'Arrested Development' Creator Mitch Hurwitz on His Two-Year Odyssey to Revive the Show

'This new season is definitely part of a bigger story'

Mitch Hurwitz with the cast of 'Arrested Development' in New York City
Neilson Barnard/Getty Images for The New Yorker
May 20, 2013 6:00 AM ET

Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz is a very, very tired man. For the past two years he's been working like a dog to pull off the impossible: bringing back a television series that was cancelled seven years go due to pathetically low ratings. If that wasn't ambitious enough, he's also writing an Arrested Development movie that picks up where the new season (premiering on Netflix on May 26th) finishes up. It's proven to be a monumental task, and he took 40 minutes away from his busy schedule to explain in great detail how everything came together.

Where are you calling from?
I just snuck away from the mix stage. We've been pulling 18-hour days trying to finish off the episodes.

There's actually a frozen banana stand right outside our office in New York right now. It's causing absolute chaos!
You're kidding! I mean, it's not a big deal because it's just promotion, but it's still kind of amazing to me. I can't believe that anybody gives a shit.

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The line is full of young people. Most of them probably didn't even watch the show when it first aired.
Probably not. It's kind of happenstance. There's really two ways to look at it. The show just happened to coincide with this new way for people to get media. When we were on the air, there was very little DVR. The first year, we weren't even sure if they would let us have DVDs. Back then they would only give those to hit shows. It was the combination of that and the audacity to put so much into those shows. It's a disposable media, writing in general. But writing for television is like writing for the newspaper. Unless you have a hit, it's gone tomorrow.

I was just watching the "Save Our Bluths" episode from the third season. I was thinking that would make the perfect hashtag, but there wasn't even Twitter yet.
It didn't exist. They didn't even account for the ratings of the shows on college campuses. I do think that we were getting traction on college campuses, but Nielsen didn't include them back then.

It's funny we're talking about 2003 like it was ancient history.
I know. We happen to be alive in this crazy time when everything is changing so quickly. Our children have no understanding of, "Oh yeah, I remember when eBay started." It just doesn't even make any sense to them.

How frustrated did you get during the original run of Arrested Development that the show was getting so much acclaim, but the ratings were in the toilet?
There were definitely times of frustration because the lack of ratings meant lack of other support, too. Not getting an audience meant there was a lot of struggle to change the show in fundamental ways. So, in that sense, it was frustrating.

I remember thinking, "All right, I've got Ron Howard leading this charge. I don't know if I'm ever going to have this opportunity again, where I have a heavy hitter on my team that's not the star of the show." It was like writing a novel or something. You're not really thinking, "Boy, I hope this is a giant, giant hit." You're thinking, "OK, I'm writing this novel now, and I've got to put everything I have in it. That's the opportunity I have."

Did Fox pressure you to make the show more palatable to a mainstream audience?
[Laughs] Yeah. Yes.

What changes did they want?
There was talk at one point that they wouldn't sign up unless I signed a contract to simplify it by a percentage point. I forget the number. It was, like, a 30 percent or 40 percent simplification.

By doing what, exactly?
Well, that was my point. I was like, "I'm doing this in hopes of making the audience laugh. I'm not doing this to be arcane." This was after the era of Seinfeld. That was such a phenomenon and such a favorite show of so many people, myself included. I wanted to do one of those. Whenever somebody tries to put their own voice out there, it is to be expected that there's going to be some push-back. That's just part of the deal. That's part of the cause and effect of the universe. I never took it too personally.

For whatever reason, I did have that resolve of, "No, no, no. I've got to stick to this vision." That sounds a little artsy, but it really was because I thought it would get laughs. After all is said and done, that's what it all came down to. I think it's funnier to have this extra thread going down with Tobias where he's in a mole suit, despite the fact that we already have a guy in a jet pack, to use an example of perhaps overkill.

So the show gets canceled. They tear down the sets and you walk off the lot. At that point did you think you were done with these characters forever, or even then did you see a future for Arrested Development?
I really did. I mean, at that point it had been such a battle and it had gotten very, very difficult. It was a great fortune to have gotten this gorgeous, Academy Award-winning actress, Charlize Theron, to star in six episodes. You just don't get that on a weekly TV show, and certainly not one with low ratings like that. I was like, "OK, they aren't going to be able to ignore this." And they ignored it. There was not a single ad. I was so embarrassed for her.

