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Arrested development and the 21st century networkcomedy

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Anthony Baltierra
A Thesis Presented to the
In Partial Fulfillment of the
Requirements for the Degree
December 2010
Copyright 2010
Anthony Baltierra
UMI Number: 1484205
All rights reserved
The quality of this reproduction is dependent upon the quality of the copy submitted.
In the unlikely event that the author did not send a complete manuscript
and there are missing pages, these will be noted. Also, if material had to be removed,
a note will indicate the deletion.
UMI 1484205
Copyright 2011 by ProQuest LLC.
All rights reserved. This edition of the work is protected against
unauthorized copying under Title 17, United States Code.
ProQuest LLC
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I would like to acknowledge the following in appreciation for their tremendous support,
advice and assistance:
Mrs. Sasha Anawalt
Miss K.C. Cole
Mr. Tim Page
Mr. Michael Parks
Miss Deborah Star Seibel
Miss Cindy Poole
Mr. Ray Baltierra
Mr. Paul Baltierra and Mrs. Evelyn Baltierra
Mr. Mathias Resch and Mrs. Ashley Resch
Mr. Kellen Baltierra
University of Southern California, Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism
All of my fellow Specialized Journalism classmates
Arrested Development and the 21st Century Network Comedy
Like many programs before it, Arrested Development left the television world too
soon. Hailed by critics and the recipient of six Emmy awards, the show failed to attract a
mainstream audience.
To the casual viewer, Arrested seemed to be a huge inside joke. While they could
certainly understand the pop culture allusions, political jabs and verbal puns without
knowing the show’s history, the show’s reflexive nature was a turnoff. There were simply
too many running gags, callbacks and hidden comedy gems.
Yet, there was a small and fiercely loyal audience that loved the overabundance of
material crammed into each episode. This cult audience enjoyed the “work” that went
into discovering the cleverness of the show.
This thesis examines how Arrested Development was created explicitly for those
viewers who willing to pay close attention to the series, those who were willing to play
detective and rewatch episodes numerous times. This type of strategy may have led to the
show’s early cancellation, but it also allowed it to expand its audience after it went off the
air and hopefully influence network comedy in the coming years.
Despite earning widespread critical acclaim and winning six Emmy awards,
Arrested Development never attracted much of an audience while it aired on Fox from
November of 2003 to February of 2006. Developed in a serialized “mockumentary”
format, the story of the hyper-dysfunctional Bluth family and its fall from elite status
never quite caught on.
Since its cancellation, though, Arrested Development has attained cult status. It
often tops lists of shows that were “cancelled too soon” and it has been constantly praised
among critics and fanboys for its narrative complexity and unique production techniques.
The program’s radical complexity may have discouraged the casual viewer, but it
truly rewarded devoted fans. Following the airing of each episode, the program’s few
loyal viewers would venture online to sites like (a TV review
and recap site) and the– (a fansite specifically devoted to Arrested Development)
to discuss the hidden gags and learn of any they might have missed.1 Every Bluthian
chicken dance, reference to Portugal being in South America, stair car hop-on, utterance
of “I’ve made a huge mistake,” and other repeated jokes deeply embedded within the
show’s mythology were discovered and discussed.
This type of episodic inspection was not an accident.
“Arrested paid off with the portion of the audience who wanted to pay close
attention,” said series creator Mitch Hurwitz in 2009. “I wanted there to be hidden clues
Sternbergh 82
and auguries of things to come. Those viewers who paid attention would be more
rewarded than those who didn’t.”2
In this context, Arrested Development was a network television sitcom for the
digital age before network executives and viewers had realized the full potential of new
technology: DVD and Blu-ray box sets, digital recorders, and online viewing through
sites such as Hulu.
