In February of 2006, the much lauded and multiple award-winning sitcom Arrested Development came to an end when it was cancelled by Fox after three seasons.
Over its short run, the series amassed a cult following, earned six Emmy Awards, a Golden Globe, and plenty of critical praise. And, despite such a short run, the series became incredibly influential, and is still regarded as one of the defining comedies of the 2000s.
The seed of Arrested Development was planted in 2002 by Ron Howard, the show’s executive producer and narrator. Howard had the idea to create a reality-tv style comedy using handheld cameras, but with an elaborate and highly rehearsed script.
Howard then brought in writer Mitchell Hurwitz to create the show based on his loose concept. Mitchell took inspiration from the Enron corporate fraud scandal, which dominated the news at the time, to create a story about a “riches to rags” family. Howard liked the idea and Hurwitz was chosen to create the show.
They pitched the idea later that year, sparking a bidding war between NBC and the show’s eventually buyer, Fox. Hurwitz’s pilot was submitted soon after in January of 2003. The script was extremely specific, and unlike some comedies, the actors did not improvise.
Alia Shawkat was the first actor cast, before Michael Cera, Tony Hall, and Jessica Walter earned auditions from video tapes sent in to Fox. Jason Bateman and Portia de Rossi were chosen immediately after auditioning. Will Arnett chose to audition for the character of Gob, bringing a unique “macho” angle to the character that immediately appealed to producers.
David Cross and Jeffrey Tambor’s characters were originally conceived as fairly minor roles, but they portrayed them so well they were given more significant parts.
The series used several devices that were unique for a sitcom at the time, including shooting on location with multiple cameras, mirroring the style of documentary filmmaking and reality tv. It also heavily utilized visual punchlines, and other documentary style techniques like cutting to archive films and family photos.
The series was almost destined to fail to meet the ratings Fox expected, and some critic Tim Goodman, whose review deemed the show “too funny to survive.” With its layered storylines and callbacks, Arrested Development was not the type of series that casual audiences could tune into and easily follow along.
At the same time, Fox failed to effectively promote the series and bring in new viewers. The ratings system was also changing, with many audiences beginning to watch on-demand using TiVo and other new television recording devices that were not included in traditional ratings data.
Despite its critical success, the series never managed to earn the ratings Fox expected. The network cancelled the series during its third season in 2006. Hurwitz declined to move the show to another network. “I had taken it as far as I felt I could as a series,” Hurwitz explained at the time.
“I told the story I wanted to tell, and we were getting to a point where I think a lot of the actors were ready to move on.”
The series’ impact on television was undeniable, and several hit shows mirrored the style of Arrested Development over the next decade. Shows like It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Community, 30 Rock, The Office, and Parks and Recreation all used the same faux-documentary, handheld camera style popularized by Arrested Development.
After seven years off the air, Arrested Development would eventually be revived for two more seasons on Netflix in 2013, and again in 2018.