On Arrested Development and the wised-up modern sitcom
TV’s digital revolution was supposed to be a good thing. But if you switch on your set, you could be forgiven for thinking that television’s great leap forward has delivered nothing much more than a wider vista of dreck, some of which looks fractionally crisper than it used to. The revolution seems to be stuck in that phase where the best of times co-exist with the worst. One knows, in theory, that television is going through a kind of golden age, especially in America. But you wouldn’t know it from watching TV. Trying to catch the best shows as they go to air is like participating in an easter-egg hunt organised by a sadist.
But who bothers any more, when you can wait a year and buy the whole box of chocolates on DVD? The best of the new shows – especially the comedies – belong permanently on your shelf anyway, like books. They are dense and eminently rewatchable; they contain more jokes than you can possibly absorb the first time round. They’re written with an exuberance that makes a lot of today’s respectable literature look moribund by comparison. They make you wonder, in fact, if it’s time we overhauled our prejudices about what respectable literature is. The best comic writing being done in America today isn’t being done in magazines, or in novels. It’s being done for the once-reviled medium of television.
I’ve already argued, in these pages, that Tina Fey’s 30 Rock is the best of the current comedies (and Tina still hasn’t thanked me for that, by the way). But before 30 Rock came on the scene, an even cleverer show named Arrested Development blazed all too briefly across America’s plasma firmament. Quite possibly the funniest sitcom ever made, Arrested Development aired on America’s Fox network from 2003 to 2006, but never caught on with a broad audience. Fans still mourn the show’s axing. But watching the show on DVD, you don’t feel that mourning is quite the right attitude to take. The real marvel isn’t that the show was axed, but that something so dementedly brilliant was ever produced in the first place. In a less adventurous age, it wouldn’t have been. Arrested Development pushed adventurousness to suicidal lengths. But for that reason, it might stand as the best emblem yet of what the new TV can do. Above all, the new TV has wit – a quality that the old TV was rarely capable of, and that literature is fast forgetting even to attempt.
Arrested Development got its start when the veteran entertainer Ron Howard, wearing his producer’s cap, commissioned the writer Mitchell Hurwitz to create a sitcom about a dysfunctional family. It doesn’t sound – does it? – like an especially promising idea. And neither Howard nor Hurwitz, prior to 2003, had established much of a track record for freewheeling brilliance. Howard, as a movie director, had always stuck pretty zealously to the middle of the road. And Hurwitz, as a writer and producer, had done time on such old-school sitcoms as The Golden Girls.
But by 2003, for reasons I’ll get into later, American TV was a place where smart and imaginative people were finally being encouraged to let rip. And Hurwitz turned out to have been sitting on some remarkable powers of invention. Partly inspired by the Enron fiasco, he concocted a family of shady property developers called the Bluths. The disgraced Bluth patriarch, George Senior, spends most of the first series in jail, awaiting trial for various acts of corporate malfeasance. His only honest child, the recently widowed Michael, reluctantly agrees to keep the Bluth Company running; he moves into one of the Company’s shoddy model homes, and drives around in the stair-car that once serviced the family’s private jet. The remaining Bluth children are grotesque, self-obsessed freeloaders. Michael’s older brother is a hack magician; his younger one is an effete mother’s boy. Their sister Lindsay (played by the Australian actress Portia de Rossi) is a socialite with expensive tastes and a theoretical interest in liberal causes. (When she climbs up an endangered tree to help a crusty environmentalist stage a sit-in, Michael yells after her: “I’ll see you when you realise what that bucket’s for.”)
Arrested Development is Dallas retooled as a farce; it’s Eight is Enough time-shifted to an era when jailhouse rape and cousin-on-cousin incest are permissible sitcom themes. It bears no resemblance to those sitcoms of yore in which actors hit their marks in front of a studio audience and doggedly tried to stretch a two-minute idea over the eternity of half an hour. Instead it packs the ideas tight into every cranny, like thirty feet of intestine. It simply has no time to obey sitcom convention. Scenes are short and brisk; the actors move and talk freely, eavesdropped on by handheld cameras, unimpeded by the yucks of a live audience or laugh track.
