How Arrested Development Became A Cult Classic

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Since it first aired in 2003, Arrested Development has earned itself a cult following. With Season 5, that fanbase will only grow.

Arrested Development has a curious history. Between 2003 and 2006, the comedy’s first three seasons aired on Fox. And then it was cancelled. Seven years later in 2013 (if that maths is incorrect I totally understand if you stop reading), the series was granted a fourth season by our Lord and Saviour Netflix (amen). It was met with vocal ambivalence. Then, after another five years (2018 go maths), season five graces Netflix.

So the trend of Arrested Development is, let’s just say, inconsistent. It’s comparable to my spotty relationship with gym. That is if gym wasn’t me struggling to maintain fitness motivation and was instead a hugely popular TV series.

And Arrested Development is hugely popular. It’s the kind of show that, if you were to bump into a stranger at a party who was also a fan, your conversation would be fuelled for hours. When the long-awaited Season 4 arrived on Netflix, statistics revealed that in its first weekend, it received double the amount of streams than Netflix’s previous original, House of Cards. Ten percent of people even watched the entire fifteen episodes before the opening weekend finished!

So with its patchy history, how did Arrested Development become such a cult hit?

The Fox Seasons and Why They Were So Good

what makes arrested development so good
The good ol’ days. Source: Fox.

The first three seasons of Arrested Development are fantastic. No true Arrested Development fan (I don’t know what an untrue fan is but the point stands) would put Season 4 in the same category: This is authentic AD.
Creator Mitchell Hurwitz packs each episode with comedic voltage, and each scene the same. The plots are absurd yet believable. And the cast is one of the best I’ve ever seen.
Seriously, each member of the Bluth family could have its own spin-off (Tobias first please). They are all vivid, enthralling, and unique.
There’s Michael (Jason Bateman), the straight, sane member of the family, and his son George Michael (Michael Cera… woo) who is similar. But from then on, everyone is just… mad.
There are Michael’s siblings. Gob (Will Arnett) is a magician who has been kicked out of his own alliance of magicians for revealing the workings of his illusions. Buster (Tony Hale) is a mummy’s boy (understatement) prone to panic attacks. Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) is the very spoilt sister whose passions twitch between whatever will aid her ego.
Tobias Fünke (David Cross) is Lindsay’s ‘I’m-rebelling-against-my-parents’ choice of husband. After administering CPR on a sleeping stranger, Tobias loses his psychology license, redefining himself as an actor. I’ll just leave this here.

Lindsay and Tobias’ only child is Maeby, who is often completely forgotten about by her parents, leaving her with a confronting amount of maturity.
And then there are the parents. Lucille (Jessica Walter), mother, alcoholic, exact clone of Walter’s Malory Archer in Archer. And George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), the massively corrupt real estate developer who causes most the family’s troubles.
But it’s the cast as an ensemble that makes Arrested Development so great. The interactions between the family members are truly hilarious, but they also possess something intangible that reels you seductively into their dysfunctionality, as if you’re watching something you shouldn’t. Check out this little gem, featuring the omniscient narration of Ron Howard (who is also the show’s Executive Producer).
Ultimately, it is the comedy that makes Arrested Development so good. Sometimes a little risque (the show definitely has more incest jokes than average), Arrested Development stands out for being absurd and outlandish.
It’s just really funny, okay?

The Cancelation

The first three seasons of Arrested Development earned widespread critical acclaim, boasting a number of Emmy and Golden Globe awards.
Yet in 2006, after receiving low viewership on Fox, Arrested Development was cancelled.
There were offers to move the show elsewhere. Yet Hurwitz admitted that a few of the actors were ready to move on, and he didn’t want to just create more episodes to appease hungry fans: “I was more worried about letting down the fans in terms of the quality of the show dropping.”
The cancellation helped foster the show’s cult reputation.
There is a certain enigma to the cancellation of shows. In Arrested Development’s case, enigma was coupled with the belief that Fox (and maybe many of Fox’s viewers) were stupid (no offence Fox and Fox viewers).
Because as I said, Arrested Development was not only great, it was deemed great by the critics. So perhaps the hardcore group of fans the series had amassed felt a little like how you feel when your favourite musician isn’t appreciated by the mainstream: protective, and as if you have better taste than the rest of earth.
What’s left is a sub-culture of admirers.
DVD’s were purchased. Fan-made Arrested Development-dedicated websites were popping up all over the interwebs. And the growing cult following strapped themselves in to the hope of a fourth season.

