Retro Review: The Current TV Landscape (The Office, Scrubs, and the Ghost of Arrested Development) – Part 1

With the fourth season of Arrested Development premiering in a few short hours on Netflix, I figured this would be a good time to re-post something I wrote shortly after its cancellation (way back in 2006) where I explained I was on-board with the show ending permanently.

Part 1 of 3

With the all-but cancellation of my second loudest talking point three months ago, my TV habits have unexpectedly and ambitiously changed. For many years, the only section of calendar showing “appointment TV” was Fox’s Sunday night from 8-10. Initially anchored by The Simpsons and The X-Files, over the years I’ve regularly watched Malcolm in the Middle, King of the Hill, That 70’s Show, Family Guy, Futurama, Andy Richter Controls the Universe, Arrested Development, and most recently Free Ride. I never watched most of those shows again after either a move to a different night (That 70’s Show, Malcolm in the Middle) or before 8 on Sundays (King of the Hill, Futurama, Malcolm in the Middle [again]). The Simpsons’ decline too many years ago makes/made the 8:00 slot more of a sentimental appointment with some memory from my past (maybe), but it’s rare that I don’t catch at least some of the Sunday night shows. (Most recently, I’ve watched Family Guy and Free Ride.)

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I hate the Internet. (click the image for full-size)

Arrested Development, originally airing at 9:30 was the best show to come out of the Fox Sunday night, even better than when The Simpsons was what we remember it being like “when it was good.” Generally I’ve found that of the people to whom I recommended the show, it’s pretty easy to pick who will like it and who won’t. Plenty of people are on the record extolling it as the best show ever, and while I’d agree, I don’t have anything to add that hasn’t been covered ad nauseum by that community. Oddly enough, Arrested Development has very much become similar to one of those things that I don’t really have a problem with, but the fans are just so obnoxious that I think even more negatively about the item/object/concept than I normally would or should. In the case of Arrested Development, I’m so positive about the show, that the fandom merely tarnishes whatever memory I might have of it, not the actual show itself, if that makes sense. I don’t think that it “revolutionized” the sitcom (it was sort of on for only three seasons) as some claim, it was just the shining example of a different way of presenting 30 minutes of comedy.

For the three seasons it aired, my routine was watch it when it aired, download the widescreen rip on bittorrent, then watch the bejesus out of it until buying the DVD’s the day they were released. The airing of the last four episodes (all shown in a two hour block one Friday night in February) after more than a month of knowing those would most likely be the last episodes of the show hit some note with me in that even though I downloaded the episodes, I have yet to watch them a second time. Considering that I’ve watched every other episode of the show between three and too many times each, I realized it was odd I had/have no desire to watch the last four again, especially considering that they were some of the best episodes of one of the best shows in the history couch-potato-ery. I’m not sure it takes too much effort to correctly read into it; similarly, I own all of the Calvin and Hobbes books, but I’ve never read the last one though I’ve owned it long enough to have read it many times.

For a solid two months, there were continual rumors about where Arrested Development might end up after that Fox made it obvious it wasn’t wanted by shortening the season to 13 episodes. “The Internet” held out hope, but “the internet” ignored the fact that any channel picking up an expensive-to-produce, bottom-of-the-ratings-heap show must not enjoy making money. It was a sad time for many, with (literally) the best show in the history of ever wrapping up. Fox showed the last four episodes in a two hour block directly against the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, almost two months after the most recent airing of the show. In other words, lots of time to “discover” something new.

As great as it was, Arrested Development was not “perfect” in terms of 30 minute television. As widely reported, practically none of the characters were likeable (Michael Bluth was dysfunctional in his own, realistic sort of way, and heck, even Annyong was a jerk to Buster). That’s not what I look for in a show, but there are plenty of lady-folk who need to empathize with characters and figuratively “hug it out” with their TV icons. I don’t know if it was searching-for-ratings-related, but the first episodes of the show established that Michael Bluth had relatively recently become a widower, and the show touched on the challenges of that situation in terms of how it affects teenaged children and the dating process for said widower. Of course, the show still packed in the zaniness, but there was something more there that from the second season and on was ignored. One could tell the writers avoided detailing the how and why of Michael’s wife’s death (she was said to have cancer some time in season 2 or 3), leaving the issue wide open for future episodes, but it was left unaddressed as the show moved toward (admittedly HI-larious) wackiness, zaniness, creative wordplay, and, uh, whimsy. Again, I didn’t need that “emotional resonance” from the show (or any show for that matter), but lesser men consider it a requirement for their TV intake.

Some fault the show for its reliance on jokes that only dedicated (meaning, weekly) viewers would get. That’s not a fault; that’s putting faith in your audience. Of course, it makes a niche show even more niche by creating both a high learning curve and too many inside jokes, but that’s more of a problem with what I’ll say is the “concept of the show” instead of the show itself. Returning to its problematic fans, they’re super-quick to say, “you don’t ‘get’ it, so you’re stupid” completely ignoring the fact that much of the humor depends on earlier episodes and the fact that some people just don’t get much out of the site of a grown man in a mole suit destroying a model train village in front of a group of “Japanese investors” in an homage to Godzilla. The fact that someone might not think something like that is funny doesn’t affect that I still think it’s the best show ever; the two aren’t mutually exclusive, but many of the fans use their opinion of the show (of it being the best) as a reason why everyone should think that jokes like that are funny.

*****
The Ghost of Arrested Development receives five big stars. Sure, the body’s still warm, but with Mitchell Hurwitz, the creator, saying he wouldn’t want to be involved even if it picked up by a (fiscally irresponsible) network, it’s gone for good. And I’m ok with that. The time before the last four episodes were aired provided an opportunity to sample other channels’ wares (which we’ll look into later in the week). The series finale was just about perfect, and as I watched it end (into the sunset, of course), as much as I complained that it was no longer going to be on the air, I didn’t want there to be any more episodes. It was that good. It was Arrested Development.

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