“This is the story of a wealthy family, who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together...” These 25 words opened each episode of “Arrested Development,” giving the audience absolutely no preparation for what was to follow: a tightly woven tapestry of diverse comic elements with something to please — and alienate — almost everybody.
“Arrested” was always an acquired taste. I had the benefit of catching it from the first episode where the show hooked me with lines like “it’s not really an intervention. It’s a little bit more of an imposition.” I knew the program was never going to be a mass-appeal hit when I found myself explaining most of its best jokes to family and friends after every episode ended.
With a large talented cast playing a mismatched collection of mostly unsympathetic characters, “Arrested” was reminiscent of 1970s classic “Soap,” but without that show's reassuring narrator, famed for saying “Confused? You won’t be, after this week’s episode.” In fact, "Arrested Development's" narrator, TV icon and executive producer Ron Howard, served as an extra character, setting up some gags, paying off others and ending each episode with a “preview” of scenes that may or may not ever show up on a future show. Confused? You will be.
“Arrested” was filled with wicked wordplay and painful puns. Buster Bluth, after years of dealing with domineering mother Lucille, got his hand bit off by a “loose seal.” Oddly named Maeby created a fictitious alter ego she named Shirley (“Surely?”). The show was jammed with pop culture references, including Henry Winkler, who played the family lawyer, hopping over a dead shark. ("Jump the shark" much, Fonz?) Risque double-entendres abounded, too, many of which were brother-in-law Tobias’ Freudian slippage: his past work as a psychological analyst and therapist he brainlessly abbreviated to “analrapist.”
While other so-called edgy comedies shoot for shock value (I’m looking at you, “Family Guy”), “Arrested” reveled in an atmosphere of creepiness, including painful sexual tension between teenage cousins, and plot turns such as Michael the Good Son never noticing that his love interest (guest Charlize Theron) was mentally retarded. The show frequently included outbursts of bleeped profanity, yet viewers knew the show wouldn’t have been as funny on a cable channel without the bleeps.
Finale beaten by ‘Smackdown,’ ‘Reba’
The FOX network actually gave much more support to “Arrested” than to many other highly regarded shows (“Firefly,” “Wonderfalls,” “The Tick”). For a while it had the coveted timeslot after “The Simpsons,” but neither that nor a fistful of Emmys ever boosted its audience much over 6 million (great for most of TV, but fourth place against ABC, NBC and CBS).
So FOX slowly reverted to its usual habits, pre-empting the show during the ratings sweeps, cutting the second season from 22 to 18 episodes, and moving it to Monday for the fall of 2005. There, its audience shrunk by a third, the third season was cut to 13 shows, and last-minute schedule changes left angry fans with a half-hour of “Prison Break” on their TiVos. Meanwhile, DVDs of the show were best sellers, even with the shorter second season priced the same as the first.
FOX finally stopped pretending to care, airing the final four episodes opposite the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics and changing announcements from “Season Finale” to “Finale” midway through the broadcast.
The show's last hurrah on Feb. 9 pulled in fewer than 3 million viewers, far behind the Olympics, behind “WWE Smackdown,” even behind “Reba.” Apparently, much of the show’s so-called loyal fan base had decided to wait for the season 3 DVDs and instead tune in to the Final Four.
I wouldn’t want to spoil the ending for them, but it turns out George Sr. was duped by the CIA into building the houses in Iraq, Maeby really was Lindsey’s natural daughter but it was Lindsey who was adopted, and Korean kid Annyong was the grandson of the inventor of the Frozen Banana whom the Bluths ripped off years ago, while Michael finally realizes that loyalty to family wasn’t so important so he leaves with George Michael for Mexico, and, in the only real cliffhanger, Buster ends up in the water facing the same seal that bit off his hand. And as a postscript, Maeby tries to sell the family’s story to a big-name producer — Ron Howard.
Maybe it was time for the show to bow out, after all. Where would we go from here? How could Michael return to his family without turning from long-suffering and loyal to a simple glutton for punishment? And what would be funny about George Michael and Maeby in a normal teenage relationship? No, “Arrested Development” has developed as far as it can, and I can accept that, let go and look forward to new shows from the people responsible. Still, there’s a Pismo Beach motel called the Blue Seal I pass frequently, and it always makes me think “Ah yes, Lucille.”
Wendell Wittler is the online alias of a writer from Southern California.
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