Postmodernism and Arrested Development

February 10, 2006 marked an unspectacular end to one of the best television shows you’ve never watched — Arrested Development, a character-driven comedy series about a largely dysfunctional, and formerly wealthy, family. From its inception, it was clear that Arrested Development would be a unique sitcom, employing intertextual and reflexive features, deeply embedded in postmodern thought. Intertextuality is simply one text that quotes or alludes to another. An example would be the Fox cartoon Family Guy, which constantly references other pop culture in cutaways, interweaving Star Wars, Justin Timberlake and United States President George W. Bush into its own comedy. Along the same lines, reflexivity is a concept of self-reference. For instance: “This blog entry deals with a postmodern critique of Arrested Development.”

For the most part, the intertextuality in Arrested Development references other television shows and movies. In season two’s “Spring Breakout,” Michael checks his mother Lucille into “Shady Pines,” a reference to the old comedy Golden Girls. The character of Sophia (Estelle Getty) would constantly mention the retirement home (Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz was a former writer for the show.) Rewind to the first season and the episode “Whistler’s Mother.” The name of the bagel place is called “Passion of the Crust,” and obvious reference to Mel Gibson’s hit movie “The Passion of the Christ.” Numerous references are also made to Henry Winkler’s (who plays the role of inept attorney Barry Zuckerkorn) days as “The Fonz” on Happy Days, right down to the part where he is replaced by a younger Scott Biao (playing the role of Bob Boblaw – pronounced Blah Blah Blah). GOB (someone I constantly quote, “Come on!”) would enter his magic shows with Europe’s 80s hit single “The Final Countdown.”

On the other hand, the reflexive element is at times more subtle. In the second season, Fox, seeing Arrested Development pulled in a mere 5 million viewers per episode, cut the episode order from 23 to 18 episodes. The reflexive response was to naturally include this cutback in the show. In the episode “S.O.B.s” Michael Bluth sadly tells his father that the Bluth Company will only be building 18 houses in their new development lot, as opposed to the original 23. In a third season episode, the writers responded to Fox’s demands to tinker with the writers’ creativity. Fox attributed the lack of viewers to complicated story arcs that couldn’t be resolved in neat 22-minute packages, and the inability for a layman to relate to the self-centered and egocentric Bluths. (I attribute it to poor advertising.) The last four episodes took the Fox executives to task, having narrator Ron Howard actually come out and explicitly say at the conclusion of an episode that a story arc had been raised and concluded within a single show.

This isn’t the first time postmodern elements have been featured in a show with struggling ratings. Two of my other favorite shows of all time — Aaron Sorkin’s “Sports Night” and Paul Simms’ “NewsRadio” — both featured intertextuality and reflexivity. In Sports Night (which will essentially be brought back to life by NBC this fall in the form of Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip), the plot featured a struggling TV show at a struggling TV network, desperately trying to earn ratings without sacrificing the writing that made the show critically acclaimed, which virtually mirrored the real life struggle of Sorkin’s battles with ABC. As one character notes in “Quo Vadimus,” the final episode of the series, “Anyone who can’t make money off ‘Sports Night’ should get out of the money making business.”

As for NewsRadio, the constant references to 60’s and 70’s pop culture (including Led Zepplin, Star Wars, Mr. Ed, Green Acres and a special appearance by George “Goober” Lindsay) made for storytelling that most audiences weren’t used to. NewsRadio had its own reflexive elements. NBC executives thought it would be a great idea for a ratings boost to have a marriage on the show. Not so ironically, the crew at WNYX was having a ratings problem and eccentric station owner Jimmy James (Stephen Root – you’ll remember him as Milton from Office Space) asked Joe (played by Fear Factor host Joe Rogan) to propose to Lisa (played by the beautiful and witty Maura Tierney, now Abby Lockhart on ER) on air. Jimmy held a stationary pad to the window of the booth with big block letters simply saying, “SAY YES.” Lisa retorted, “And now, for 15 minutes of dead air,” an obvious slap in the face from Simms and company to NBC executives. NBC, of course, was not amused, and eventually Simms had Lisa marry Jimmy’s arch-rival Johnny Johnson (played by Patrick Warburton, the voice of Joe on Family Guy). It is perhaps because of its unique way of storytelling that true greatness was not recognized in its own time.

Back to Arrested Development.

Sadly, the show is all but relegated to re-run heaven, with creator Hurwitz walking away from development (Showtime had made it clear they would only pick up the show had Hurwitz stayed on). The third season of Arrested Development will be released on DVD sometime in mid-August, and fans are hoping that, like two prior series that were canceled by Fox and later resurrected — Family Guy (through television) and Firefly (through the feature movie Serenity) — Arrested Development will continue in some form because of productive DVD sales. In the ultimate of reflexive statements, Ron Howard, now appearing as himself, is presented with a script from Maybe Funke about selling the rights to the Bluths for television. Howard wonders aloud, “Maybe as a movie?”

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