“We’re really making a show for the new technology here,” Hurwitz told NPR in
2005. “We’re making a show for TiVo, and we’re making a show for DVD, and it really
becomes part of our objective in making this thing.”3
“People who watch the show are watching it three and four times,” said Tony
Hale, who played the awkward and socially inept Buster Bluth, in 2004. “They’re
catching different stuff each time. It’s like a game.”4
What does the game entail? Each episode offers plenty for fans to discover: a
copious amount of pop culture allusions, political jabs (the Bush administration was a
major comedic target), puns, references to past episodes and foreshadowing of future
events. Scenic backgrounds become visual collages of inside jokes. References are made
to the past history of the actors, both those in the main cast – Hale’s character performed
a car dance to the Styx song “Mr. Roboto,”5 just as Hale had done previously in a 1999
Volkswagen commercial – and in the supporting cast – Henry Winkler’s character once
Sacks 170
Fresh Air from WHYY: Mitchell Hurwitz interview
Seibel , personal interview with Tony Hale
Arrested Development, “The Ocean Walker”
struck a Fonzie-like pose in the mirror6 and also literally “jumped the shark,”7 both
references to his time on Happy Days.
And perhaps more than any other primetime network comedy in television
history, Arrested Development is known for making references to the struggle of the
show itself. In its second season, it referenced a legal battle over the show’s title with the
hip-hop group Arrested Development.8 It also poked fun at Fox for reducing the season
order from 22 episodes to 18, moving the show to a different time slot and having pop up
ads run during its primetime shows.9 The program also devoted an entire episode (the
third season’s “S.O.B.s”) to referencing its fight for survival. The title of the episode
itself came from the fansite Save Our Bluths ( that was created
to help save the show from cancellation and the URL of the site was even flashed on
screen (though as Also mentioned are direct references to the
possibility of the show moving to HBO or Showtime. At the same time, the episode
satirized ratings ploys often used by other television programs: numerous guest stars, a
“major” death, use of 3D technology, a website created to promote and save a show from
cancellation and a segment that aired “live.”10
It’s an overabundance of information that can easily overwhelm a casual viewer.
Arrested Development, “Altar Egos”
Arrested Development, “Motherboy XXX”
Arrested Development, “Motherboy XXX”
Arrested Development, “Sword of Destiny”
Arrested Development, “S.O.B.s”
“You really need to see the shows in succession,” Hale said. “You need to see the
history.” 11
Jason Bateman, who portrayed the main character and straight man to the family
of lunatics, Michael Bluth, agreed that the ability to view and review multiple episodes at
a time is the best way to watch the program, especially for newcomers to the series.
“You do have to see a couple of these to sort of learn how to watch it,” Bateman
said in 2004. “Because it moves at such a pace. Mitch does such a great job of hiding the
“That’s why so many people like to watch the show on TiVo, because you can
back it up. You gotta pay attention. You gotta be in the right frame of mind and at the
right speed. You can’t have a phone conversation or run to the fridge [while you are
As stated in the program’s opening credits sequence by executive producer Ron
Howard in his uncredited role as narrator, Arrested Development is “the story of a
wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them
all together.”13 Howard’s words may imply that the program is a simple sitcom about a
family coming together to survive bleak times, but that is far from the truth.
In fact, the word “simple” should probably never be associated with Arrested
Development (unless one is referring to Buster, perhaps).
Seibel, personal interview with Tony Hale
Seibel, personal interview with Jason Bateman
Arrested Development, “Pilot”
Created by Hurwitz, a long time television writer, Arrested Development broke
the traditional sitcom mold by incorporating highly serialized plots with numerous
intertextual and reflexive references set in a quick-paced narrative and has helped set the
standard of narrative complexity on network television. Filled with inside jokes, visual
puns, callbacks (jokes that refer back to a prior joke or situation) to previous episodes and
seasons, and “call forwards” (jokes that foreshadow something that has yet to occur – a
term coined by Hurwitz) to future episodes, the program was unlikely to gain a broad
“I always wanted Arrested to be complex,” Hurwitz said in a 2009 interview. “I
like complexity in TV shows. I like shows that challenge me as a viewer – where if I put
a little more thought into it, I get more out of it. The presumption going into Arrested
Development was that there might be an audience who was interested in these details.”14
Hurwitz began his television writing career in 1990 with The Golden Girls, the
award winning NBC sitcom about four single older women who shared a home in Miami.
The pop-culture-filled, sexually charged program may have been produced in a
traditional sitcom format, but Hurwitz views his days on The Golden Girls as an amazing
training ground where he learned to write more intricate storylines, including the use of
callbacks to an earlier point in the script and finding unusual ways to tie everything
together.15 After The Golden Girls, Hurwitz continued his sitcom education by working
on other network sitcoms, including as a writer on The John Larroquette Show and as cocreator and executive producer of The Ellen Show.