They also had no Emmy campaign, because the last thing they wanted in that third season was to win another Emmy. It was getting to a situation where they wanted to cancel the thing. It was not a money-maker for them. It had gotten very frustrating, since we'd done this really labored work of hiding the true nature of Charlize's character. It was six episodes where the audience thinks one thing and the character thinks another thing, and the truth is this third thing. They all had to make sense and they all have to be funny, and they aired two in August and three of those in January. It did start feeling a little thankless.

When the show was canceled, I knew I wanted to do more. I love these people. It's no more thinking you're done with your family forever after going off to college . . . This never felt like an average job to me. There was so much laughter and so much friendship. At the time, Ron didn't think it was a movie, and he was right. When you get a show canceled, it's hard to imagine how you're going to get a movie studio to put money into it.

It was a really a successful, sneaky thing to have Ron say at the end of the show that maybe it was a movie. That was more of an accident, but I really wanted to make it as a movie at that point. I just really wanted to get my foot in the door and have a really successful director say it. He wasn't really on board, but then a couple of years later it started snowballing, and he did start to think it might be a movie. By then I was doing a number of things, and it was too time-consuming to do it. It wasn't until December of 2011 that I started to really work out the movie. I realized, "Wow, it almost calls for a new form."

Prior to that, did you give much thought to the characters' fates after the third season?
I would say that anybody who works in television tends to collect information from their life to apply towards their television characters. That's the difference between television and movies, in a way, unless you're talking about James Bond or something. It's so much more focused on character than story. So, as somebody who likes comedy and looks for funny things in life, I would often think, "Oh, that would be funny if it happened to Gob." 

The characters weren't right in front of me, so the ideas would be a little bigger sometimes. I like to take risks when I won't be accountable for them. That's how Buster lost his arm. I was writing an email saying, "Hey, this season we should really try to do things that are completely unexpected. Bad example: Buster gets his arm bitten off." It really was, like, I would never do that in a million years. Just a bad example, and sometimes you get the best idea from that kind of stuff.

Most shows aren't ballsy enough to do stuff to characters that's permanent.
I know. I really was reflecting on that. Like everybody else at that time, I had worked on sitcoms, and I was sick of sitcoms. It's never really what I had aspired to do, so there was a kind of shift in my mind. I was like, "OK, what are the opportunities here?"

I always thought the main lie of Arrested Development was that in the main title it says something like, "And now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything." Then they're sort of fine. They're not working at Burger King. They're living in a penthouse. [Laughs] No, they didn't lose everything. They're still people with regular lives.

I really tried to look at everything as freshly as I could, like losing the arm. I remember talking to Tony [Hale] about that. I was so excited. I was like, "Tony! I've got this great idea! You're gonna have your hand bitten off!" And he was really worried. His first instinct, like anybody's would be, was, "My hand? Well, how am I gonna do . . . No, no. Don't take my hand." I think it was my wife that said to him, "You're still gonna have your hand." She used to be an actress and she said, "Tony, it'll be more material." But it's hard to get your head around that.

You've said you first thought about Arrested Development returning as a movie. How did that morph into a full TV season?
Here's the short version, because this isn't a very interesting story. I was ready to kind of sit down and focus on the movie. I already knew the movie would take about a year and a half, and it probably wouldn't be a big paying gig. I knew how into it I'd become, so I was a little overwhelmed by the idea. I knew there would be a lot of work, not a lot of rewards, and the fans are going to be highly critical of it, and I only had three episodes of length to give them what they want.

It soon became clear to me that I had nine characters that the audience was going into the movie with some knowledge of – maybe a lot of knowledge. That was unusual. If you're going to do a James Bond movie, you have to address Moneypenny and that kind of thing, but you're not as interested as you are with a family. You're not like, "Hey, where has Moneypenny been? Is she still with that guy who works in exporting?"

I started thinking that one of the compelling attributes of the show will be, "Where have these people gone?" Now the story has changed from what happens next to what happened in the last six years, and what happens next? Also, because it was about a family and because the kids are getting older, all those things are suddenly interesting parts of the story, and more interesting in many ways than bringing the family to Hawaii, which somebody had done.

By the way, I had this great idea where they find this tiki [like on The Brady Bunch], but to do it as a dark drama. Maybe some Kiefer Sutherland drama and use that same plot and see if anybody notices. Maybe he's surfing at night when he hits his head . . .

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