You know how during the primaries of any given election, the candidate most likely to take a firm stance is also the least likely to get elected? In the age of the internet, that unfortunate truth has been made abundantly clear and has sharpened, as the internet grants a mass public greater transparency to the system, and the lesser-known candidates gain a wider visibility to a mass public. The internet has made possible the cult of Ron Paul; it got Obama elected; it has helped to form small but vocal groups like the Tea Party and the Occupy Movement. That’s why we argue so much on today’s political stage: in an atmosphere where we can get in touch with like-minded people so easily, we ditch the two-party system and gravitate toward the club most singularly tailored to our specific views. And TV is no different. Like politics, it has been tremendously affected by technology. Almost no one watches their favorite show at the actual time it airs anymore; there’s no collective experience (much like the dissipation of the two-party system, there’s no four-network system anymore, either). Rather, people gather in pockets to watch shows tailored exactly to their tastes, and they watch those shows religiously. In some ways, that’s very good. It allows for quirky, experimental shows to breathe and find an audience, because shareholders don’t expect ratings juggernauts anymore, just cult favorites. Sitcoms as varied as Community and Parks and Recreation and Louie are as good as anything at the movies, there’s just not nearly as many people watching them.
This wasn’t always the case. In fact, you could make the argument that there’s something kind of lost without a hit TV show, about which you could speak to anyone at work—not just the nerds who looked just like you, or your Facebook groups—the day after a new episode. Before the internet, we had to all watch the same shows because there wasn’t really any other choice. And the networks, for their part, understood that and tried to fuse innovation with tradition. In NBC’s golden years, even something as original as Seinfeld, or as sophisticated as Frasier, or even as adult as Cheers, had a multi-camera structure, a laugh-track, and a set-up-and-punch-line comedic rhythm. The smart people got great content, and the..uh…less smart people were told when the jokes were coming up and felt comfortable with the familiar. Then every Must See TV show ended at what seemed like the exact same time, and no one knew what to do for a while, until the writers’ strike in 2006, which forced networks and writers alike to get creative. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog was made specifically for the internet by Joss Whedon in an attempt to evade the scrutiny of the networks, and other people followed suit, and now—especially with the Fincher-directed House of Cards as a Netflix original series—the internet is not only the place to catch up on shows you’ve missed, but its own legitimate TV-hybrid art form.
That’s why it couldn’t be more appropriate that Arrested Development is re-premiering on Netflix itself. AD originally premiered, after all, ten years ago, right in that little hiccup between the fall of primetime and the rise of the internet, when everyone loved it but no one knew what to do with it. After Fox ditched plans to give AD a Family Guy-esque second chance, and IFC scrambled but lost the rights to it, Netflix has swooped in and saved the Bluths. It’s funny in a weird meta-way that Arrested Development suffers a lot of the same problems that the Bluths themselves do. The Bluths, recall, were a once-revered family who then nose-dove from the good graces of the public (a rich family’s equivalent of television cancellation), and then spent the intervening years doing everything they could to survive just one more day. Every time you thought they were pretty much goners, somehow they figured a way out of it—and, weirdly, as reprehensible as their behavior could sometimes be, you couldn’t help but love them.
It’s by no means an overstatement to say that most of your favorite sitcoms wouldn’t be around were it not for Arrested Development’s influence. It was one of the first single-camera comedies in the resurgence of that technique. While it’s not an Office-style documentary, it is indeed filmed much like one, and the voice-over narration is—tonally, functionally, and in terms of comedic timing—the same thing as the talking heads in the many documentary-style sitcoms we have now. And it was the first sitcom to be essentially a live-action cartoon (really, it’s closest to The Simpsons, if you had to pick an influence). Characters make a quick reference to the past and we jump cut to something from a few hours earlier that day, hear a line of dialogue, then jump back. Set-pieces are often over-the-top, like the banana stand or the Bluth home itself. Characters have names like Bob Loblaw, George-Michael, and Tobias Funke. Plots are so ridiculous that the concepts themselves are the joke (my favorite: Charlize Theron as Michael’s English girlfriend, who is mentally handicapped, but no one notices because of her accent). And most astonishingly—and certainly not unlike The Simpsons—it actually managed to get you to give a shit about the characters throughout the zaniness. Not just give a shit, but actually care.
Today’s post-Must See TV hit sitcoms are—like those presidential candidates who eventually get the nomination—bowdlerized, cookie-cutter, one-size-fits-all bland-fests. And what’s worse, they’re derivative. The two highest-rated sitcoms on network TV right now are Two and A Half Men (which let’s face it is just the eight-zillionth version of The Odd Couple) and Modern Family (which, when the whole cast took a product-placement trip to Disney World last year—Disney owns ABC—I realized is just Full House with some gay and Hispanic stereotypes peppered in). In light of that, it’s a small miracle that Arrested Development even exists, let alone that we’re finally getting new episodes. Welcome back, Bluths.