As befits as US sitcom showed by the BBC, it is almost impossible to see Arrested Development properly in the UK. (BBC4 handles it a bit better, but my TV does not handle BBC4 very well). All I knew about it was that I was startled by its speed, its cruelty and its brevity – and found it funny. I was also aware that there was some sort of ongoing story which my once in a blue moon viewing might did not elude to me.
Luckily box sets exist, and watching the first six episodes is very instructive as to how sitcoms rapidly evolve. Arrested Development (I only got the tortuous title after the third show) utilises everything it can do to make it unlike a proper studio based sitcom. But when the set up is laid bare, it is a show about brothers and sisters in the same family living together, most of them trying to get jobs and being rubbish at it. It does however have a much larger cast than expected: and the eccentricities displayed by the nine lead characters could easily be the main character a normal US sitcom might be about. (The failed magician sitcom, the campaigner who foils her own campaigns sitcom, the businessman in prison sitcom, the idiot manchild sitcom, the cousins who fancy each other sitcom.) Also it has mastered the throwaway cut-away gag to such an extent that there are entire scenes shot to illustrate a one second gag. Add to this Ron Howard’s (!) straight man omniscient narration and you have a show which regularly fits in three solid plots in twenty minutes with room for a completely specious and false “coming up in the next episode” segment at the end.
These first episodes can be patchy, but watching in quick succession you can see the original plot wriggling out of control as the show gets a rhythm of its own. It is this more organic nature that British sitcoms, polished by writers and with runs too short to build up this chemistry, often missed. Arrested Development is not the best sitcom ever made, but it takes the US sitcom format and reimagines it just enough to remain nice and fresh.