Arrested Development: The Bluth is Back

TV Features Arrested Development

(or Yes, I Washed a Fake Dog on a Now-Legendary Sitcom)

Editor’s Note: When I assigned Matt Price to write about the return of Arrested Development on Netflix, I’d forgotten that he had a small role on the show in Season One. I just knew he was a funny writer himself (the man came up with Laser Weezer) and that he could tell a good story (he wrote Paste’s Gnarls Barkley cover in 2008). His first reaction was that he might not be unbiased. But this is Arrested Development. Aren’t we all?

“Hey, you were on Arrested Development.”

When I heard the female voice ask this, I quickly looked around the grocery store for Jason Bateman or Jeffrey Tambor. Living in Los Angeles, this kind of Hollywood business happens all the time. It’s like walking into a Starbucks full of people writing screenplays or getting cut in line at the bakery by Anthony Kiedis. You just get used to it. But no cast member was nearby buying his kid yogurt. The woman was talking to me. “You washed the fake dog, right?”

“Oh, yeah. The fake dog! That was totally me!” I barely remembered washing the fake dog, but I have a bad habit of pretending that I remember things, especially when an attractive woman is talking to me. I did remember, however, that I loved having a little part on one of my favorite shows, and I told her so.

Her eyes lit up brighter than the florescent lights in the dairy aisle. “OMG! That must have been amazing!! I love Arrested Development! What was it like? Were they nice? Did you keep the fake dog? Was it a labradoodle? Can I make love to you?”

A version of this little vignette happens periodically, except for the “make love to you” part (that never happens). But the strong reaction from strangers to my very fun, yet very tiny, two-episode, six-line part as Agent Freeling, an SEC agent who tries unsuccessfully to get more dirt on George Bluth, only makes sense if you consider the source: devout fans of Arrested Development. Those fans may not be large in number, but they are definitely passionate and pay great attention to detail. The latter quality is a necessity if you are to enjoy Arrested Development. When Mitch Hurwitz created the show, he developed a ridiculously layered half-hour comedy that almost required the viewer to watch each episode several times. I think this investment caused these fans to fall hard for Arrested Development. Aside from the brilliance of the writing and the pitch-perfect acting, this show belonged to the fans in a way that few shows do.

When the show was cancelled in 2006 after an award-winning, three-season run, its emotional fans were understandably, well, emotional. It caused them to seek out character actors in grocery stores and try to procure information these extremely handsome men did not have. But then the unthinkable happened. In the spring of 2012, Hurwitz announced that Arrested Development was returning on Netflix for Season 4. You can imagine the outpouring of love from the diehards. It could be witnessed by the joyous rants on comedy nerd blogs to the avalanche of #Annyong tweets to speeches in the Canadian parliament given by New Democratic Party leader Thomas Mulcair who asked if $3.1 billion in unaccounted-for anti-terrorism funding was hidden in the banana stand. After that reference, Mulcair had more publicity than when he railed against Canadian Conservatives for mismanaging the foreign temporary worker program. And that was like…well, bad example, but still…Canadian parliament referencing the Bluths?! C’mon!!!

Because of my love of the show and my miniscule role as Agent Freeland, I have a special place in my heart for Arrested Development. I also (because this is really about me) had a recurring role on TNT’s Men of a Certain Age, another critically acclaimed show that was cancelled, according to many, too early. So I understand the frustration as both a fan and an actor when these beloved shows are taken off of our TiVo To Do lists with seemingly little care. “We loved the show,” the exec will say. “We didn’t want to cancel it.” Really? Then why did you?!! I THOUGHT WE HAD SOMETHING SPECIAL TOGETHER!! Cue actor stomping off to sad Peanuts music.

I felt fortunate to have been a part of the show that TIME called one of the Top 100 Television Shows of All Time. The rich world of the dysfunctional Bluth family was like a traveling exhibit in a small museum, and I’m just glad that I happened to catch it during its brief stop in my town. So when it was cancelled, I thought, “Rest in peace, Arrested Development. Like Buster’s right hand devoured by a loose seal, you weren’t with us long enough.”

Other cast members (or I should say the ACTUAL cast members) had their own take on the show’s cancellation. “I don’t think any of us felt any sort of bitterness or huge frustration,” says Jason Bateman, who plays the reluctant glue holding the Bluth family together, at a press conference in Universal City. “I think for the most part that the emotion around the set was certainly that we were bummed, but that we felt pretty grateful that we got that far.”

