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January 19, 2023

Breaking Down Arrested Development

Arrested Development may not have had the biggest viewership during its initial airing, but developed a cult-like following, to the point that it was resurrected for fourth and fifth seasons on Netflix.

Referred to as a “very smart show about very dumb people” Arrested Development was a forerunner in single-camera comedies, and provided some big roles for comedy actors that went on to lead their own television shows and feature films.

What is Arrested Development about?

Arrested Development is about the dysfunctional Bluth family, a group of (mostly) self-interested Orange County socialites that run a housing development company.

Created by Mitchell Hurwitz, Arrested Development premiered on Fox on November 2, 2023 and ran for three seasons. It was canceled 13 episodes into the third season in 2006. 

However, Netflix bought the rights and produced two more seasons, released in 2013 and 2019 respectively.

The show’s standout cast included Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, Tony Hale, Alia Shawkat, Michael Cera, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter.

Nearly the entire Bluth family in one photo, looking at an empty hospital bed.
The Blithe family gather around.

The omniscient narrator of Arrested Development is played by Ron Howard. He would also play himself in later seasons. As an Executive Producer, Howard lent his voice for the narration at the table read but when nobody else worked in that role, Howard just kept the part.

Season One of Arrested Development focuses mostly on the family’s struggles. The patriarch George Sr. is in prison, which springboards from the pilot episode where George Sr. is first arrested.

Carl Weathers, playing himself, offers Tobias Funke played by David Cross, a chicken bone in order to "get a stew going"
Carl Weathers, playing himself

The show was also known for its sometimes unconventionally cast guest stars, such as Carl Weathers, as himself.

The title is a play on the family’s housing company, the Bluth Company. This cannot develop properly while their founder and ex-president is arrested and under investigation. It is also about the family themselves. 

Each member is in some way deficient in their maturity. This setup is prime for drama.

What is Dan Harmon’s Story Circle?

Devised by Dan Harmon (creator of Community and Rick and Morty) the Story Circle is a relatively simple framework for story. It’s intentionally vague in its details, providing ample room for understanding and exploration within the guidelines provided.

Who are the characters in Arrested Development?

Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman)

Michael Bluth is the "straight man" of the Bluth family, and the main protagonist of the show. He is the only one of his family who is truly responsible and tries to keep his family together and financially stable, even though they make it difficult for him. He works as the president of the Bluth Company and tries to keep his father, George Sr., out of trouble.

Gob Bluth (Will Arnett)

Gob, short for George Oscar Bluth II, is Michael's older brother and the "black sheep" of the family. He is a failed magician and a womanizer, and often finds himself in ridiculous and comical situations. Despite his flaws, Gob has a certain charm that makes him likable and relatable.

Lindsay Bluth Fünke (Portia de Rossi)

Lindsay is Michael's sister and the wife of Tobias Fünke. She is a socialite who is more concerned with her image and appearance than her family's well-being. She is often frustrated with her husband's lack of ambition and her own lack of purpose in life.

Tobias Fünke (David Cross)

Tobias is Lindsay's husband and a struggling actor. He is often unemployed and is often in denial about his lack of talent. He is very sensitive about his masculinity and is often seen in the show trying to prove himself to others.

George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor)

George Sr. is the patriarch of the Bluth family and the father of Michael, Gob, and Lindsay. He is a wealthy businessman who is sent to prison for fraud in the first season. Despite his criminal behavior, he is often seen as a sympathetic figure as he is a victim of his own family's greed and selfishness.

The Dan Harmon Story Circle breakdown of Arrested Development pilot

Now let's break down the Arrested Development pilot according to Dan Harmon's Story Circle.

1 - The character is in their comfort zone

Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) has been putting in his time at his father’s housing company, and is ready to be made President when his father (Jeffrey Tambor) steps down at his upcoming retirement party.

2 - Character desires something

But they want something.

Michael wants to be President, telling his son George Michael (Michael Cera) that this is everything they’ve been working for.

