In November of 2003, I was a college junior living in Themiddleofnowhere, Arkansas. I watched exactly three TV shows that did not involve sports:
1. Friends - Nearing its end, Friends was still must-see-TV for about 100 billion people;
2. Late Night with Conan O'Brien - Conan was the only talk show host that I or any of my friends watched (a fact that still holds true);
3. Reruns of The Simpsons - I can't tell you when the last time was that I watched a new episode of The Simpsons but from 2001-2005, I watched at least one rerun every weekday.
Within the next year, I would add shows like Lost, 24, and Scrubs to my viewing schedule but in 2003, that was the extent of it. And really, what else would you expect? I had classes, friends, social activities, and a list of other things to get to each week; I was never in my apartment during primetime hours, there was no such thing as a DVR (top five invention ever, by the way) and besides that, there was nothing on network television that appealed to me. The truth is, in 2003 there was very little that television had to offer that was aimed at me, the 20-25 year old, white, educated, male. I was too old for teen dramas (though I would have totally watched Boy Meets World if it was still on the air at the time) and too young for the various C.S.I. and Law and Order-type shows. Sitcoms were in bad shape, not so much dying as simply stale. Sure, people watched shows like 8 Simple Rules, Yes Dear, and According to Jim but no one really cared and young viewers were almost non-existent. Friends, Frasier, and Everybody Loves Raymond had all long-since peaked and would all finish their runs within the next two seasons. Reality TV had taken over and whereas these days, most of the really awful reality shows are relegated to vh1 and Bravo, 2003 was a different story. (Seriously, go look at the lineup from that year. DISGUSTING.) I wanted nothing to do with network television and sitcoms in particular and that was the general consensus among almost everyone I knew.
At some point that year, I started seeing advertisements for a new comedy called Arrested Development. Even in the ads, you could tell that something was different here. I can't remember if they ran trailer-like ads for the show or just the typical, "Watch Arrested Development" blurbs but whatever Fox did, it worked on me. As its debut date neared, I found myself becoming genuinely excited for the premiere though I was completely unsure of what to expect. That was part of the allure then and it's a component of what would make the show so great: you never knew what to expect. For perhaps the first time ever, I made a personal appointment to sit and watch the show's pilot.
Very few TV shows have the ability to suck you in from the first episode. I generally make a point to not judge a show based on the pilot because pilots are inherently flawed and often terrible. Arrested Development, however, was the exception. The pilot is a perfect introduction to the world of the Bluths, the large family at the center of the show, and by the end of the episode, I was completely hooked. It was funny, witty, and above all, exceptionally smart. The characters were well-defined, each of them complex in their own right yet resolute in their various absurdities. I'm not sure I've ever seen a sitcom that didn't have at least one character that wasn't quite as likeable or that got on my nerves. Arrested Development was that show. If you put a gun to my head and forced me to choose my least favorite character from the show, I'd probably just end up breaking down and weeping because they're all INCREDIBLE. It would be a Sophie's Choice for me and I'm only half kidding.
The writing was even better than the characters and the amazing actors who played them. The jokes flew left and right but unlike any other sitcom I'd ever seen, they weren't left sitting out there for the studio audience to pick like so much low hanging fruit. Rather, they were thrown out at a rapid pace, layered one over the other so that it was very possible to miss them if you weren't paying close attention. There were plenty of jokes that anyone could get but the best ones, the ones that really stuck with you, forced you to think for a second before laughing. Arrested Development was the first show that actually respected me, that treated me like I was smart. Whereas Friends took each joke 95 percent of the way toward the audience (not to bash on Friends; best sitcom of its type in my opinion), Arrested Development only went half-way, beckoning the audience to jump in and make the rest of the trip on their own. I felt smarter when I caught a tiny joke that CLEARLY the censors hadn't understood and it was if the show's creators and cast gave me a tiny wink each time, a "knowing nod" or a kudos for catching on.
Somehow, though, the show never became pretentious or so cool that it was no longer cool. That's a vital and often overlooked part of what makes Arrested Development so special. We live in a society that makes a routine out of propping up something that we consider to be "underrated" so much that we eventually get sick of it and turn, calling it "overrated." It happened with The Office, not to mention almost every band that has ever had a crossover hit. Something is cool until it realizes that it is cool and then it gets douchy, losing its coolness. That never happened with Arrested Development because no matter how "inside" the jokes became, the show was never condescending or snobby in its coolness. Maybe more importantly, it never missed. Three seasons brought us 53 episodes and not once was there a misfire. At times, the showed seemed to toy with jumping the shark and then somehow made a joke out of jumping the shark (this actually happened in an episode and it's one of the most glorious moments in the history of television) and kept right on truckin'. If I were to draw the "career" trajectory of Arrested Development on a line graph, the line would start with the pilot episode somewhere around "95 Percent Awesome" and never drop below that mark. (It would actually be a pretty boring graph, come to think of it.) 53 episodes, all of them incredible. No other show has ever or most likely will ever do that.
Each and every week, I would think the show had peaked and each and every week they'd come back with a better, more absurd episode that blew me away. If I had to do something on Sunday night, I'd record the new episode on my VCR (that really was a thing at one time; Google it) and run home to watch it as soon as I could. I annoyed the crap out of everyone around me about how good Arrested Development was and literally begged my friends to watch it. When the first season came out on DVD, I immediately purchased it and threatened bodily harm on the family members of two friends until they both agreed to watch it. We ran through the entire season in less than a weekend and they were both hooked.
And that is perhaps the most frustrating part of the Arrested Development experience: everyone who watched it loved it...but no one watched it.
While I had been preaching the show's merits from the beginning, no one seemed to care. The ratings were poor and Fox (in their infinite wisdom) had no idea how to market a show that was smarter than anything that had EVER been on network television. Make no mistake, this was a tough sell but Fox still botched it. Arrested Development could have been the cornerstone of a comedy lineup but Fox couldn't figure out how to make that work, nor could the network surround it with the right shows. The excruciating thing is that no other network at the time would've taken a chance on a show like Arrested Development and yet Fox was the worst network when it came to allowing a show to grow an audience. That's kind of a nasty catch-22 there; Arrested Development would have had an opportunity to thrive at NBC but at the time, NBC would never take a chance. In its three seasons, Arrested Development received 22 Emmy nominations, winning six. That would have been enough to give it some breathing room at another network but Fox didn't care about Emmys. In the third season, the show was given "one last chance" to draw ratings (which the show again played off of beautifully) and then promptly put the remaining new episodes up against the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Summer Olympics. It was then promptly cancelled. I cried for a week.
The truth is Arrested Development was the guinea pig, the first of a new brand of sitcoms that paved the way for everything to come but couldn't survive the fight. It was innovative in a way that neither the masses nor the networks were ready for. It was simply ahead of its time. The Fox network of today probably would give the show a real chance to find an audience rather than backing away from it so quickly and moreover, more viewers are primed for the show's brand of comedy, due in large part to the number of shows that can trace their origins directly to it. There is no Office, Modern Family, Big Bang Theory, or (especially) 30 Rock without Arrested Development. That may seem like an opinion but I'd be willing to claim it to be scientific fact because it's the absolute truth in my mind. All of these shows (and many others) belong to a new brand of sitcom that has the audacity to treat the audience like they might actually have brains capable of thinking through a particularly clever joke. That doesn't happen without the influence of Arrested Development.