David Cross plays Tobias Funke, Lindsay’s never-nude-afflicted ex-husband. He has a slightly different opinion. “I don’t take the same meds as Jason. I was a little pissed it was cancelled. I don’t know if vindication is the word I’d use, but it’s certainly satisfying to know that all of us, as well as all of the fans, were right. This should continue.”

When a television show is cancelled, the general public has one of three reactions: 1) cultish outrage, 2) snarky joy or 3) “that’s still on the air?” When Fox cancelled “Arrested Development” in 2006, the prevailing reaction was #1. Critics were pissed, as was a sliver of blue-state America (or as I like to say Bluth-State America—nailed it!). “I’m cancelling my cable!” “Why are TV executives so predictably dumb?” “Good luck with ‘American Idol!’ That piece of crap isn’t going to last!”

But the problem is that that piece of crap did last. The season after Arrested Development was cancelled, “American Idol” dominated TV to the tune of 40 million viewers per week and launched 15 long minutes of fame for Sanjaya. Comparing shows like Idol to Arrested Development is like comparing a Mercedes to a car with stairs. They’re not in the same vehicular universe. And yet that’s how major networks analyze their shows, causing Arrested Development to compete in an unfair playing field.

When Fox finally pulled the plug on the Bluth Family, fans do what they do in the 21st century: They started Internet petitions. They got thousands of e-signatures to agree that this show was special. It was smart and challenging and hilarious, a gift wrapped in several layers of ridiculous paper by Hurwitz and a team of extremely talented writers and actors. This show wasn’t supposed to compete with American Idol. It was actually for the tiny percentage of us who don’t want to see William Hung butcher a Ricky Martin song. Bottom line—can’t you let you us have just one of our shows?

But like most post-cancelled show fever, the outrage disappeared into the rest of the anger that fuels the Internet. Rumors of the show moving to Showtime dissipated. The actors and writers found other jobs. Even Hurwitz had another show on the air. The foundation had finally cracked below the Bluth family’s poorly made house. The chicken dance had stopped. Arrested Development was dead.

Of course, nothing dies in the entertainment industry anymore. When Tupac appears in concert as a hologram, and Star Wars is slated for three new movies, anything is possible. Arrested Development-friendly blogs re-surfaced with hopeful comments about maybe this and MaeBe that. Filming was supposedly scheduled to possibly happen. The diehards couldn’t get too excited, though. They’d been let down before. Even the actors were dubious. Portia De Rossi, who plays the earnest but vapid (her words) Lindsay, says of the waiting game, “I think it was a little boy who cried wolf for awhile.”

Jessica Walter portrays anti-mother of the year Lucille Bluth. She adds, “I only believed [the show was coming back] when wardrobe called me.”

Wardrobe must have called Ms. Walter because an April press release made it official, stating that on May 26th, 2013, Netflix would be releasing Season 4 of Arrested Development with 15 brand new episodes.

Holy shit. The Bluth is back.

Season 4 picks up in real time, seven years after Michael and George Michael (played by Michael Cera) take off for Cabo, leaving the rest of the family on the Queen Mary. Unlike the standard format for the first three seasons, each episode of Season 4 focuses on one character’s perspective. Each Bluth and Bluth-adjacent character has the opportunity to be the center of the story for an entire episode. It’s yet another reason fans (myself included) miss the show so much. Few other shows take format chances after establishing a pattern that the audience understands. I mean, Lost shifted time, but you can do that when you have a Smoke Monster. A half-hour comedy just doesn’t do that. Jason Bateman thinks that it’ll go over pretty well.

Says Bateman, “I hope that (the new format) is appreciated by the people that do love the show. They seem to be a group that likes things somewhat challenging.”

Cross agrees. “That’s gonna make everybody triple excited. There’s going to be a sense of discovery to [the format] and re-define what TV can be.”

Will Arnett, the hopelessly desperate-to-be loved Gob, thinks that the timing of the new season will also add to the fan’s enjoyment of the show. “When the show was on the air originally, it was at a time when the people who were our core demographic weren’t watching television in the traditional way. Certainly they weren’t making appointments to watch television. And now (our fans) can watch the show however they want. And by releasing all of these episodes at the same time that are telling this bigger story, that’s part of the story—the way that you watch it.”

