator David Brent, a character almost too believably repulsive to be funny. Almost.
"Boomtown"--Season One (2002): Like "Arrested Development," this uneven but fascinating cop show was a critical hit but a ratings flop. This time the critics lost, as NBC pulled the plug two episodes into the second season.
"Greg the Bunny"--The Complete Series (2002): Also cancelled, this time by FOX. This PG-13 Meet the Feebles knockoff isn't as funny as its exceptional cast--Seth Green, Eugene Levy, Sarah Silverman--might lead you to anticipate, but it's worth a look for anyone interested in sex, substance abuse, and bigotry among puppets.
"The Wire"--The Complete First Season (2002): Let's see: two BBC programs, two network shows that were cancelled--all this list is missing is the requisite HBO offering, and "The Wire" fills that niche admirably. Anyone who thinks television had no need for another police drama will find themselves pleasantly surprised. Though how Baltimore's tourist trade has survived the crime double whammy of this show and "Homicide" I can't begin to imagine.