During its three-season run on Fox, Arrested Development greatest strength and ultimate downfall was that there was nothing else quite like it. Its deft wordplay and layered plotting helped galvanize its devoted fans, but those things also meant that lots of people didn't get it.
This Sunday, the show is returning with 15 new episodes debuting simultaneously on Netflix. It's been more than seven years since Arrested Development ended its broadcast run, but the most important element that made Mitchell Hurwitz's celebrated creation unique back then has continued to be rare—the fact that it's a comedy solely concerned with being funny.
Arrested Development spent its first 53 episodes working very hard at being hilarious, through everything from bizarre misunderstandings—a close-up of testicles is mistaken for a picture of Iraqi terrain, for example—to infuriatingly clever puns, like the title of that episode, "Sad Sack." While it had a memorable cast and dense storylines, they were all there in service of the jokes, rather than attempting to hook the audience with relationship drama or juicy plot threads, simply because it never took any of those concepts seriously.
It seems appropriate that Arrested Development is returning the same month that How I Met Your Mother finally unveiled the titular maternal parent after eight full seasons, and just a little more than a week after the teary series finale of The Office. Both of those shows overlapped with Arrested Development's time on air, and represent the shape of most sitcoms in the interim period before its return: Funny, yes, but also asking the viewers to invest emotionally in their characters and their sometimes very dramatic situations.
That's not a bad thing. Both HIMYM and The Office have managed some genuinely poignant moments over their long runs. But Arrested Development is enduringly refreshing since it wasn't concerned with that. One of the biggest reveals in the show's history was that the mysterious "Mr. F" was actually an acronym for "Mentally Retarded Female," and it's a safe bet that none of the 15 new episodes include the characters reflecting about how much they like one another, as The Office finale did.
In the second season of Arrested Development, youngest son Buster Bluth gets his hand bitten off by a loose seal—wacky, yes, but also arguably one of the most severe things a sitcom has ever done to a main character. Yet the question wasn't, "How will this character we've grown to know deal with such a devastating setback?" It was, "What kinds of great gags will we get from this?" (And the show absolutely delivered, with Buster's signature back rubs becoming even more unwelcome.)
Even on something as light as The Big Bang Theory, a character losing a hand would be horrifying. In Arrested Development, it only raised the comedic stakes.
The delightful second season of New Girl won over many of its adorkable-phobic critics, and while it was frequently hilarious, it got the most attention for the burgeoning relationship between roommates Jess and Nick. The closest thing that Arrested Development had to a "will they or won't they" was between two underaged cousins, a relationship built for uproarious awkwardness rather than sappy YouTube montages. Even 30 Rock, Arrested Development's spiritual successor in many ways, ended things on an earnest note, with Liz Lemon finally starting a family.
Arrested Development is far from the first show to be so joke-centric. Seinfeld is a prime example of this approach, as it famously had no use for morals or melodrama. Plenty of cable shows are in a similar category—like Seinfeld offspring Curb Your Enthusiasm, and FX's It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia and The League—but tend to play out more like madcap live-action cartoons compared to the complex mythology of Arrested Development.
Seinfeld and its ilk set things up and pay them off to great effect at the end of an episode, but Arrested Development admirably took things even further, stretching out jokes over whole seasons and beyond ("Annyong"), and rewarding repeat viewings with foreshadow-y jokes and subtle callbacks. It bent the rules of the insane world it inhabited, but it never truly exploited them. (See: "Saddlesore Galactica," the infamous 2000 Simpsons episode that revealed that jockeys are secretly murderous elves.)
Though little has been released to the public of Season Four so far—a quick trailer and a short scene between Buster and his boozy mother, Lucille—it looks very consistent with what has come before, which is likely exactly what the majority of its audience wants. Fans aren't wondering what's going to happen to the characters or whether or not they'll get a dramatically satisfying conclusion, they're wondering how funny it will be. Rather than encouraging Breaking Bad-esque marathons, Hurwitz has already advised fans to take their time with the new episodes, telling Vulture, "Don't feel obligated to watch it all at once. It's a comedy! It's not like Lord of the Rings. Comedy takes a lot out of you."
While Arrested Development wasn't a hit in its lifetime, it's surprising that networks haven't tried to borrow more from its formula. Its ratings, while considered abysmal back in 2003-2006, would actually be decent-ish by today's standards, and the show has only become more popular as viewers have discovered it through DVD and Netflix. Heart-on-sleeve sitcoms like Go On and The New Normal didn't work out this past season, though NBC's replacing them with upcoming fare that appears to be of a similar tone, like About a Boy and The Michael J. Fox Show.
Arrested Development wasn't a one-dimensional catchphrase-factory—if it was, it wouldn't have been nearly as embraced or remembered as fondly. And that's maybe its greatest accomplishment: It made you care about a family that could have been thoroughly unlikeable, but it didn't achieve that through the usual means. George Michael and Maeby's potentially incestuous relationship may not have been something audiences rooted for in a traditional sense, but it had its own twisted sweetness to it, and as a result felt more earned than something more calculated to tug at heartstrings. When Gob showed his brother, Michael, that he really cared, it was through a singing, racist puppet. Such was the power of Arrested Development's multifaceted approach to humor: It not only furthered the plot and fueled the characters, it also conveyed a subtle sincerity without being maudlin.
As fans who discovered the show post-cancellation know, Arrested Development has aged very well. Sure, major plotlines in the first three seasons revolve around Saddam Hussein and the Iraq War, but they're presented in such an absurd way that they might as well not have been real things. If these new episodes embrace what always worked about the show, its considerable legacy will remain intact.