For a large portion of my life, my dad was the guy who got up obscenely early for work, ate dinner at 5:00, and read in the bathroom. In retrospect, our relationship was shallow at best. I don’t blame him for this, that’s just the way it was; it was normal.
It’s strange to think, then, that my sense of humor can largely be attributed to my dad.
The first thing I remember laughing at was a scene in the Abbott and Costello film The Naughty Nineties.
I had just come home from an evening out with my grandparents and my dad happened to be watching the movie on video when my sister and I came home. We both watched the scene and couldn’t control our laughter, insisting he rewind it again and again.
The Abbott and Costello films gave way to episodes of I Love Lucy. My mom joined in, introducing us to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and its infamous Chuckles the Clown episode. My dad countered with the films of Cary Grant.
This education in great comedy turned me into something of a comedy snob (I was probably the only person my age who didn’t fall over giggling as the fat woman farted her way through an open window during The Crocodile Hunter: Collision Course). I began seeking out comedy, absorbing Curb your Enthusiasm and the original version of The Office far younger than I should have.
However, more than anything, Arrested Development influenced my sense of humor.
I first started watching the show when I was in sixth or seventh grade. I had heard about the show – as I did most things cultural – from my uncle. He talked about the show at family gatherings and I happened to catch a marathon of the show one weekend and fell in love with the Bluth family.
I bought the first season on DVD and began watching the second season live, promptly buying that season as it too came out on DVD.
I was obsessed.
I remember back to my grade school technology class when we were asked to make a Jeopardy game in PowerPoint, ostensibly to test our knowledge of Microsoft Office.
In a crass attempt to drum up interest in my newest passion, I of course made my presentation about Arrested Development. I couldn’t help myself.
When everyone had finished their games, we all went around the room testing each other’s. Needless to say, nobody knew what to make of my project; the depth of my pretention and the true extent of my precociousness and all-around insufferability when it came to the subject of comedy had been discovered.
This may seem like an innocuous little memory, but I think my class’ reaction to my project speaks to the strange and storied history of the series.
For the longest time, I couldn’t get anyone to watch the show, no matter how much I talked it up, no matter how much I cajoled, no matter how much I offered to pay them for their efforts. Nobody took the bait. Nobody.
Then, one day, it happened.
One night, while my mom, my sister, and I were on a summer road trip down South, my dad was at home alone and he popped in one of my Arrested Development DVDs I had left open next to the TV.
By the time we got back, he had finished the two seasons. (See, mom: sometimes not putting things away is a good thing.)
That fall, he and I watched the show’s third season together live. It was one of the rare moments when he and I shared a passion for something together.
It was a period of my life that I will likely never forget.
(One particularly memorable moment came during the episode “Making a Stand” when G.O.B. competes with the Bluth Frozen Banana Stand and pays strippers to help him advertise. My mom was in the kitchen and she expressed her distaste for what we were watching. She doesn’t understand we thought, and we laughed and continued watching.)
Back then the best (and pretty much only) place for conversation about the show was on the show’s FOX-sponsored message board. It was a place where fans could gather before social media and talk and quote and dissect the show. More importantly, the message board provided a forum for us to discuss the show’s future and how we as fans could play a part in that future. We sent letters and emails and bananas (yes, actual bananas) to the FOX offices when the show’s future looked particularly bleak at the end of the second season, continuing our antics throughout the troubled the third season.
And we made a little dent in the cultural hemisphere: we organized the Save Our Bluths campaign that was reflected in the show, viewing parties and DVD buying campaigns and crazy Nielsen box schemes. We shared proven methods of getting others invested in the show and countless other ways we could persuade FOX to keep the show on the air for just another season.
Our efforts were fervent, but the writing was on the wall. FOX cut the order of episodes for the third season twice, citing of failing ratings both times. The network actually went so far as to burn off the series’ last four episodes opposite the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics.This was a network that clearly did not give a fuck about what we the fans thought.
I remember watching those last four episodes, played back to back, in a single two-hour increment, with my dad. To this day, I still consider the last four to be one big episode because of how it was presented that night in 2006. Mine was probably the only household in a 5 or 10-mile radius that wasn’t watching the opening ceremony that night, but neither he nor I cared: we had to say a proper goodbye to the Bluth family.
As you’ve probably gathered at this point, my relationship with Arrested Development is a long and devoted one.
My relationship to relative newcomers of the series is more complicated.
First, let me express how glad I am that the show has garnered the following it has in the years since the show’s cancellation. I couldn’t be happier when people find the series and quote one of the innumerable quotable lines to me in everyday conversation like a form of shorthand. These are the reactions to the show I so desperately craved during the show’s run.
At the same time, I can’t help but feel a little anger.
Where were these people when the show was on the air? I ask. Where were these people when I and so many others were making noise about the show? I wonder.
I sometimes ask new fans of the show these questions. More often than not, they talk about how they can’t believe they weren’t aware of the show when it was on the air and how they definitely would have watched it if it were on today.
