Arrested Development Was the Ultimate DVR Show

Too bad almost no one had a DVR when it aired.

Jeffrey Tambor in the trailer for the new season of "Arrested Development"

Was Arrested Development a show before its technological time?

Courtesy of Netflix

When Bonanza debuted on NBC in the fall of 1959, it was the most beautiful show on television. At the time, Western dramas were a popular TV genre, with Gunsmoke the undisputed ratings champ. But Bonanza, which chronicled the Cartwright family’s ranching adventures, looked like nothing that had come before. “It was shot in this very theatrical, movie style—outdoors, with big sweeping vistas and panoramas,” says television historian Tim Brooks. More enchantingly, it was in color—the first Western and one of the few shows of any kind to have been filmed for new color sets. “NBC had created this peacock logo that opened up in a rainbow of color,” Brooks says. “And they had this announcer—‘Brought to you in living color [on] NBC.’ ”

It was an immediate flop. This was partly due to stiff competition; Bonanza aired on Saturday evenings at 7:30, opposite CBS’s indomitable Perry Mason. But the larger problem was that few viewers could appreciate its good looks. Fewer than 5 percent of American homes had color TVs, Brooks says. Because most other shows were in black-and-white, most people didn’t see a need for color sets.

In its third season, NBC moved Bonanza to Sunday evenings, where it began to find an audience. And once people caught the Bonanza bug, many rushed out to buy color TVs so they could better appreciate the show. This created a virtuous feedback loop. Bonanza helped sell color sets. TV executives, seeing these new color sets fly off the shelves, began to switch more of their shows to color—which in turn sold more color sets, and brought even more people to Bonanza. In 1964, according to Brooks’ Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows, Bonanza shot to No. 1. It held on to that spot for two more years, and it remained in the top 10 until the early 1970s. And by 1970, about 40 percent of American households had color TV.

The history of television—and, really, much of popular entertainment—is full of stories like this one, in which a technological advance is symbiotically paired with key programs that helped sell that technology. In the same way that Bonanza brought us color, cable gave us The Real World, Rugrats, and Peter Arnett on a Baghdad roof—programming that would only have been possible on low-cost, experimental cable networks, and which sparked widespread adoption of the medium. (The Real World—with an assist from Cops—was also made possible by new handheld video cameras, the cause of our reality-soaked age). In the same vein, we later got shows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, thanks in part to new business models enabled by DVDs.

Sometimes, though, something goes wrong: A new technology comes along, a new program takes advantage of its possibilities, but—because the show is too early, too different, and the technology isn’t accessible—it doesn’t take off. That’s Arrested Development.

More than any other recent TV show, Mitchell Hurwitz’s absurdist take on a dysfunctional suburban family depended on, and showed the potential for, new technologies that would revolutionize how we all watched TV. These technologies were DVRs, DVDs, and online streaming. There was only one problem: Arrested Development was created in 2003, when almost nobody had a DVR, when TV shows weren’t always offered on DVD, and when online streaming seemed unimaginable. (Netflix launched its streaming service in 2007, a year after Arrested Development was canceled.) This show was way, way ahead of its time.

True, you didn’t need a DVR to watch Arrested Development. But the show’s signature quality is comic density; every scene is overflowing with both spoken and visual jokes, some of which overlap, and many of which go by very quickly. It is also irretrievably self-referential—if you happened on it midway through the season, you wouldn’t have understood what was going on with the stair car. Many shows that came along after Arrested Development—notably 30 Rock and Community, but in some ways every current prime-time comedy—borrow some of the same techniques. But Arrested Development did a lot of these things first. “In a funny way we feel like we’re making a show for the new technology,” Hurwitz told Fresh Air in 2005. “We’re making a show for TiVo. We’re making a show for DVDs.”