The result is a show that looks as dynamic as a feature film, while retaining a thoroughly unmovielike respect for the primacy of script. This best-of-both-worlds arrangement is a defining feature of American TV’s new wave. Cinema, one sometimes feels, will always be perversely nostalgic about its origins as a silent medium: it will always favour the image over the word. Stuff made for the small screen can’t afford to do that. It must stand or fall on the quality of its verbal architecture. Arrested Development’s is first-rate. “What are you doing tomorrow?” Michael’s ghoulish mother asks him. “Having my day ruined by whatever you’re about to ask me to do,” he replies. And here is Michael being revolted by the prospect of his mother’s going on a date: “The man is old enough to be her contemporary.”
One could go on quoting: each episode is laced with lines as good as that. But as sharp as the dialogue is, a lot of the show’s flavour comes from things that aren’t quotable, such as the performances of the strikingly talented cast. Watching Arrested Development, you can see, for once, what the word “synergy” really means. The show got better as it went, partly because the brilliance of the actors’ characterisations kept feeding back into the scripts, lashing the writers towards ever more bizarre heights of invention. Characters evolved. Plots snowballed. Jokes played increasingly clever variations on well-established themes. Everything kept building on everything else.
Suddenly American TV is ready, at its best, to do the things that only TV can do. At last writers are being allowed to play with the huge goody-bag of advantages that a long-running series has over a ninety-minute film. In the past, each episode of an American sitcom tended to be self-contained, like a miniature movie. The “situation” would reset itself every week, so that transient viewers could dip in and out without suffering any mental inconvenience. Sitcom writers had no elbow-room in which to do any real writing, even if they were capable of it. Like all genre writers, they had to spend most of their time ticking boxes – delivering catchphrases, imparting homilies, ensuring that the group hug would be punctually arrived at.
But Arrested Development’s writers were free to write in a more personal way. Under no obligation to meet your expectations, they had a chance to make you really laugh – a transaction that almost always requires that your expectations be violated. Inevitably, they struck the odd bum note over the show’s course. But they also had an almost Hendrix-like flair for improvisation. Their writing fully exploited TV’s suppleness as a medium – its ability to react to the day-to-day influences around it. If they couldn’t get the rights to a song, they made that part of the story. When the show started to tank in the ratings, they found a way of using that, too.
They were also ready to embrace bad taste in a way that most literary writers wouldn’t dare. The way the show extracted laughs from the Iraq war – which also started in 2003 – looks bold even from this distance. Early in season one, Michael begins to worry that his father has done treasonous deals with Saddam Hussein during the sanctions era. His suspicions are tweaked when he sees a press photo of a Saddam mini-palace, which looks uncannily like a Bluth model home. (“Is it my imagination, or does that rape room have the same floor plan as our kitchen?”) A few episodes later, we see a damning archival photo of George Senior shaking hands, Rumsfeld-style, with Saddam. (“I thought he was the guy who played the Soup Nazi,” George protests. “I told him I liked his work.”) Finally, owing to circumstances far too bizarre to summarise, Michael winds up in Iraq. He drops in on one of his father’s sanctions-busting palaces, and finds a trio of Saddam Hussein lookalikes living inside. They’re watching Saddam’s trial on TV, wondering if the verdict will rob them of their livelihoods. The lookalikes are scrupulously polite; one of them apologises for a small lapse in manners by saying: “I am behaving like an Uday lookalike.”
From Happy Days to that in the space of twenty years is a sensational leap. If Thomas Pynchon could write stuff like that, he would be as funny as his admirers think he is. American TV has snuck up on us. Watching it has become a rewarding thing for a literate adult to do. How on earth did that happen?
* * *
When the British sitcom was at its best – and it hasn’t been at its best for a while – there was no doubt that it was a form in which lasting work could be done. Shows like Fawlty Towers and Yes, Minister survive, and are beginning to look timeless, while many a brooding play from the same period has slipped quietly through our cultural sieve.
