A few years back, I spent a couple of days on the set of Arrested Development, and got to chat and hang out with the cast. With the show just about to restart on Netflix, now seems as good a time as any to bring the resulting article out of the vault…
When I visited, it was during a weird period. The show was winning awards and starting to garner a cult following, but it was clear from all involved that they knew time was running out, and each new day they got to be a Bluth was a blessing.
A few days before the feature went to press, news came that Fox had cancelled the show. Cue some hasty rewriting and re-editing, which is evident in the piece below.
Anyway, it’s an interesting article to revisit as a relic of the pre-streaming age, and a reminder that everything is subject to change.
It’s one thing visiting a movie set – it’s something that no-one has yet seen – but quite another to be on the set of one of your favourite shows, with the characters making their way around you. It’s a very, very odd, but brilliant, experience.
Perhaps it’s because there are no cheap dick jokes, or people drinking vomit, or gags about accidentally fisting horses, but despite being one of the most consistently funny and intelligent American comedies in years, Arrested Development has just been canned by Fox.
Its screenings in the UK on BBC2 have a small, loyal, hardcore of fans who put up with the broadcast times trampolining week after week to make way for men throwing small, sharp sticks, or men pushing balls with a long stick – while in America, it has a similarly devoted fanbase; although one which regularly hits the six million-plus mark (not much over there it seems).
Here, the award-winning show is given room to breathe and is not subjected to ratings scrutiny (hell, what else is the Beeb gonna show at 11pm on a Sunday?), whereas over there, the higher the ratings, the higher the charge for adverts, and if a show isn’t making cash hand-over-sweaty-fist, the network will drop it like an ugly baby.
And so Arrested Development finds itself in this sorry state of affairs, with plenty of people eager to see it, but no home for the time being.
Burn visited the set just before this announcement was made, but it was clear from all around they were just waiting for the axe to fall – it was only a matter of time.
In terms of tone, Arrested Development sits comfortably alongside shows like Curb Your Enthusiasm, but while Curb is carried most of the way by the Partridge-like behaviour of creator Larry David, Arrested Development is much more of a crowd pleaser. It’s not averse to bringing in the big-name guests, (Ben Stiller, Heather Graham, the legendary Henry Winkler and Charlize Theron), and has an ensemble cast of equally talented comedy characters, each bringing their own quirks to the family table. The fan favourite however, is Tony Hale who plays Buster,a man-boy with a mother complex.
Watching him work on-set is bewitching. He switches into his Gump-like persona on ‘action’ but is then immediately himself again, chatting away about how weird it is having a megastar like Theron on-set.
“I’ve had some scenes with Charlize,” says Hale. “She’s really sweet, and really, really nice. It’s crazy though, cos we’ll be shooting and I’ll go outside and she’s on the cover of every magazine, and I’m like ‘What are you doing on our show? What’s going on?’”
What about the other guest stars he’s had on?
“Scott Baio is really cool, and as he was Chachi, he’s a cult figure. Henry Winkler used to be our family lawyer so we have this Happy Days bloodline going. But Scott’s a really nice guy and he’s doing a great job.”
The guy who carries the show, however, and sees all plotlines run through him, is Jason Bateman, who has recently appeared in Dodgeball, Starsky and Hutch, and – not so recently – Teen Wolf Too.
We meet after he has spent all of five minutes sitting in a truck delivering a handful of lines. Then he’s done for the day.
“I’ve only had three whole days off all year,” he says, not very convincingly.
With a palpable sense that they are fighting for their lives, all the cast and crew members we speak to, talk candidly about the show’s disappointing ratings and seem genuinely pleased and excited about the following in the UK.
“I’m always a little ashamed to say how much I like the show,” says Bateman. “It sounds a bit cheesy to me, but I feel so lucky to be on it. I’d watch it on TV if I wasn’t in it. I really love doing this, so I watch the ratings really closely.”
What is it about the show that has such a hold on him?
“The stories – they’re so beautifully complicated, and are like little puzzles, and to be the guy that tries to have it all make sense for the audience, and bridge one storyline to another, or one character to another, is a really nice role.
“I like the challenge of coming in and explaining it to the audience, with a look or an inflection or some surprise – and since there’s not a laugh track, if something is funny, you might have to let the audience know that with a certain look, or if something is important to the storyline you’ve got to register something.”
Given the transitory nature of the average TV viewer, maybe that subtlety isn’t the best approach if survival is on the agenda?
“I think you guys in the UK have a better attention span than Americans and are a much more sophisticated audience,” says Bateman. “The TV network is a medium for the masses and there are distractions. It’s difficult to get a huge audience, and I don’t think we ever will.”
Perhaps the problem here is that Arrested Development is just so different. Despite Jason Bateman’s protestations that “The Office makes our show look like Diff’rent Strokes,” it’s a hell of a lot smarter than the Slough-based comedy. It’s deadly serious to the people inside the show, so they play it straight and very dry. It’s a drama to them – there is no mugging to the cameras or ‘Flashdance fused with MC Hammer shit’. Any gags here are entirely incidental.
“It’s true that there are no one-liners,” says Bateman. “We’re not trying to hide the funny though, it’s just a different tone.”
What does he see happening to the show?
“I don’t know. It does not do well here at all. There are six million regular viewers, and we’ve had that many since day one. It doesn’t matter when or where they put us, it stays at that level. But that six million are passionate about the show and very loyal, and they are paying full attention.”
Will the show survive?
“Well, networks often use shows like this as a recruiting device for the studio, and to bring in other writers, producers, directors and actors, because it looks like you nurture good product.”
However, far from nurturing good product, Fox is gaining itself a reputation for killing great shows just as they hit their stride: including Futurama, Family Guy, and now Arrested Development.
The consensus is that Middle America is responsible for killing it dead. With no laugh track, no group hugs, and with gags than run across whole seasons, the show wrongly assumes that the mass market has the capability for smart, independent thought. Big fucking mistake.
If you don’t watch it, start now. Tell your friends. Tell your family. Maybe the spoon-fed majority can’t concentrate for long enough to appreciate Arrested Development, but we should support programmes that do new and interesting things, and don’t just regurgitate jokes written in the 1950s.
Who knows, if enough of us make a fuss, it might get the Family Guy treatment and be given another chance…