3 - Character enters an unfamiliar situation

So they enter an unfamiliar situation,

But being President of the company also means being more involved with his family. This means helping out his sister, her husband and their daughter. It also means helping out his older brother, his younger brother, and their mother. All of whom have been availing themselves of company money for some time now, despite not actually working there.

He prepares them for his upcoming presidency, attempting to set boundaries for when he’s in charge.

And yet at the retirement party, George Sr does not name Michael as President. And so Michael vows to leave the family…right as the SEC raids the party.

Michael Bluth stands with his sister Lindsay, mother Lucille, brother GOB and brother Buster
Michael Bluth stands with his family.

4 - Character adapts to the situation

Michael and his son prepare to leave, at the same time the family is sorting out what’s going on with the SEC.

  • George Sr is arrested and put in prison.
  • Michael’s mother Lucille (Jessica Walter) is put in charge of the company, who in turn puts her youngest son Buster (Tony Hale) in charge.
  • Michael’s sister Linsday (Portia de Rossi) is dismayed when her husband (David Cross) decides to leave psychiatry (a stable career) for acting (a not so stable career).
  • But worst of all, the family all discover the company expense account is frozen!

5 - Character gets what they want

The family realizes that they can’t keep the company together without Michael. He’s the only one who has the knowledge and ability to actually run the company.

He’s offered the position, but turns it down, having had enough of his selfish family.

6 - They pay a heavy price for it

Preparing to move to Arizona, Michael overhears his son telling his aunt that he was glad he could see her and spend time with family. Michael understands that for the good of his son, he should stay, and run the company, and keep the family together.

7 -The character returns to their familiar situation

Then return to their familiar situation,

He accepts what he always wanted: being in charge of the company. Except for this company that he’s now in charge of…is under investigation by the SEC. 

8 . They have changed as a result of their journey

But he’s doing it for the good of his son. Not only is he invested in running a successful company, but he’s also invested in providing the family environment that his son needs.

What can we learn from Arrested Development

Arrested Development truly shows the power of specificity. Particularly its comedic power. Look at Buster’s joke about 18th century agrarian business or at Lindsey and Tobias’ anti-circumcision charity H.O.O.P. These could be broader jokes, but specificity just makes things funnier. Any improv class would say the same.

The Bluths aren’t the uber-wealthy (such as their dramatic counterparts: Succession’s Roys) but despite their company’s situation, they’re still incredibly well off. And yet the show has a tremendous amount of empathy for these people, though never fully sympathizing with them. It’s a tricky balance and one of the keys to the show’s success.

It is incredibly difficult for a writer to sustain a story of any type if they judge their characters. Empathy is a key component of writing characters, even if those characters are largely unempathetic to the audience. Which, let’s face it: with a few exceptions, the Bluths as a family are pretty terrible.

Life after death

Due to poor viewership when airing live, Arrested Development was canceled. But in the early days of Hulu and Netflix, the show continued to gain an audience.

So it’s no surprise that Netflix picked it up for actual production, and was one of their first original series.

Omniscient narration

One of Arrested Development’s most distinctive features is the narration from Ron Howard. And yet, how often do screenwriting books tell writers to avoid voiceover narration? So how does it work in Arrested Development?

For one, Howard’s unnamed narrator is omniscient. The literal opposite of an unreliable narrator, and he’s able to provide links between stories and insights that nobody else knows.

Another aspect of the narration is how often it’s used for jokes. Setups and/or punchlines will be traded between the lines spoken by the characters and the narrator. So the medium is being used to full effect.

Yes, it can be a bit of a lazy tool. But in the right hands, it can also be one of the sharpest.

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Breaking Down Arrested Development
David Wappel

David Wappel is a feature writer. Recent work includes the screenplay for Long Gone By, now available on HBO. He was named a Top 25 Screenwriter to Watch in 2020 by the ISA and is the 2019 Stowe Story Labs Fellowship winner. He is an avid Shakespeare and Tolkien fan.

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