Sacks 170
After more than a decade in the business and a firm understanding of what was
expected from a typical sitcom, Hurwitz went in the opposite direction when creating
Arrested Development.
“A sitcom audience would expect one thing, whereas the audience for Arrested
expected something else,” Hurwitz said. “And perhaps that’s why Arrested Development
didn’t have a bigger audience. We were trying to be as funny as could be, and perhaps we
were working on a level that was too removed from what viewers wanted.”16
Chief among Arrested’s “sins” against the standard sitcom audience was filling
the program with eight unrelatable and unlikable main characters.
The characteristics and actions of the Bluth family seem better suited for daytime
soap opera than primetime network comedy. Secret paternity issues, incest,
embezzlement, complete manipulation, constant infidelity, treason, and alcoholism sound
much more General Hospital than Everybody Loves Raymond, while the overt racism,
severe Oedipus complex, sibling rivalries, criminal acts, bad parenting, narcissism,
superficiality, incompetence and continual swearing place the Bluths among the most
unethical and immoral examples of humanity. That doesn’t even take into account the
show’s wide range of wacky supporting characters who appeared throughout.
“It’s a very spoiled family,” Hale said. “All these whacked out characters, who all
their lives have depended upon the family trust fund.”17
Further going against network comedy expectations, the Bluths never seemed to
learn their weekly lesson. Throughout the series characters senselessly circumvented the
Sacks 173
Seibel, personal interview with Tony Hale
law, manipulated each other, ignored their children and constantly whined for more
money. Each episode concluded the self-contained storylines with an occasional
touching moment, but these warm sentiments were usually dismissed immediately with
an additional gag. Life for the Bluths, it was understood, went on as before.
“We give the audience that sweet moment, and then we demolish it at the end,”
Bateman said. “That’s the tone of the show, it’s not warm and fuzzy. It’s awful.”18
Even Bateman’s character, arguably Arrested’s most likeable character who often
serves as the family’s moral compass, has been considered unlikable by some viewers.19
Still, loyal followers have found a way not only to enjoy Arrested Development’s range
of characters, but also somehow a way to connect with them.
“There are always executives who are going to say, ‘This isn’t going to work.
You can’t have people not learn a lesson. You can’t have unlikable characters,’” said
Hurwitz. “But you have to ignore all that. With that sort of attitude, you’re not going to
create the best material.”20
While the small Arrested Development audience enjoyed and praised what
Hurwitz and company were making, the program lacked the required Nielsen ratings to
survive. In its first season, which was the only season to produce a full order of 22
episodes, the series finished 120th overall in the end of year ratings. It also finished a
dismal 88th among the highly coveted 18-49 demographic.21
Seibel, personal interview with Jason Bateman
Schneider and Adalian 20
Sacks 177
Posner 1
During its run Arrested was regularly in danger of being canceled and some
wondered if it was a sign that the recent advancements in technology had not been truly
noticed by network executives, who to this day still primarily base their evaluations of
programs on Nielsen numbers at first broadcast rather than giving serious consideration
to the devoted fans who watch episodes online, digitally record episodes, take part in
repeat viewings, and buy the DVD and Blu-ray packages.22
Having produced television ratings since 1950, Nielsen numbers are the primary
source of information in terms of television viewership. Using a small sample audience,
Nielsen ratings are calculated through the use of viewer diaries and meters that are
connected to television sets in selected homes. Nielsen ratings are available for a variety
of specific demographics, but a program’s success is usually determined by taking into
account its performance in overall viewership and with the 18-49 age group. The 18-49
demographic numbers are even more important than the number of overall viewers as it is
the age range most desired by television advertisers. A program’s performance in this
area determines how much a network can charge for commercials during its broadcast,
and thus a weak rating in the area can lead to cancellation. Ratings for viewers who use
digital recorders are available, but advertisers balk at those numbers being incorporated
into network ad rates since viewers can skip commercials.
