Farewell to the Bluths

The dyspeptic finale of Arrested Development.

Arrested Development’s final episodes?

Fox bade adieu to the blithering Bluth family of Arrested Development last week, and it did so ignominiously. The two-hour season finale—quite likely the series finale unless Showtime or some other presumed savior charges in to adopt this critics’ darling—aired on Friday night, opposite the opening ceremonies of the Olympics and in front of a paltry 3.3 million sets of eyeballs. The last four episodes of the show’s third season were “burned off,” as bizzers says, which is maybe just as well: The appeal of Arrested Development was its deft screwball comedy, but this farewell, though intermittently hilarious, seemed screwy in its very conception—wiggy, frantic, so self-aware as to be self-abusing. Where the show had a wide dada streak, the last four episodes of its third season bristled with dadaist hostility toward its audience, or perhaps its nonaudience, and toward TV itself, as if to say, “Screw you, too.”

“Devotees will remember that Michael once played a lawyer in a school play,” prodded narrator (and executive producer) Ron Howard near the start of the proceedings. If you haven’t had the pleasure, Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) is the sanest member of an Orange County clan whose patriarch’s management of the family real-estate business has led entities ranging from the SEC to the CIA to investigate its dealings. Here, he’s preparing to assume the role of his father’s counsel at a mock trial, one unfolding on a show-within-the-show called Mock Trial With J. Reinhold and presided over by the Fast Times at Ridgemont High co-star. Based on what transpired at rehearsal, Wayne, the real-life prosecutor, approached Michael about cutting a deal.

Michael: A deal? It’s a mock trial.Wayne: Read the Patriot Act. Anything said in a mock trial or daytime courtroom show can be used in any real criminal proceeding or prime-time procedural show, subject to the interpretation of the presiding judge or the executive producer.Michael: In our case, Judge Reinhold is both.Wayne: Did he get EP?Michael: Sure did.Wayne: Good for him.

Which is, I think, the kind of thing people are talking about when they use the phrase “too clever by half.” If The Simpsons allowed itself metatextual shenanigans on this level, they wouldn’t seem quite so sweaty.

In Friday’s second episode, Michael discovered a woman—her identity is perhaps a key to unraveling his dad’s malfeasance—whom he took to be a long-lost sister. That she turned out instead to be a whore was secondary to a casting stunt: She was Jason Bateman’s actual sister, Justine, late of Family Ties. Is this even a joke? Is it fun enough to justify its smugness? Meanwhile, Michael’s imbecile brother Buster (Tony Hale) was feigning a coma in order to avoid testifying against his father, which occasions what I’ll have to guess is prime time’s inaugural Terri Schiavo joke. This got a giggle, but it was also tasteless for its own sake, the design of someone with nothing to lose. In a further bit of empty provocation, the third episode sent the Bluth boys to Iraq and back in a hail of throwaway gags.

By its final episode, Arrested Development had turned itself inside out in a barrage of material aimed to gratify fans and grate at TV executives, a fusillade of inside jokes, self-references, and mock Variety covers. Michael’s niece Maeby was trying to ink a deal to turn her family’s saga into TV show. She needed her elders to sign away the rights to their life stories, and she invented a ruse in order to do so, adopting a failed tactic of AD devotees and circulating a petition.

Maeby: TV is not as good as it used to be, huh, Uncle Buster? But you can help me out by signing my petition to make it better!Buster: Oh, I kind of like Skating With Celebrities.

So it went. You sat there watching the show implode while at commercial breaks, the unpromising promos for Fox’s new sitcoms glided by. Maybe you decided that a three-season span was all that Arrested Development deserved. That it looked exhausted was perhaps proof it had run its course. The show itself seemed to say as much in its valedictory line. Maeby was taking a meeting with Ron Howard in order to pitch her show. “No,” said the EP, wagging his head. “I don’t see it as a series. … Maybe a movie.”