But it isn’t surprising that the British, historically, have tended to deliver a better class of TV. The typical British sitcom is produced at the rate of six half-hour episodes a year. Under those leisurely conditions, a whole run of shows can be written by a lone person, although the best British shows have generally been written by a team of two. When John Cleese and Connie Booth wrote Fawlty Towers, they had time and space in which to get things right. Only twelve episodes of Fawlty Towers were ever made: two series of six episodes each, with a four-year hiatus between seasons. That is a pretty writer-friendly arrangement. When you throw in the consideration that Cleese and Booth were comic geniuses, it isn’t entirely miraculous that they wound up delivering a near-perfect show.
The American industry isn’t so genteel. It pumps shows out at a brutal rate. When an American network green-lights a sitcom, it will generally order around twenty-two episodes of the thing per year, year in and year out. Seinfeld – the outstanding network sitcom of the nineties – ran for nine years, and 180 episodes. I once saw an Australian interviewer ask Jerry Seinfeld if the show’s longevity struck him as unusual. Seinfeld seemed to find the question naïve. Americans, he explained, don’t close a store if customers want to keep buying their product. They do what it takes to keep the store open.
In other words, they apply the spirit of American can-doery – the spirit of Ford, the spirit of Ray Kroc – to the creation of scripts. They put on more staff; they turn writing into an exercise in mass-production. The show’s creator becomes the show-runner, the script Michelangelo; he or she remains the show’s principal author, but the scale of the project means that the drafting of some episodes must be left to other hands. So you get, at least in theory, a form of writing that bears the stamp of a single creative personality, but that gets churned out at a far higher volume than any one person could manage alone.
This has long been the American way of doing things, and most of the time it has produced predictably abominable results. After all, the aesthetic standards of the average American show-runner are closer to Michael Moore’s than Michelangelo’s. But over the last fifteen years or so, the American model has begun to yield some startlingly good shows. Suddenly the Americans have become capable of writing things that are almost as good as Fawlty Towers – and writing them on an industrial scale.
Seinfeld itself was one of the first sitcoms that worked the trick. It helped that show’s creators – Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David – would sooner have walked away from TV than let Seinfeld resemble a conventional American sitcom. They hired a team of auxiliary writers who felt the same way; and the drafts of those other writers always came back through the Seinfeld-David office for a telling final sprinkle of fairy dust. When one of the show’s best writers, Peter Mehlman, was drafting an episode in which George’s schlong retracted after a cold swim, David gave him one vital “note”. Hammer the word “shrinkage”. That was the Seinfeld touch. The show had an almost finicky respect for words. (David has since gone on to make the largely improvised Curb Your Enthusiasm, but there can be no doubt that during his Seinfeld tenure he was a stickler for the precisely phrased gag.)
If literature is language bent into memorable form, I don’t see why Seinfeld shouldn’t be considered a literary event. It was full of dialogue that snagged in the mind. “I didn’t know it was possible to come out of a coma,” says Kramer. “I didn’t know it was possible not to know that,” Jerry replies. The rest of us, when confronted with an asinine remark, know that the right comeback is there somewhere. The comic writer whittles language down until the perfect wording stands revealed. Seinfeld’s stand-up act was built on fine craftsmanship of that kind. True, he was mainly interested in tiny ideas. But like a long line of Jewish comedians before him, he had a knack for nailing down a given absurdity in its ideal verbal form. Has anyone ever bettered his definition of the Olympic luge? “It’s on the bobsled run, but it’s not even a sled. It’s just Bob.” And why do skydivers bother to wear helmets? “I mean, can you kinda make it? You jump out of that plane and that chute doesn’t open, the helmet is now wearing you for protection.”
If we’re slow to appreciate the literary skill behind such lines, it isn’t just because we’re snobs about popular culture. We’re getting to be snobs about literature, too. Like the humourless stewards of the Nobel Prize, we’re a bit too inclined to think that the role of literature is to struggle grimly with Big Ideas. We’ve forgotten that the dexterous or amusing sentence also has its place. There are esteemed, surly novelists at work today who couldn’t begin to emulate Seinfeld’s way with words, even if it occurred to them to try.