Because of its Nielsen struggles during the first season, Fox requested producers
to make the Arrested Development less serialized, hoping that would alienate less casual
and new viewers. Whether it was an act of direct defiance or the direction Hurwitz had
Thompson 71
always envisioned, the program went on to produce even fewer stand-alone episodes in
its second and third seasons.23
“This show may not be for everybody,” Hurwitz told Variety in 2005. “You
always have to consider that.”24
With more episodes that alienated those who were not fully caught up on the
ongoing narratives, the program’s viewership dropped. The second season saw an
average of six million viewers per episode, while the third and final season saw that
number drop to a dismal four million per episode.25
As odd as it sounds, Bateman wouldn’t have had it any other way.
“We don’t want to be number one,” Bateman said in 2004. “When you become
number one, you have to appeal to a much broader audience and you become much more
of a commodity.”26
Other cast members agreed that the risk of being unpopular is what made the
show special.
Jessica Walter, who portrayed the manipulating matriarch Lucille Bluth, stated
that the edgy writing and the idea of doing a show that is “not your father’s old sitcom”
was the only reason she auditioned.27
Schneider and Adalian 20
Schneider and Adalian 20
Goodman 1
Seibel, personal interview with Jason Bateman
Seibel, personal interview with Jessica Walter
“It seems to me to be a very modern show because it’s not a traditional sitcom,”
added Jeffrey Tambor, the actor behind the “lightly” treasonous patriarch George Bluth
(as well as twin brother Oscar). “I’m a little nervous [about people saying], ‘Oh, is this an
elitist little cult show?’ And it’s not. It’s just a silly show, but there’s a lot of bang for
your buck.”28
Arrested Development’s ability to have an overabundance of material in each
episode can also be attributed to its resourceful production techniques that at the time
were unusual for a network comedy.
In the attempt to produce the program in a pseudo-documentary format, the
production crew shot on location with a single, hand held camera set up instead of the
traditional in studio three camera system, used digital video instead of film, relied mainly
on natural lighting instead of artificial, discarded any notion of a laugh track and used
Howard as the narrator. It also created a visual documentary-type back story through the
use of “archived” flashbacks from within the fiction of the show by presenting old family
photos (such as yearbook pictures from the 1980s), recorded “footage” of moments of the
Bluth children as adolescents that occurred well before the series began. Also
incorporated were “security videos” of Bluth events that were captured by unmanned
surveillance cameras found in such places as traffic lights, ATMs and elevators.
These bizarre production ideas were conceived by Howard, who argued in 2002 that the
Seibel, personal interview with Jeffrey Tambor
time saved by shooting in digital video with natural lighting could be spent sharpening
jokes and making a more ambitious production.29
This incredible density helped seal the show’s broadcast fate, but it made multiple
viewings the ideal way to experience the series.30 Hurwitz and the show’s other writers
crammed as much material as possible into each episode because they were always
intended them to be watched many times over.31 Thus, it has amassed a cult following
through the release of the entire series on DVD and its current syndication on the
Independent Film Channel, which airs episodes without commercial breaks and usually in
marathon blocks at a time.
The type of viewing experience offered through these avenues is a much better fit
for Arrested Development than the schizophrenic attitude Fox had towards it. The
network didn’t seem to know what to do with Arrested as the program was constantly
moved between various timeslots. By the final season, Arrested was airing against
Monday Night Football and went a month between episodes on three different occasions.
When Fox aired the final four episodes of the series on 10 February 2006, it did so
against the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, which helped land the finale
with a pathetic 3.3 million viewers.
Even after it won the Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series in September 2004,
Fox didn’t launch the new season of Arrested until nearly two months later. It was a
move that did not sit well with Hurwitz.
Thompson 71
Sacks 170
“It’s personally very frustrating to me,” Hurwitz said at the time. “That’s a real
frustration and we’ve talked to everyone we can talk to. I’ve gotten so many e-mails and
calls from people I haven’t seen in years who saw the Emmys and are calling saying,
‘Please, I want to see it. Where is it?’”32
It was a case of network scheduling hurting the survival chances of a show and
denying viewers the opportunity to see a program that had a considerable amount of
From the beginning of network television in the late 1940s, the viewer had always
been at the mercy of network scheduling. The networks established when a certain
program would air and that particular set period was the only time the program was
available to the television audience.