When it debuted on FOX, only around 3 million of American homes—less than 3 percent—had DVRs; now, Nielsen estimates that number has jumped to 46 percent of homes. The show, meanwhile, attracted just about 6 million viewers in its first two seasons, and 4 million in its third. I have no way of proving it, but I suspect that there was huge overlap here—that almost everyone with a DVR loved Arrested Development, and that everyone who didn’t, didn’t. Because how could they? Some of Arrested Development’s best jokes are on screen for just a few seconds—quick shots of yearbook quotes or Tobias’ blue handprints. (Arrested Development owes a huge debt to The Simpsons here, a show in which every bit of on-screen text is a joke that can to be decoded by freeze frame.) The show is also obsessed with continuity. “We wanted the rules of the world to be consistent,” Hurwitz said during a recent conference call with journalists. “If somebody smashed a hole in the wall, we wanted that hole there the next week. People who ended up seeing it back-to-back really got a distilled sense of that.”

But if you didn’t watch it on DVD, and if you didn’t have a DVR—that is, if you first found it while flipping channels and had no way to catch up on the show’s larger arc—you wouldn’t have been able to appreciate all that. It would have been like watching Bonanza in black-and-white. You would have gotten the gist. But you wouldn’t have really understood the show’s appeal. No wonder Fox canceled it.

And yet it’s these very same technological demands that explain Arrested Development’s longevity. Once the show was issued on DVD, new audiences could finally see the show as a self-referential, endlessly rewatchable whole. And once they did so, people noticed something amazing—they could watch each episode a second, third, or fourth time and keep seeing new stuff. For example, it turns out the show was subtly foreshadowing Buster’s missing hand long before that tragic seal attack, and it was constantly dropping hints about Annyong’s planned revenge on the Bluths. Also, Tobias was probably an albino black man.

Last summer, Splitsider aimed to publish a comprehensive list of these Easter eggs, “53 Arrested Development Jokes You Probably Missed.” But it didn’t get them all; this year, Splitsider published a list of 53 more. What’s amazing about this is that the creators didn’t expect anyone to find this stuff—Hurwitz has said that he only learned after producing the first season that Arrested Development would get a DVD release.

Now, some of these Easter eggs are incredibly subtle, and I suspect many belong less in the category of “hidden jokes” than in “coincidences spotted by people with too much time on their hands.” But I can see why fans keep watching to collect more of these. I’ve watched every episode of the first three seasons of Arrested Development multiple times. Ever since the show has been available on Netflix’s streaming service, it’s become my go-to source for a quick dose of surefire comedy. Even though I know the story, I know I’m never going to be bored, because there’s just so much there. And this gets to one more tech-enabled reason the show is hilarious. Because it was recorded with digital cameras, photographers had to spend far less time lighting the set than they would have with film cameras—allowing for lots and lots of takes. “If we get to the set at 8 a.m., we’re lit and ready to shoot at 8:10, and then you can run the scene 14 or 15 times—and that’s where the comedy comes from,” Hurwitz told Fresh Air.

Hurwitz has spoken grandly, but cryptically, about how being on Netflix affected how he went about writing the new season of Arrested Development. There were a couple of obvious differences he had to take into account—there are no commercial breaks on Netflix, and episodes could be made longer or shorter than a standard 30-minute sitcom. Because the entire season would be going up at the same time, he toyed with making the episodes unordered, letting audiences choose how to watch. But he eventually went back on that plan. Instead, all the events in the season are occurring concurrently, and you’ll sometimes see the same scene in different episodes from different perspectives.

In the conference call, he explained that ideally viewers would be able to jump from one episode to another at the push of a button when that happens. But once again, he’s ahead of his time: “We have things in the show that the technology isn’t quite able to handle, just like we did in the first show,” he said during the press call.

Hurwitz has also thought of more far-reaching ways to use tech to change the show. “Jim Vallely, my longtime producing partner, has been saying that we should just make all the drives available—after this comes out, we should just make all the drives of all the content available online and let people cut their own versions of it. I also thought about doing a Google Chat in the writers’ room: We were stuck about whether GOB should do this or that, and then we thought, ‘Why don’t we ask the people we’re trying to please, anyway?’ ”

He didn’t finish the thought, so I don’t know if we’ll ever see that kind of thing. But I wouldn’t count it out. “I just happen to love the idea of exploiting the technology,” Hurwitz says.  “It’s the kind of thing I really get a kick out of.”