Shortly before Jason Bateman landed the lead role of Michael Bluth on Arrested Development in 2003, he seriously thought about moving away from Los Angeles and retiring as an actor. “Things were really tough for me,” he tells Rolling Stone. “Then this show came along and really hit the restart button for me.”
Prior to Arrested Development, Bateman was best remembered for the 1980s sitcom Valerie and the movie Teen Wolf Too. He had a difficult time in the 1990s, appearing on one failed sitcom after another. Then, after Arrested Development‘s cult success from 2003 to 2006 and cancellation, he wound up in a ton of hit movies: Juno, Up in the Air, Horrible Bosses and more. “I owe everything to Arrested Development,” he says. “It just shows that everybody is kind of a job away from having relevance again.”
Despite his busy movie schedule, Bateman still anchors the new, Netflix-only season of Arrested Development. We spoke with him about the show’s legacy and its unlikely return.
Why do you suppose Arrested Development failed to find a mass audience when it originally aired?
I think because it’s very, very specific. It’s not built for a mass audience. I think that shows that appeal to a mass audience are so homogenized and their goal, their mandate, is to appeal to a broad audience. So you have to really round all the edges, and this show actually does the opposite of that, and it does that in a way that’s not “too cool for school.”
[Series creator] Mitch Hurwitz just writes in a way that makes him laugh, and he has a healthy, I think, indifference to those who would like to be entertained by something else. He’s very, very friendly about that and encourages everybody to watch or not watch. But I think that those who do love it – which is admittedly not many people – who do appreciate the fact that it is specific and consistent and it doesn’t pander to more people than would serve the comedy. It’s certainly not at the expense of the comedy.
The characters are largely greedy and selfish, and even pretty horrible parents. Not a lot of shows are willing to have central characters like that.
Well, I wouldn’t say that. I mean, listen, we aren’t talking about Shakespeare here. It’s just a funny television show that some people love and some people hate. We’re just really, really fortunate that we get to come back together and make a few more episodes. It’s really a privilege.
There were rumors for so many years about the show returning. Did you ever have doubts that it would actually happen?
I didn’t. I was constantly in touch with the people that really could decide whether it was gonna happen or not. And I knew there was such a willingness and eagerness for us to get back together. The only component left was some sort of an economic flexibility and an instinct to compromise. Once this show stopped, there was a nice career for us afterwards. If we all sort of dug in our heels and said, “No, no. We want to be paid for this,” it just wouldn’t have happened. It wasn’t worth that. Everybody wanted to get back together, no matter what it took. I knew that early on, so it was just a matter of waiting for the right time.
How many weeks total did you work on the new show?
It was something like two or three. They shot the show for four or five months, but all my stuff was front-loaded because I had to go off and do something else. So even though I appear in every episode, all my stuff was done upfront and I was sort of sprinkled in. Often times I had no idea what the hell I was doing and how it was going to work with the scene before it or afterwards. I just had to ask Mitch, “What the hell am I talking about?”
Did they at least explain the overall plot of the season before you filmed?
Yeah. I was taken into the writers’ room. It looked a lot like a war room. There’s all these index cards all over the walls and pieces of string connecting one storyline to another. These guys did an incredible amount of work. They tried to explain it, but there was no way to fully explain it. I mean, it would take you three hours to explain one of the character’s storyline from the beginning of the episodes until the end.
That’s not even touching the movie. These episodes only represent act one. The movie will be act two and three. But the first act was so complicated that it takes you three hours to explain just one character, and there’s nine of them. So we were forced to just really focus on the one scene we were performing and just leave it up to Mitch to cut in a way that would make sense on the whole.
How do you measure success on a show where there’s no ratings?
That’s a great question. I was just talking about that earlier. The people at Netflix are extremely intelligent about the way they monitor activity on their platform. So they’ll have some data or metric. Whether they share it with us or the public is sort of irrelevant. But as long as they’re happy, that’s gonna be great because they were an amazing partner. They deserve to be happy, and if they’re happy, maybe they’ll ask us to do more of this stuff. We would gladly do it.
It’s amazing when you think back and realize this show was on before Facebook, Twitter, Netflix and all these things that could have helped save the show.
Yeah, and the other thing we missed that actually could’ve tangibly saved us was this DVR ratings system where they can monitor if you record things and watch them a few days later. You actually get credit for that now. They were just starting to log all that data and share it with the public. I remember that our numbers were extremely high with that.
I think people realized that because the show was so dense, it was better to record it and play it back at your own speed. They may have also liked to wait until three were on, and then gobble them all in a row. Some people would just wait for the DVDs to come out and watch them all in a row. This type of release is obviously right for us. Hopefully that will be appreciated.
What’s happened to your character in the ensuing years?
Well, things have not gone well. He’s kind of down on his luck and his son has gone off to college, so he’s a little lonely. He’s just kind of banged up and he’s trying to get his feet back under him and have a healthy relationship with his family and not be angry with them, but just love them without judgment. He’s strapped with a very traditional familial obligation. I’m sure that Michael Bluth wishes he could be a little more indifferent to them and their presence in his life, but he’s stuck with them and he’s going to try and do the right thing.
Is the family still struggling financially?
Oh yeah. Any sort of solvent version of the Bluth family, either financially or emotionally or spiritually, would not be very interesting.
Do you encourage the fans to just mainline the shows and watch them all at once? Should they do it one way? What’s your ideal diet for taking them in?
My plan is that I’m gonna watch four a day. People are going to realize pretty quickly, probably after two or three episodes, that each episode has to do with all the other episodes. That’s not just in relation to the next episode, but all the other episodes because there’s not a progression from one episode to the next. All of the action in all the episodes happens simultaneously. There’s a lot of cross-pollination with actors and scenes. Certain scenes appear in multiple episodes, but just shot from a different angle.
There’s a participation as a viewer that you can only really do on Netflix that people are going to want to take advantage of. It’s going to put people in front of their computer or television a lot longer than they thought they were going to spend once they realize how the whole thing is formatted.
Do you think the show benefited from leaving the air so early, that you essentially left a beautiful corpse? I mean, so many shows stay on way too long and it ruins the legacy.
I think we probably would have screwed it up pretty soon. Yeah, in hindsight, it was the perfect time to leave. At the time, we would have all loved to have it keep going because we loved doing it, but it was embraced by the people in Hollywood and so we were very fortunate to continue getting hired to work in this town. That was very, very fortunate. Now we get to come back and do more episodes anyway. So we’ll see what happens. We’ll try not to wear out our welcome this time, either. We’ll keep an eye on the chatter.
Do you think a movie is very likely by this point?
I think it’s highly likely that act two and act three will be delivered to the public. In what format, in what medium, remains to be seen. That’s going to be decided by people smarter and more powerful than me, but you could do a whole lot worse than having Netflix be your partner in perpetuity. They’ve been amazing to us and specifically to Mitch in giving him the kind of creative freedom and autonomy that you need to deliver something this specific.
It must have been a real trip to walk back onto that set after all those years.
Yeah, and it felt great to go back and pay your respect to something that gave you a second chance. As we talked about, my career was not just benefited by this show, it was resuscitated. To be able to go back and play a part that I love and do it with people that I love and material that I love. . . It was just an absolute dream. I look forward to doing many, many more episodes or efforts, I guess. I don’t know whether they’re gonna be long form or short form, whatever. I’m looking forward to playing Michael Bluth many, many more times.