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."
The actors filmed their scenes totally out of sequence. "It was very, very confusing," says Jessica Waiter, who plays the family matriarch, Lucille Bluth. "If there was a scene in the penthouse, they would try to get the scenes for many episodes to utilize the set. It was the most ambitious project I'd ever worked on. I flew back and forth to Los Angeles from New York 13 times. I now have Elite Platinum on American Airlines."
The cast members all agreed to work cheap to make the new season possible. "If we all dug our heels in and said, 'We want to be paid for this,' it never would have happened," says Bateman. "Everybody wanted to come back, no matter what it took."
The first episode, which features cameos from Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig, focuses on Michael, who's so broke he's living in son George Michael's dorm room at UC Irvine. There are brief scenes with his parents and brothers, and it's quite clear that the family didn't exactly become better people during the show's seven-year break. "There's no maturity," says Tony Hale, who plays Buster Bluth. "I think some people watch this show because it makes any family look amazing."
Because each episode is about a single character, fans get to see the same scenes from different perspectives in different episodes. "Often I had no idea what the hell I was doing," says Bateman. "I just had to ask Mitch, 'What am I talking about?'" Cera, who was involved with writing the new season, had a better idea of what was happening. "There's not a linear story," he says. "It sort of bounces all over, chronologically. Things overlap and things are revealed in very unconventional ways. Jokes will sometimes be revealed backward. You'll see the B side of a joke before you're even given the setup for it."
Even more than in the original series, fans will need to watch the episodes over and over to have any hope of catching all the jokes. "There are layers that I'm hoping people will take years to find," says Hurwitz. "I really, really loaded it up. There are things in here that set up a movie that hasn't even been made."
One thing that wasn't a problem for the actors was getting back into their characters. "There was something about hearing Jessica Walter's voice that made me click right back in," says Hale. "I heard her demeaning, abusive tone and thought about their co-dependent, ridiculously unhealthy relationship, and it was, like, Pavlovian."
The shoot lasted from August until this past February, with the entire cast on set at the same time for only two days. All 15 new episodes will appear on Netflix on May 26th at 12:01 a.m. PST, though less than two weeks earlier, Hurwitz was still pulling 18-hour days. "I'm racing toward the finish line," he says. "It's insane. The show has been tested in no way. I haven't even watched them back to back. Everyone has just seen pieces."
And the movie? "I've mapped out the story," says Hurwitz, who is halfway through the script. "The actors want to do more of this, the writers want to do more of this and I want to do more of this. It should happen, unless this new season is a giant debacle. Which is also a possibility."