Over the last few decades, however, television has become very much viewer
controlled, especially since the turn of the century.
Thanks to TiVo and digital recorders that now come in standard cable and
satellite packages, hundreds of hours of television can be stored at a time. Recent
episodes can be found online at sites such as Hulu or at official network sites. DVD and
Blu-ray box sets allow not only full seasons, but the entire run of a program to be viewed
in marathon sittings.
This extreme change in the television experience has altered how programs are
now produced. Extended cuts of episodes are offered online and other content that is
never aired on the network is available through “webisodes” (short episodes produced
Seibel, personal interview with Mitch Hurwitz
directly for the online audience) and “mobisodes” (short episodes that are broadcast to
mobile phones – the term “mobisode” is actually a registered trademark of Fox).
In May of this year, the medical drama House recently took the logical next step
by spinning off the miniseries “Nurse Jeffrey,” which was initially only available through
free “appisodes” to iPod, iPhone, and iPad users through the inHouse application.
Beginning the week after the House season finale, the “appisode” season consisted of
thirteen weekly episodes that were around three minutes in length. Though the Nurse
Jeffrey series mostly contained minor characters from its parent series (main character
Lisa Cuddy appeared in the final episode), its creators took advantage of the InHouse
application to give devoted fans new material to digest during the summer months.
These technological advancements allow television programs to cater specifically
to their loyal audience. The Office has produced six different sets of “webisodes.” Recent
Emmy darling 30 Rock (a series which only averaged 5.88 million viewers in the 20092010 season33 but is solidly backed by NBC) created 30 Rock 360, an online extension of
the series which enabled fans to interact with the program’s main characters.
Yet, at the time of Arrested Development, aiming for an explicit audience is what
led to its cancellation.
Nonetheless, the uniqueness of the program was noticed by others involved in
network television. For other sitcom writers at the time, Arrested Development was
viewed as a gauge for the future of the genre.34
Posner 2
Jeff Greenstein, producer of such hits as Friends, Will & Grace and Desperate
Housewives, told The New York Times in 2004 that he loved how fresh and different the
show was. Greenstein also stated that the writing community was pulling for the program
to succeed because it would then give hope to writers who would also want to do shows
that broke the mold.35
“Breaking the mold” for Hurwitz turned out to mean quick cancellation. By going
against comedic expectations, Hurwitz created a program that at the time was too
different and too much of a challenge for a traditional network audience.36 With so many
coinciding plots, narrative twists, continuing stories, and hidden or thrown away jokes, it
was difficult for viewers to follow during an initial viewing. It seemed to be a 21st
century comedy for a medium that was still stuck in the 20th century.
Arrested’s legacy, though, is firmly secure in television history. In addition to
multiple Emmy wins and a Golden Globe victory for Bateman, the genius of the program
has been recognized one of the greatest shows in television history despite its short, 53
episode run. In 2007, Time listed the show among the 100 Best TV Shows of All-Time,
labeling it as “The self-referential, language-besotted, in-joke-packed love child of The
Simpsons and Christopher Guest movies.”37
Its high quality of comedy and adaptability to current technology has enabled
Arrested Development to thrive in cancellation. It has enjoyed strong DVD sales and the
entire first season is currently available on Hulu.
Posner 2
Schneider and Adalian 20
One-liners and catchphrases have become a perfect fit for Twitter, videos and
parodies (such as a recent pseudo-trailer for an Arrested Development action film38) can
be found on YouTube and Wikipedia has an article for every single episode that lists
trivia, pop culture connections, callbacks, running jokes, cameos and other various
episodic notes.
Critics and fans often use Arrested Development as a barometer by which new
shows are measured. Whether it is declaring 30 Rock as “the next Arrested
Development”39 or reigning Emmy champ Modern Family as “The Arrested
Development for the hard-of-thinking,”40 it is apparent that the Bluths are still on the
mind of those television viewers who have actually seen the show. The comparison with
Arrested will no doubt arise with any witty, social satire with a dysfunctional family
(whether it be a literal or figurative “family”).
