Lessons from Great TV #8: Arrested Development
If dying is easy and comedy is difficult, the hardest thing of all is comedy with plot. Plot, as I’ve mentioned before, is usually deadly in comedy, which isn’t designed to gracefully convey large amounts of information. That’s why farce, with its intricate web of misunderstandings, deceptions, and near-misses, is so hard to pull off—it’s like a machine that either runs beautifully or doesn’t work at all. Which is why Arrested Development isn’t just the best television comedy of the past ten years, but also the most brilliantly written show of any kind. Mitchell Hurwitz’s labor of love is often seen as the grandfather of the modern mockumentary sitcom, but in fact, it represents a different comedic tradition altogether. Shows like The Office and Parks & Rec tend to keep the underlying structure loose and baggy, leaving enough room for random improvisational detours, but every episode of Arrested Development is constructed like a fine watch. With so much going on at all times, and so many background jokes and callbacks that only reveal themselves after multiple viewings, it’s a wonder that the show ever manages to let its actors breathe—and yet it does. There’s never a sense that the performers are trapped by the show’s clockwork rhythms: instead, actors like Will Arnett and Tony Hale commit fully to the demands of the plot while also finding room for moments that are weird, wonderful, and often strangely human.
There’s no better showcase for the show’s intricate craftsmanship than “Pier Pressure,” the tenth episode of the first season. While I can’t quite call it the show’s finest moment—especially because there’s no Tobias—it’s still the best example of its ability to gather a tangled skein of threads into one big payoff. The show’s genius, here and elsewhere, is to use great jokes to convey information: elements that seem like throwaway gags (the Hot Cops, Lucille Two’s vertigo, the one-armed J. Walter Weatherman) later turn out to play crucial roles in the narrative. It’s as if each of the cutaways in an episode of Family Guy were retrospectively revealed to be pieces of an ingenious mosaic of storytelling, rather than nothing but randomly generated pop culture references—a comparison that only points up the difference between truly great comedy and a mere gag machine. There’s something almost musically satisfying in the way all the parts come together, and it’s a trick that the series managed to pull off week after week. Since the show’s cancellation, Hurwitz and the former cast members have struggled to recreate that magic, but perhaps it’s best to think of Arrested Development as an outlier—a show in which all the elements happened to fall together perfectly, “the delta-q’s piling up just right,” as Pynchon might say. I’m still not sure how it all worked, and I don’t know what the lessons are here. But then again, perhaps it’s best not to teach lessons at all.
Tomorrow: The slow-drip approach to storytelling.