But in a way, the word “shrinkage” ends the argument. It entered popular speech immediately, and has stayed there. A writer who gets a word into the language is on to something, and that’s that. Shakespeare did it all the time. Joseph Heller did it. And Seinfeld’s writers did it too. Regifting. Degifting. Double-dipping. Seinfeld gave names to things that didn’t have names before; it changed the way people spoke. How many other writers of the nineties can claim to have done that?
If TV keeps getting better – if its witty, streamlined shows end up outcompeting the bloated, star-heavy turkeys of the movie studios, and rendering them extinct – the mid-nineties will probably be looked back on as a seminal time. You had shows like Seinfeld and The Simpsons lifting the standards of America’s networks from the inside. And outside the network walls, you had the rise of the cable channels. The most influential of these, HBO, had been founded in the 1970s. To start with, it had brought in subscribers by offering live sport and ad-free feature films. But when everyone got a VCR, HBO had to diversify. It started making its own content – first telemovies, and then, during the nineties and the noughts, a celebrated run of series: The Larry Sanders Show, The Sopranos, Deadwood, The Wire, Curb Your Enthusiasm. These shows, unlike network fare, were under no obligation to please jumpy advertisers. All that mattered was that they pleased subscribers – who tended, of course, to be adults.
So HBO’s shows were grown up, and not just because the people in them said “fuck” a lot. They were written by intelligent people who didn’t feel economically compelled to dumb things down. And these shows found an audience. By network standards, that audience wasn’t vast; but it was big enough to keep the shows in production. The market for top-notch TV will always be relatively small. But in America, a relatively small market can still be large enough, and cashed-up enough, to be worth going after. We chastise America, quite fairly, for lumbering the world with the bulk of its pop-cultural junk. But America is also the place where very good TV is most likely to be produced on a very large scale.
So by 2002, when Ron Howard approached Mitch Hurwitz to create the show that would become Arrested Development, a lot of soil had already been turned. Cable TV had taught the networks that quality could be a selling point. And Seinfeld and Larry Sanders had already started to push the sitcom envelope – a process that Arrested Development took up with a little too much verve for its own good, so that it blew a hole in the envelope and toppled out into history.
On the web, fans still enthuse about the mooted Arrested Development movie. You can understand their hunger for more; but the film, if it ever gets made, is bound to be a disappointment. It will be all over in two hours, for one thing. And there will be inevitable concessions to the cinematic “arc.” Movies impose limits. TV used to as well. But increasingly those limits are being transcended. The real Arrested Development has already been made. It was something that could only have been done on TV, at a time when TV was unprecedentedly ready to gamble on quirky things. For the moment, TV writing is where it’s at.
But good writers are not in infinite supply, and a golden age in one department of literature will almost always coincide with lean times in others. The novel, especially the comic novel, is not in the rudest of health at the moment. Norman Mailer could be funnier by accident than any current American novelist seems capable of being on purpose. Perhaps the excellence of today’s TV has something to do with this. Writers like Seinfeld and Hurwitz, if they’d been raised in a literary age, might well have turned out to be pretty handy comic novelists. But they were raised in the age of TV instead. Their idols were people like Bill Cosby and Phil Silvers, not Joseph Heller and Evelyn Waugh. And now that Seinfeld and Hurwitz have made television better, and more writer-friendly, there will be more potential novelists who’ll turn their talents to TV writing, and the spiral will continue.
Who would want to be a novelist now, anyway? The publishing industry seems to lack faith in its own future. We are constantly hearing that the book culture may not survive the assault of the internet. Well, TV was threatened by the internet, too. And one of the ways it responded was by investing, aggressively, in quality. TV’s renaissance started when moneymen like Ron Howard waved large cheques at talented writers. Publishers wave cheques at people too, but the people they wave them at don’t tend to be writers at all. They tend to be desiccated ex-politicians, round-the-world yachtspeople, pallid purveyors of online leaks. Quite often – I wonder why? – the musings of these figures land straight on the remainder tables. But even when they don’t, they only provide the industry with a short-term sugar rush, when what it really needs is the low-GI sustenance of decently written stuff that will persuade punters that reading more books in the future won’t be a waste of their time and money. It’s possible that the publishing industry no longer even wants to save itself. But if it does, investing in real writers might be a good way to start.
(Originally published in the Australian Literary Review, March 2011)