Season 4 and Growing the Fanbase

job arrested development
The master illusionist. Source: Netflix.
Naturally, when the fourth season finally arrived, existing fans were over the moon.
Yet that enthusiasm didn’t last long. While much of the cast were near-unknowns for the first three seasons, by the time Netflix resuscitated the series, the actors had hit the A-list. From starring in movies to starring in TV series to starring in the Blue Man Group, getting the band back together for a new season proved a logistical nightmare.
As a result, the show’s creators settled on crafting a massively interwoven storyline, where each episode would centre around one particular character.
This caused the loss of a huge part of what made Arrested Development so great: the family ensemble I discussed earlier.
But for many, Season 4 served not as an end point, but as an entrance into the brilliant previous seasons and the wonderful world of the Bluth family.
It’s hardly like Arrested Development Season 4 sucks. In comparison to most the crap on TV these days (grr I’m an old man get off my lawn etc etc), it’s positively excellent. The writing is still sharp, the actors are still fantastic, and the jokes still make you laugh out loud (or ‘LOL’, as I believe the kids are saying). No existing fans would boycott the Netflix revival, they’d just say it doesn’t compare to what came before it.
And there’s something to say for the instant streaming, no ad break nature of Netflix. One of my Arrested Development friends and I (also just known as ‘friends’) were discussing how Fox’s ad breaks would have impaired the show’s rhythm.
Arrested Development is a comedy that doesn’t have time to breathe, so creating that time would only hamper its quality. In Netflix, just like the DVD’s of diehard fans, Arrested Development found a suitable home.

All the Right Ingredients For a Cult Classic

arrested development is so good
This show has me hooked. Sorry, the writers do puns better I promise. Source: Pinterest.

I hate to be that guy, but the Cambridge dictionary defines cult (in the non-Scientology sense) as “a thing that is popular or fashionable among a particular group or section of society.”
It’s worth highlighting this, because even though I’ve made it sound like it’s the greatest bit of television ever created, some people really don’t like Arrested Development. Actually, quite a lot of people. This was made glaringly obvious by the Fox ratings, yet Netflix hasn’t changed that. I’ve had so many conversations with people who used to be my friends, where they simply shrug and say, “I just don’t get it.”
I’m sure that partially comes from the show’s weirdness. Plot points like Buster losing his hand and replacing it with an interchangeable hook are, well, strange. They’re hilarious, but strange, and you’re unlikely to find gags quite like it in your average sit-com.
Fans of the show find this hilarious. But comedy is subjective, and I guess some people just incorrectly think the comedy of Arrested Development isn’t comedic.
That in itself helps shape a cult following, with fans defining themselves against those who don’t enjoy the show. Division hardens admiration.
It is also important to consider Arrested Development in the context of its release. Arrested Development isn’t just unique because it has unique characters and a unique plot. Its entire structure is new.
Up until the early 2000s, every TV comedy featured canned laughter. This had an underestimated influence on these shows’ writing. Dialogue and jokes were constructed around the fake laughs, rather than the humour being slipped naturally into conversation. Check out this clip from Friends without the laugh track. The first time I watch this it blue my mind.

Arrested Development was one of the first American sit-coms to ditch the laugh track. Other laughless shows of the same time included Curb Your EnthusiasmThe Office (US) and ScrubsYou’ll notice each of these arguably have cult reputations too.

The consequence of not relying on a laugh track challenges the writer to make jokes that can stand in isolation. Put simply, the show needs to be authentically funny.

And when watching Arrested Development, you can almost feel Hurwitz playing with that. The humour is absurd and original, even spasmodically dipping into slapstick. It’s relentless, and in ways it’s revolutionary. The influence of this style of writing on newer shows like Community and Brooklyn Nine-Nine is blatant.

The nature of the show’s writing also lends itself to being watched over and over and over again – a prerequisite for a cult hit. You could watch Arrested Development ten times, and each time you’d pick up something new.

There are a few reasons for this. A large part is the series’ use of running gags. Jokes that begin in Season 1 could re-emerge seasons later. The jokes work by themselves, but when you recognise them as part of their bigger picture, the pay off is huge.

Yet the joke-writing is also deeply layered. Arrested Development uses puns like I’ve never seen. Consider that earlier example of Buster and his hook hand. Entering the ocean, Buster’s hand is bitten off by a ‘loose seal’. Loose seal. Looseal. Lucille. It’s a subtle but not-so-subtle joke about Buster’s mummy issues/obsession.

Arrested Development is littered with hidden gags and foreshadowings like these. Fans get a thrill out of watching them all unravel. Again, this would have have been challenging on Fox, yet perfect for the on-demand Netflix.

Oh, and George Michael is also Michael Cera’s breakout role, and that dude’s got his own cult following. CULT FOLLOWINGS UNITE.

A Show That Will Only Grow In Popularity

For so many reasons, Arrested Development is a great show. And those reasons have hooked itself a dedicated and admiring fanbase.

With Season 5 being released, that small cult following that championed Arrested Development in the wake of cancellation will only get bigger. And rightfully so. Arrested Development truly is one of the funniest TV comedies ever.

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