Not up on the returning show? Come on! Tom Ellen enlists members of the Bluth family to compile an alphabetised guide to the smartest sitcom ever.
This Sunday, Arrested Development returns to our screens after a six-year absence. If you’ve seen the show – which charts the trials and tribulations of the rich, dysfunctional Bluth family – you’ll know why this is such momentous news. If you haven’t, to paraphrase hapless magician Gob, you’ve made a huge mistake.
To celebrate its resurrection on Netflix, ShortList sat down with Bluth family members David Cross (walking double-entendre factory Tobias), Tony Hale (Freudian nightmare Buster) and Jeffrey Tambor (oft-imprisoned paterfamilias George Sr) to break down the show’s history (and future), from A to Z…
(Images: Rex, Allstar, Fox)
From Ben Stiller (as beard-obsessed magician Tony Wonder), Charlize Theron and Zach Braff to Liza Minnelli, Martin Short and new guests Seth Rogen and Isla Fisher, the show has always had Hollywood’s finest queuing up for cameos. Why? “It’s the surprise element,” says Hale. “Most shows have a typical model – you know the set-up, you know what’s coming. With AD you have no idea what direction you’ll be going in.”
B. Jason Bateman
Pre-AD, Bateman was known primarily as “that bloke from the ropey Teen Wolf sequel”. However, since his deadpan turn as embattled lynchpin Michael Bluth, he has clambered to the top of the Hollywood comedy call sheet, with turns in films such Juno and Horrible Bosses. Not bad for a man whose job in AD is simply, in Hale’s words, “to try to control the chaos around him”.
When the show was cancelled due to poor ratings in 2006, it wasn’t just fans who were horrified – the cast were up in arms, as displayed by Cross’s rant (viewable on YouTube) shortly afterwards. “I didn’t even know the camera was running for that,” he recalls now. “I’m sure I’ve lost work because of that rant. I imagine [producers] see it and figure, ‘That guy’s a pain in the ass – who knows what he’s going to say?’”
D. DVD culture
Unsurprisingly for a show so densely loaded with jokes that it merits near-constant rewinding, it was box-set bingeing that saved AD’s skin.
“I don’t blame Fox [for cancelling us],” says Tambor. “You can’t support a show that doesn’t do the numbers. But it didn’t realise that the numbers were skewed. DVDs were being passed around and we started to hear about groups of 300 students getting together to watch episodes on one screen.”
Since it first aired in 2003, the show has bagged four Primetime Emmys, as well as a Golden Globe and a Writers Guild Of America gong. In Season 3, Michael sarcastically applauds George Sr’s acting by telling him: “Well done, Dad, you’re a regular Brad Garrett.” Garrett, from Everybody Loves Raymond, had beaten Tambor to an Emmy shortly before it aired.
F. Fan power
"This would 100 per cent not be happening without the fans," says Cross of AD’s return, and the quantity of fan sites and campaigns to resurrect the show support his claim. One placard at a 2009 US healthcare demonstration even bellowed: ‘OBAMA: BRING BACK ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT’, and, more worryingly, Cross tells us he’s seen "tattoos of Tobias’s face on people. One was a mural of various events in Tobias’s life."
George Oscar Bluth AKA ‘Gob’ (pronounced like Biblical protagonist Job, and played by Will Arnett) is Michael’s older brother; a woeful magician who insists he performs illusions, not tricks (“Tricks are something a whore does for money”). It’s hard to believe when you see Gob clattering into a glass door with a live dove in his pocket, but Arnett used to be a serious dramatic actor before AD proved he was a comic hit.
Having lost his left hand to the jaws of an escaped seal in Season 2 (preventing him from going to war), Buster now sports a piratical hook (“God, that thing is hot,” laughs Hale), which frequently ends up embedded in something, be it
a dashboard, a melon or even Gob’s behind.
Long before Game Of Thrones was lucratively exploring inter-familial relations, AD was charting the squirmingly awkward flirtations of George Michael (Michael Cera) and his cousin Maeby (Alia Shawkat), and putting lines like this into Buster’s mouth: “Sister’s my new mother. And is it just me or is she looking hotter?”
Prison is a home-from-home for the family, largely because George Sr spends most of his time there, on charges of fraud, theft and ‘light treason’. George’s jail also houses one the show’s finest recurring characters, Warden Gentiles (James Lipton) – a wannabe screenwriter who gets children to act out his gritty scripts.
K. Korean sibling
Namely, Annyong Bluth, the family’s adopted Korean son, who gleefully challenges Buster for his mother Lucille’s affection. Happily, this Oedipal duel will continue into the new episodes: “That rivalry [with Annyong] will never disappear because it hurts Buster so deeply,” chuckles Hale.
