I’ve probably watched Arrested Development more than any other TV series — I’ve seen the whole thing at least eight times. AD is a show that rewards rewatching, even extreme rewatching. No other show I know of — comedy or drama — builds such a consistent, intricate, layered world. Callbacks are common in comedy, but AD had a mix of foreshadowing, echoes, and parallelism that must have strained the limits of the writers’ room whiteboards. Such attention to detail is rare, and it means I’ll probably watch the show eight more times before getting bored.
In three seasons — I’ve Jedi mind-tricked myself into believing the fourth season did not happen — Mitch Hurwitz and company created a center-and-eccentrics comedy that took “my family is crazy” humor to the furthest reaches of the cosmos. Though famously underwatched and supposedly unrelatable, how can you not relate to being as exasperated with your family as Michael Bluth? Maybe your father never built houses for Saddam Hussein, and your brother-in-law never thought the Blue Men were just sad, and your son isn’t in love with his cousin, but if you haven’t been driven stark raving bonkers by your family, I don’t think you have a family.
While the humor of AD is mostly based on character and repetition, there were some brilliant lines. After Buster has a bandaged head, thanks to jumping through a window to avoid his mother, you have to love the insanity of his explanation: “Gob was just teaching me how to hit it with a hammer.” Sadly, you can imagine Gob imparting this lesson to befuddled man-baby Buster. I had to pull out my notebook when George Sr. — speaking to employee Gilligan, who Gob is ineptly trying to frame at a bachelor party — deadpanned these ominous words: “Come on! Have a drink. There’s some stuff coming up you might not be able to handle sober.”
The show was also wonderfully filthy — and cleverly so. Tobias nicely covers up a one-syllable insult to his wife by stretching it into “country music loving lady.” One of my favorite dirty bits was when innocent rube George Michael is filling in for Kitty, the Bluth Co. secretary who was sleeping with George Sr. It takes a minute to register just what happened when George Michael, phone in hand, asks, “Talk you off what, Pop-Pop?” George Sr.’s follow up — “When’s that voice gonna drop?” — is a noble attempt to mask the horror of accidentally trying to have phone sex with your grandson. We’ve all been there.
Picking a best anything for this show is a fool’s errand, but I guess I’m that fool. “I’ve made a huge mistake” is probably the best catchphrase, since it has the most versatility, though I do love the one-off lines Steve Holt spouts while training with Uncle Mike, like “No blood, no oil!” Best guest star has to be Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Between her immortal roles as Elaine Benes and Selina Meyer, she played Maggie Lizer: a devious lawyer who pretends to be blind, then pregnant, while constantly ending up in bed with Michael Bluth.
But for AD, I think the most appropriate award would be Best Running Gag, because this show ran on runners. One of my favorites is George Bluth’s relationship with dolls and puppets. When George is hiding out in the model home’s attic, he gets a little squirrely from the isolation. Along with an old breast pump, George finds some dolls that he plays cards with and disturbingly asks, “Who wants to take their top off?” One of the best nods to George’s doll-appreciating ways is when Gob comes to visit: George hardly acknowledges his loser magician son. But when he sees Franklin, George’s whole face lights up: “Hey Franklin!” Unfortunately, Gob has placed ether on Franklin’s lips to knock George out. I’m not sure if this running gag is meant to say that George treats real people as puppets, so he treats puppets as real people, or if it’s pure absurdity meant to highlight George cracking under the pressures of being an isolated fugitive (much like his fleeting turns toward religion). Either way, it’s a glorious bit of comedic business.
But Arrested Development’s Best Running Gag has to be… Buster’s odd-shaped penis.
Nah. But it does involve Buster: one-armed madness.
When Buster’s hand was eaten by a seal, this set the table for delirious physical comedy, often involving Buster shrieking “I’m a monster!” or being treated like a monster by his awful relatives. But before Buster’s hand was eaten, this seal meal was foreshadowed in episodes involving Buster’s hand chair and Michael’s childhood role as the lawyer of Captain Hook. Post-seal-attack jokes also play on the show’s history, such as Buster’s unwanted massages that are now deadly when he forgets he has a goddamn hook on his arm. And the fact that a “loose seal” bit off his hand, becoming the third Lucille in the series to victimize Buster (after his mother and his mother-like girlfriend) is just astounding. This show couldn’t have just had a bible: it needed an encyclopedia.
The losing of a hand is also echoed in George Sr.’s favorite parental technique: teaching elaborate, theatrical lessons, usually involving a one-armed henchgoon named J. Walter Weatherman. Whatever the lesson, it would always end with an accident involving Weatherman, whose fake arm would fly off, terrifying the children. I don’t think it’s a stretch that George Michael’s embarrassing Star Wars video is another nod to lost hands, given the frequency of severed appendages in that world. I’m sure I’m missing three or four other one-handed references, but that’s why I’ll rewatch. TV shows like The Wire are often called novelistic, but that pretentious term applies even more to a show like Arrested Development, which achieves a level of detail that would make most novelists jealous.
Making a running-joke diagram of this show could keep a visual artist busy for months, but all that complexity wouldn’t be worth a damn if the show didn’t bring the laughs. It’s a huge achievement to make a show this funny; it’s another huge achievement to make a show this complicated. Doing both at once? That’s as unlikely as using the Cornballer without burning your hand.