The strangest thing about Arrested Development is that it is exactly because those people didn’t watch it and it was cancelled before its time that the show is experiencing the cultural significance that it is today. The internet, it is safe to say, changed everything.
I sometimes wonder if a show like Arrested Development could slip through the cracks today. It would be more difficult, but it happens every season.
And it probably happens even more than we know. The broadcast networks (and the studios that own them) don’t want to put smart comedies (or dramas, for that matter) on the air. Why? Because those shows attract less of an audience than shows like Two and a Half Men. This is not to say that Two and a Half Men is a bad show (great shows like I Love Lucy can be enjoyed at random, too), but that shows like Arrested Development aren’t easily accessible to the average viewer. You can’t just turn on the TV and randomly start watching these kinds of shows mid-episode, much less mid-season because there’s backstory, character development, and in-jokes that you wouldn’t understand coming in halfway.
In the case of Arrested Development, the patience and time required on the part of the audience is large part of the reason for the devotion the show inspires in people. Cable has changed all of this, of course. David Chase and The Sopranos started the transition from network to cable programming and this “moviefication” of television. Recently, shows like Louie have changed people’s perceptions of the way that television can be made. Cable allows for shows with cult followings because the expectation threshold for the number of viewers is much lower than the broadcast networks are held to. Very recent changes in the way that viewership for a show is calculated and reflected in the Nielsen ratings, the guiding light of any network (cable or broadcast), may do a little to help cult shows survive, but will never fully change the tough-sell nature of a show that requires dedication on the part of both the network and the viewer.
Although I resent FOX’s treatment of Arrested Development while it was on the air, I am still surprised they kept the show on the air for as long as they did. It certainly wasn’t an easy choice, given the viewership ratings they were faced with and the show’s rising cost.
The broadcast networks will forever function like the same – they appeal to the lowest common denominator because that’s where they get their audiences. They missed the boat when it comes to consistently airing smart programming (that ship sailed soon after The Sopranos ended) – people now go to cable for that.
So, on the eve of Arrested Development’s Netflix premiere, I’m unsure what to think about this new incarnation and the viewers it brings.
Intellectually, I understand that I don’t own the show – I only own my personal experience with it.
That being said, I can’t help but think back to that night in 2006, when the majority of the people who now watch and love the show were completely oblivious to its existence.
On the one hand, I want to yell at the top of my lungs, asking where the fuck everyone was when this brilliant fucking show was on the fucking air you fucking know-nothing sons-of-bitches who had your chance to watch the show back when I had that PowerPoint Jeopardy game in the sixth grade.
I feel possessive. I feel ownership. I feel righteous.
Part of me is positive that if I was to whip out that PowerPoint today and have my now 20-something year old classmates try it again the majority of them would love it.
But then I think back to my dad that summer, alone at home with nothing to do but to watch a stack of his son’s DVDs that he was too lazy to clean up before he left for vacation.
And I realize that you can’t force these things.
You see, I’m half-right: more people should have watched the show when it was on the air. This is something everyone can agree on. I mean, the DVDs were numbers 1, 2, and 3, on Amazon’s DVD charts for months. All the critics were raving about it. I was raving about it. It won the fucking Emmy for Christ’s sake!
Where I go astray is with this sense of ownership, that part of me that believes that the anger and resentment I feel is justified and that it doesn’t jive with my dad’s and my own history with the show where we had to discover it for ourselves.
There’s someone tonight who will flip through Netflix, or Hulu, or YouTube, in search of something to watch and they’ll stumble on the Bluths. They’ll see Tobias boarding a bus of “garishly dressed men,” they’ll learn the recipe for a mayonegg and how to dance like a chicken, and they’ll gain a newfound appreciation for magic and the Blue Man Group. Most importantly, they’ll fall in love with a show that I care deeply and passionately about, the same show that will forever inform my personal sense of what is funny and that always manages to help me out of a difficult day, if only in twenty minute increments. They’ll discover the Bluths and their narcissism and wit, their bitterness and their love, and they’ll identify with their favorite character and quote their favorite lines at the water cooler and talk about the show with their friends who may or may not understand what the hell they’re talking about.
The show wouldn’t be back without longtime fans like me; however, it definitely wouldn’t be back without the groundswell of support these new viewers have granted the show and the campaign to bring it back.
I have to choose: Do I want to be that insufferable prick from technology class, that comedy snob who gets off on my cultural know-how and hipsterism that I find so abhorrent in other people? Or, do want to share my love for things in a mature manner and accept that not everyone has the time or energy to stay as current as I do on all things comedy.
I love this show and I want what’s best for it (does this sound cheesy? I don’t care and fuck you). Despite the resentment I feel, deep down all I want is for people to experience the show as I did the first time and for it to leave the same indelible mark it left on me as a pre-teen and the influence it will continue to have for the rest of my life. I have my battle wound scars to proudly show to friends and the few people who care and to feel slightly bitter about in private.
I realize now that a television show can’t belong solely to me.
I realize now that my personal experience with the show will remain untouched, regardless of how many new fans the show gains.
I realize now that the time for widespread acceptance of Arrested Development has come.