Season One: Winner of the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy its first year out, Arrested Development is the kind of sitcom that gives you hope for television. A mockumentary-style exploration of the beleaguered Bluth family, it's one of those idiosyncratic shows that doesn't rely on a laugh track or a studio audience; it's shot more like a TV drama, albeit with an omniscient narrator executive producer Ron Howard overseeing the proceedings. Holding the Bluths together just barely is son Michael Bluth Jason Bateman, the only normal guy in a family that's chock full of nuts. Hardworking and sensible, Michael's certain he's going to be given control of his family's Enron-style corporation upon the retirement of his father Jeffrey Tambor. The fact that he's passed over instead for his mother Jessica Walter is only a blip when compared to his father's immediate arrest for dubious accounting practices, and the resulting freeze on the family's previously limitless wealth.
Bereft of money, and even less family love, the Bluths have to band together in their moment of need--not easy when everyone's looking out for number 1. In addition to his scabrous parents, Michael has to contend with his lothario older brother Will Arnett, his basically useless younger brother Tony Hale, his greedy twin sister Portia DeRossi, and her sexually ambiguous husband David Cross. Michael's only comrade in sanity is his son George Michael Michael Cera, but then again, the teenage boy harbors a secret crush on his cousin Alia Shawkat. A peerless ensemble led by the brilliant Bateman who ever knew he could be this good?, all the actors are pitch-perfect in their roles, delivering the dryly funny, sometimes absurdist dialogue with the speed and flair of classic farce. The unusual tone of Arrested Development takes a bit of getting used to--it's far different from anything you'll see on TV, even HBO--but once you buy in to the Bluths' innumerable dysfunctions, you'll be laughing your head off for hours.--Mark Englehart
Season Two: The axe of cancellation dangled perilously over Arrested Development during its second season, but the award-winning comedy fought against fate to deliver a hilarious if scattershot 18 episodes reduced from the original show order of 22, and stayed alive for the beginning of a third season. Most likely, the creators and actors knew the clock was ticking down, so they didn't hesitate to throw their all into these manic, hilarious episodes, which have only the thinnest of plot arcs but an electrifying energy that makes them hard to resist. Some of the story antics were more of the same: good son Michael Jason Bateman tries to keep his company afloat, but is often foiled by older brother Gob Will Arnett; the precarious marriage of Lindsay Portia de Rossi and Tobias David Cross undergoes a trial separation; and young George-Michael Michael Cera fights his attraction to his cousin Maeby Alia Shawkat. Other show developments, though, were new and stunningly, uproariously bizarre: Buster Tony Hale joins the army, but later finds his hand bitten off by a seal yes, a real seal, and Oscar Jeffrey Tambor, the hippie brother of jailed George Sr. also Tambor, rekindles an affair with sister-in-law Lucille Jessica Walter, which may have resulted in Buster's conception years ago.
Jokes flew fast and furious, as did guest stars--Ben Stiller, Julia Louis-Dreyfuss, Christine Taylor, Thomas Jane, Ed Begley Jr., Ione Skye, and Zach Braff among them--making it hard to keep straight who was doing what and why. No matter, as each of the episodes was in and of itself was a perfect gem of comedy, strung together by sharp writing and fantastic performances. In addition to the regular cast, both Liza Minnelli, reprising her role as "Lucille Two," and Martin Short, as an, um, eccentric family friend, deserve special mention, with the episode both appeared in, "Ready, Aim, Marry Me," a frenetic exercise in slapstick farce. Typical examples of the show's offbeat humor were found in "Afternoon Delight," in which various members of the Bluth family discover the true meaning of the '70s ballad, "Meet the Veals," wherein the Bluths encounter the conservative parents of George Michael's girlfriend, and "Motherboy XXX," surrounding an unsettling mother-son traditional dance. The entire cast cohered perfectly through this season, and their give and take provided a perfect balance among the actors, all of whom were even better than the previous year. However, it's Bateman who should be singled out as the show's anchor, mixing dry sarcasm with impeccable comic timing. Despite plummeting ratings, Arrested Development didn't just keep its head above water, it swam with grace and hilarity. --Mark Englehart
Season Three:Arrested Development--one of the greatest comedies in the history of television--went out in a blaze of glory. The truncated final season packed more biting humor per minute than ever before. In only 13 episodes, dozens of intertwining storylines spun in all directions: In addition to the overarching story about the fractious infighting of the Bluth family and the family's housing development company being investigated for treason in Iraq a plot arc that comes to a dazzlingly surreal conclusion, the put-upon "good son" Michael Bluth Jason Bateman, Teen Wolf Too pursues romance with a lovely British woman Charlize Theron, Monster who turns out to be woefully inappropriate; swaggering magician Gob Will Arnett, Monster-In-Law flees from his newly-discovered teenage son while still pandering for the affection of his self-absorbed father Jeffrey Tambor, The Larry Sanders Show; flighty Lindsay Portia de Rossi, Ally McBeal and her sexually blurry husband Tobias David Cross, Mr. Show both get the hots for the family's new lawyer, Bob Loblaw Scott Baio, Charles in Charge; and much, much more. It's difficult to describe what makes Arrested Development so brilliant. The ensemble is uniformly superb Jessica Walter, as the family's boozing, scheming matriarch, is particularly devastating this season and the surprising guest stars including Andy Richter, James Lipton, Justine Bateman, and many others are perfectly cast; the characters' abominable behavior defies conventional television notions of "likability", yet they only grow more endearing the more you watch; the humor embraces wild slapstick and sharp satire, often within a single scene; and the nimble documentary style allows for sly glancing references to jokes and scenes from long-past episodes, rewarding devoted fans. But the key is that, no matter how screwball Arrested Development becomes, the show offers a rich, textured, and wonderfully coherent world in which these characters feel genuine, a world completely unlike the flat, plastic simulacrum offered by the average sitcom. Arrested Development was true to itself to the end. Its followers will cherish it forever. --Bret Fetzer