Arrested has also helped usher in the movement towards single camera, non-laugh
track comedies for primetime network comedies. While it was not the first series to
employ these production techniques, it was not a major trend on network television at the
time. Now they are the norm, as the entirety of ABC’s Wednesday night and NBC’s
Thursday night lineups use the single camera, non-laugh track, ensemble cast, pseudodocumentary style.
The influence of his creation upon other television shows isn’t lost on Hurwitz.
His show may have been cancelled prematurely, but he has helped network television
Arrested Development Action Trailer HD TV
comedy embrace the newest technology and to reward those viewers that crave more than
a cheap laugh.
“I hope it will be [influential],” Hurwitz said. “I can already sort of see the
influence it’s had on other sitcoms – the vérité style, the quick cuts, the more than fifty
scenes per episode and so forth.
“If young humor writers enjoyed Arrested Development, and the show somehow
got them interested in comedy, then that’s really, really exciting to me.”41
The work of Hurwitz and company may not have been appreciated by many
during its broadcast life, but with it being preserved through DVDs, syndication, the
online community and hopefully with the long-rumored film adaptation, those who desire
quality television will always enjoy it. For years to come fans will be unfolding the
program’s metajokes, rediscover hidden gags and bring others into the mix by explaining
what things like “analrapist” mean (that of course refers to someone like Tobias who
combines the professions of analyst and therapist into one job title). And if Arrested fans
include future sitcom writers and creators, then the future of 21st century network comedy
is in good hands.
Sacks 179
“Altar Egos.” Arrested Development: Season Two. Twentieth Century Fox, 2005. DVD
“Arrested Development Action Trailer HD TV.” YouTube, user 205rady. 29 May 2010.
Baur, Joe. “Modern Family is the Arrested Development for the Hard-of-Thinking.”
Gawker.TV. 10 March 2010.
Braun, Kyle. “30 Rock Season One DVD Review.” UGO. September 2007.
Goodman, Tim. “Die-hard ‘Arrested Development’ fans already feeling sting of loss.”
SanFrancisco Chronicle. 14 November 2005: C-1
Gorman, Bill. “Final 2009-2010 Broadcast Primetime Show Average Viewership.” TV By
The Numbers. 16 June 2010.
“Motherboy XXX.” Arrested Development: Season Two. Twentieth Century Fox, 2005.
NPR. Fresh Air from WHYY. Mitchell Hurwitz interview. 3 November 2005.
“The Ocean Walker.” Arrested Development: Season Three. Twentieth Century Fox,
2006. DVD
“Pilot.” Arrested Development: Season One. Twentieth Century Fox, 2004. DVD
Ponewozik, James. “The 100 Best TV Shows of All-Time: Arrested Development.”
Posner, Ari. “Can This Man Save the Sitcom?” The New York Times. 1 August 2004: 2.1
Robinson, Tasha. Interview: Mitchell Hurwitz. AV Club 9. 9 February 2005
Sacks, Mike. “Mitch Hurwitz.” And Here’s the Kicker: Conversations with 21 Top
Humor Writers on Their Craft. Cincinnati, Ohio: Writer’s Digest Books, 2009. 166-179.
Schneider, Michael and Josef Adalian. “Broadcast viewers nix crix pick.” Variety. 21-27
November 2005: 18-19.
Seibel, Deborah Starr. Personal Interview with Jason Bateman. 7 October 2004.
Seibel, Deborah Starr. Personal Interview with Jeffery Tambor. 7 October 2004.
Seibel, Deborah Starr. Personal Interview with Jessica Walter. 7 October 2004.
Seibel, Deborah Starr. Personal Interview with Mitch Hurwitz. 7 October 2004
Seibel, Deborah Starr. Personal Interview with Tony Hale. 7 October 2004.
“S.O.B.s.” Arrested Development: Season Three. Twentieth Century Fox, 2006. DVD
Sternbergh, Adam. “Getting the Hook.” New York Magazine. Volume 38, Issue 13 (18
April2005): 82.
“Sword of Destiny.” Arrested Development: Season Two. Twentieth Century Fox, 2005.
Thompson, Ethan. “Comedy Verite? The Observational Documentary Meets the
Televisual Sitcom.” The Velvet Light Trap. Number 60 (Fall 2007): 63-72.
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