The Wild, Unlikely Return of ‘Arrested Development’
When Arrested Development was put out of its ratings misery after just three seasons in early 2006, only the most fevered superfan could ever imagine it coming back. Despite critical acclaim and a slew of Emmys, the Fox sitcom — about a wealthy, narcissistic family that lost all its money when the patriarch was busted for financial misdeeds — was so unpopular it was crushed in the Nielsen race by long-forgotten shows like Skating With Celebrities and The Apprentice: Martha Stewart.
There’s never been a show like Arrested Development. It was so dense with jokes, visual gags and freak-show characters, it pioneered series like 30 Rock while making them look as tame as Everybody Loves Raymond. Even as it failed commercially, it boosted the careers of Jason Bateman (who starred as put-upon dad Michael Bluth), Michael Cera (son George Michael) and Will Arnett (scheming magician Gob Bluth). “It wasn’t built for a mass audience,” says Bateman. “[Creator] Mitch Hurwitz has a healthy indifference to anyone who would prefer some other entertainment.”
After Fox dumped the final four episodes on a Friday night in February, that should have been it. But then something bizarre began happening. DVD sales for the endlessly rewatchable series took off, fans began finding one another online, and Netflix started streaming old episodes — creating an entire new generation of fans. Suddenly, Arrested Development was the coolest, craziest sitcom of all time. “It was kind of like Jim Morrison dying at 27,” says Brian Grazer, an executive producer of the show with Ron Howard (who is also the narrator). “You get more respect that way.”
Hurwitz, 50, is a sitcom vet — he earned his chops writing for series including The Golden Girls, The John Larroquette Show and The Ellen Show. “The secret of Arrested Development is that many of the writers came from sitcoms,” he says. “And none of us wanted to do another single-camera sitcom.” After Arrested Development was canceled, he worked on a handful of new shows — including the Will Arnett vehicle Running Wilde — but none of them lasted more than a season.
At the same time, he was making plans to resuscitate Arrested Development. His first thought was a movie, but he realized that he couldn’t possibly update the audience on all nine characters and move the story forward within the confines of a 90-minute film. “I met with Ron Howard and asked him if there was any way to turn it into a trilogy,” says Hurwitz. “He’s such a good guy, but he said, ‘I think it might be hard enough to get one movie made.’ Then I realized I had to create a whole new season of the show to serve as Act One of a movie.”
Netflix, which had begun experimenting with original programs like Lilyhammer and House of Cards, made a deal to host the new season online. The bigger challenge was coordinating the schedules for all nine actors, who had moved on to bigger projects. “I wasn’t going to be able to get them for an eight-month period,” says Hurwitz. “Then I came up with the idea of an anthology show where each episode focuses on a different character.”
With Netflix, obviously, TV ratings will not be a factor. “When the show was first on the air, it was on a Sunday night, and by Monday morning Jason and I would be in his trailer and he’d be explaining to me what the ratings were,” says Arnett. “We’d be like, ‘Fuck! This is it, we’re fucking canceled.’ And then I think, much to the chagrin of the network, we won best-comedy Emmy, and they were like, ‘Ugh, crap! Now we can’t cancel that low-rated show. Yet.'”
Fox tried to get Hurwitz to tone down the wackiness. “There was even talk at one point that they wouldn’t pick it up unless I signed a contract saying I would simplify it by something like 40 percent,” he says. “For whatever reason, I had the resolve to stick to my vision. I thought it was funny to, say, have this extra thread going on where Tobias is in a mole suit despite the fact we already have a guy with a jet pack on, to use an example of perhaps overkill.”
Nobody at Netflix pressured the writers to change anything — but there were new problems, chiefly that the actors weren’t all available at the same time. “Half the stuff is on green screen,” says Hurwitz. “There are scenes where two characters are talking to each other, and on one side it’s Jason Bateman in August, on the other side it’s Portia de Rossi [who plays his sister, Lindsay Bluth Fiinke] in November. It was crazy. Everybody had to say things like, ‘Wait, she hasn’t gone to the party yet, so she wouldn’t have her makeup on.’ It was nonstop.”