When asked about character development in Season 4, de Rossi admits, “We don’t really grow that much.”

Bateman adds, “The seven years has not been kind to us.”

So how does a beloved show make it back to TV seven years later? All of the actors seem to credit one person: Mitch Hurwitz.

Arnett talks about the difficulty of getting everyone together again. “There were so many moving parts on every level of this thing, from the creative to the business side to the schedule to all of it. It was a very complex thing. It was a real testimony to Mitch, obviously once again leading and driving this thing that came together at all.”

Hurwitz always wanted to get the band back together, but is quick to point out the realties of getting the extremely talented group under the same roof. “It was a complicated thing to get moving. Not because anybody wasn’t motivated, but just because everyone’s got their own lives.”

But once they did, Jessica Walter says that Hurwitz’s vision was what she was looking forward to revisiting most. “I missed the juiciness of the writing. To come back to this writing was very exciting.”

De Rossi agrees. “I feel like as actors, all we really want is great material and great actors and a great cast to play with, and we have all of that, and I think all of us, we’re just really thrilled. It felt like a gift that we got to go back and resurrect something that we really love. That audiences are excited about. We get to work with Mitch and brilliant writers.”

Hurwitz and the cast acknowledge the reality that people already want more, and that seems to be what his original intention was. “All of this [Season 4] was supposed to be Act 1 for the movie.”

While Will Arnett secretly hopes that the attitude of the fans would be, “Let’s just enjoy this,” he also acknowledges, “These current episodes are just a step. There is a bigger story that does exist.”

Adds Hurwitz, “when you get to the end [of the season], or maybe even the middle, you’ll realize that there’s more of a story that’s being set up.”

Judging by the attitudes of the cast, it seems like they’d be up for whatever came next.

Says De Rossi, “We’d like to be a part of this crazy family as long as we can be in any format that Mitch thinks is right for the show. I think we’re all on board for that.”

It’s hard to believe that after waiting seven years for another glimpse of the Bluth family, we’re already demanding more. But in today’s Wiki-age of needing to know everything before it happens, it’s understandable. The only thing for sure is that on May 26th, the fans’ seven-year itch will be scratched. And before you corner me at the yogurt aisle of the grocery store looking for info on Agent Freeling (you won’t), due to strict confidentiality, I’m not allowed to talk about whether or not he appears in Season 4 (he doesn’t). However, I caught up with Agent Freeling to see what he’s been up to for the last seven years. Below is my highly anticipated interview:

Me: So you must be excited to reunite with the Bluth family after all this time.

Agent Freeling: Um…not really. I mean, I’m happy for them, but when I didn’t get the information that the government wanted about George Bluth, I was transferred to a lower division where I had to trail former Presidential candidate John Edwards to see if he was having an affair.

Me: So you found out all that stuff about his mistress?

Agent Freeling: No. I didn’t really look into it because he seemed like such a normal guy. I had coffee with him once when I was trailing him, and his hair was so cool. I just…anyway. I messed up.

Me: I’m sorry to hear that. So did you leave government work entirely?

Agent Freeling: Yeah, it was a dark time. I did whatever I could to make money. I brewed my own beer in the basement. I used that fake dog from my government days and rented it out as a dog clothes model.

Me: That seems like a pretty small group, who would rent a fake dog, I mean.

Agent Freeling: It was. I mean, bigger than you’d think, but…yeah. But again, I was doing anything I could. I was a Bar Mitzvah DJ for awhile. I remember this time I walked into the party with all of my records, and all of the kids were dressed up in orange government wind breakers and aviator glasses, and I was like, “What’s this?” And the dad told me that the party was an SEC agent theme. I just left. I couldn’t handle it.

Me: Sounds rough.

Agent Freeling: It was. But you know what? Even though I wasted my life trying to make sure George Bluth stayed in jail, I learned a lot from that family. You’re never out of the game. If you have hope and believe in yourself, you can always make a comeback.

Me: I’m glad you learned something.

Agent Freeling: Totally. And having Mitch Hurwitz on your side helps too. Do you know if he needs a driver or anything?

Matt Price won an Emmy in 2012 as a writer on the Cartoon Network’s “Regular Show.” He also hosts a podcast called “Whale Cave” where people tell funny stories about music. Follow him @whalecave or look for him in grocery stores in Los Angeles.

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