The acerbic, cocktail-swigging Bluth matriarch (played by Jessica Walters) is perhaps best summed up by this statement to her son Michael, delivered during a stint in rehab in Season 2: “I’ve been drinking since before you were born. So if alcohol is the reason I’m here, then I got news for you, bub: it’s the reason you’re here too.”
As soon as the show ended, rumours began circulating about a big-screen adaptation. Cross claims: “Mitch [Hurwitz, the show’s creator] wrote [the new episodes] with a view to a movie that begins where this series ends.” Tambor adds: “Scheduling will be a bitch, but we’ll get it done.”
“Those last weeks at Fox were like being with a girl who doesn’t get you,” recalls Tambor. Netflix, however, definitely gets AD. “Mitch constructed the new series with the Netflix format in mind,” says Hale. Each episode is from a different character’s perspective – so “it’s like a puzzle; since you have all the episodes at once, you can go back and find things you missed”.
Devotees will be pleased to learn that George Sr’s weed-addled twin brother Oscar (Tambor in a wig) will also return for the new season. “Oscar’s more innocent than George,” says Tambor. “When I’m playing him, I think of Tony Hale’s performance as Buster Bluth.”
Fox may not have appreciated AD’s, brilliance, but writers did, and many trademarks (‘reality TV’ premise, slick meta-humour, oddball ensemble) are now evident in sitcoms. “The most obvious is Modern Family,” says Cross, “but Community also shares that wink-to-the-camera, ‘Quick, rewind that!’ thing that we have.”
Q. Queen Mary
The last time we saw the Bluths, at the end of Season 3, they were fleeing financial ruin on their ship, the Queen Mary. As Season 4 begins, “the whole family is in even deeper doo-doo,” says Tambor.
R. Running jokes
Far too many to mention here, so we’ll focus on our favourites. There’s Tobias’s relentless stream of innuendo (upon painting his body for a stint as the Blue Man Group's understudy, he announces, “I just blue myself!”) And there’s the ‘chicken dance’. Words, or for that matter jumbled consonants, won’t do this one justice; you’ll have to YouTube it.
Just as James Joyce loved silly puns and Jonathan Swift had a thing for fart jokes, AD counterweights its intelligence with a healthy dose of people falling on their backsides. As the accident-prone Tobias, David Cross performs the finest pratfalls since Buster Keaton, and Tambor admits to laughing “so hard people thought something was wrong with me” during a scene in which Gob is Tasered to the ground.
Aspiring actor, failed psychiatrist, practising ‘never-nude’ (a condition that means he must wear denim cut-offs at all times): Dr Tobias Fünke is one of the greatest sitcom characters of all time. Arguably his finest moment comes when Michael asks him why his marriage is floundering. His nonsensical response: “I don’t want to blame it all on 9/11, but it certainly didn’t help.”
The instrument that will officially bring an end to a six-year wait, when the first strains of that plinky-plonk theme tune ring out and narrator Ron Howard announces: “It’s Arrested Development.” Bonus trivia: the theme is written by the same guy who scored Deadwood.
From Gob’s ludicrous Segway to Michael’s unwieldy aeroplane stair car, the show’s vehicles have become almost as iconic as its characters.
“I had to drive that stair car for real,” Tambor says. “Pretty top-heavy. Steering was tough.”
W. Carl Weathers
Despite the wealth of big-screen talent that has popped up in the show, no AD cameo is as deliciously weird as actor Carl Weathers, playing a skinflint version of himself, spouting such nuggets as: “You take that bone home, throw it in a pot, add some broth and a potato – baby, you got a stew going!”
X. X-rated gags
Special mention must go to the moment, in Season 1, when we discover that Tobias has fused the professions of analyst and therapist to become the first ever card-carrying ‘Analrapist’. “We got the business cards printed,” laughs Cross. “I don’t carry them on my person.”
Y. Yellow Boat
This thinly veiled take on 'Yellow Submarine' is one of many songs that soundtrack the AD universe. Others include ‘It Ain’t Easy Being White’ – a socio-political duet between Gob and his ‘black’ hand puppet, Franklin – and Teamocil – a folky number from the Fünkes to advertise a side-effect-heavy ‘wellness’ drug.
Z. Barry Zuckerkorn
Henry ‘The Fonz’ Winkler plays the Bluths’ lawyer, Barry: a relentlessly ineffectual kerb-crawler whose case research is usually limited to Ask Jeeves. Sample quote: “Sorry I’m so late. I had another hearing. Here’s the good news, I think I’m going to get off.” That he once jumped over a shark like his Happy Days alter ego tells you everything you need to know about Arrested Development’s brand of silly and subversive meta-comedy.