There’s Always Money In The Banana Stand: A Genre Analysis of Arrested Development
June 30, 2008
by Paul Mikesell
During the 2003 to 2005 television seasons, FOX Television aired one of the most innovative comedy series in recent memory, Arrested Development. This was a series that’s presentation was made up of a blend of different genre elements, many of which were rarely found in sitcoms. By adding a postmodern, self-aware slant to this perspective, the series took upon a unique view of not only what the sitcom could do, but also how modern viewers would watch a sitcom. As narrative complexity continues to develop in nearly every format on television, it is of great interest to look at a comedy that was helping to drive forth these trends.
Arrested Development presented the story of the Bluth family, a rather quirky group of manipulative and socially inept individuals. Even Michael Bluth, the makeshift patriarch of the family once his father, George Bluth Sr., is sent to prison, cannot avoid these seemingly genetic (although this will be questioned thought the run of the show) defects in morality that exist in the rest of his family. Running for three seasons (albeit with two shortened seasons), Arrested Development failed to become a commercial success in the traditional sense, but was always a critical success and quickly developed a cult following. Along with other programs like Seinfeld, Lost, The X-Files, and Veronica Mars from the last decade, Arrested Development helped further establish innovative narrative techniques in television as something that was viable programming (“Narrative Complexity” 29).
Genre analysis primarily serves to find how a text fits into a certain “kind” of text. Examples of genre in popular television narrative media include drama, comedy/sitcom, documentary, mystery, and serial. Arrested Development presents aspects of all five of these genres, while still falling into the larger and more convenient genre identification of “comedy.” The series also made much use of intertextual (referencing other texts) and reflexive (referencing itself as a text) techniques in order to promote the concept of postmodernism. Arrested Development presented a new take on the classic sitcom genre by utilizing aspects of not just the traditional sitcom, but also traits of the documentary, drama, and soap opera genres.
Genre Theory, Narrative Theory, and Postmodernism
Essentially, genre theory makes use of the conventions found between similar texts and uses them to make connections between the texts and the larger society. By being able to identify how a text fits in with other texts, we as the reader have our expectations shaped, as well as being given a sense of the inherent meanings. Narrative theory is based on the idea that the narrative is internal within the text. As with genre theory, there are traditional narratives that we can see linked from text to text, as well as issues of coherence and construction. Finally, a postmodern text, in essence, is one that is aware of itself. This can be as simple as a film existing in a universe where there are other movies. Often, postmodernism is used as commentary on technology and the modern world, as well as the established genres and narratives.
Genre Analysis in Critical Studies of Television
To be able to identify a specific text as fitting into a particular genre, certain common elements must be found in the text. Semantic elements make up the genre and are used to both identify the genre as well as for placing a text within that genre. Examples of semantic elements include character types and episode length (Vande Berg 123). Arrested Development features a family of characters that is similar in concept to the families traditionally found in the sitcom genre. It is a half-hour program, which is a clue as well that it is a sitcom because as viewers, we have been trained to see a thirty-minute scripted program as a comedy. Looking at semantic elements, Arrested Development seems to fall into the genre of a sitcom. However, there are elements of the show that fit into other genres. Arrested Development is a show on handheld cameras in a style that is found most often in documentaries. Also, the use of multiple intersecting plotlines, as well as their serial nature, is something that is more often found in dramas and soap operas than situation comedies.
The Evolution of Narrative Complexity
These elements of different genres being worked into the format and presentation of Arrested Development is an example of how genres can evolve. The evolution of genres and the experimentation that leads to it has traditionally been made by the combining of different genre traits. As Jason Mitchell describes, that “critically hailed (though initially ratings-challenged) shows like Hill St. Blues, St. Elsewhere, and Cheers imported serial storytelling into the generic forms of cop shows, medical dramas, and sitcoms” (“Narrative Complexity 32). Most of these early programs that experimented with serial storytelling in genres that had previously been episodic did not leave their genres too far away. Stories involving relationships would carry over from week to week, but the police cases in Hill St. Blues would be solved in one or two episodes.
However the breakthrough example of a prime-time television program with long story arcs spread across full seasons was Twin Peaks. Borrowing from the world of independent art films, Twin Peaks “triggered a wave of programs embracing its creative narrative strategies while forgoing its stylistic excesses and thematic oddities” (“Narrative Complexity” 33). While Twin Peaks in the end did not prove to be a long-term success, shows like The X-Files and Seinfeld would show that programs could experiment with the methods of storytelling be commercially successful. The X-Files was a “hallmark of narrative complexity: an interplay between the demands of episodic and serial storytelling” (“Narrative Complexity” 33). The so-called “mythology” episodes presented a key concept in keeping a serial series going, a plot that “endlessly delays resolution and closure” (“Narrative Complexity” 33).
Seinfeld, on the other hand, did not take such a hard stance in terms of serial storytelling. There were a few examples with running plots throughout the season, such as season 4 revolving around Jerry and George creating a sitcom for NBC that was remarkably similar to the series that the viewer was watching every week (further discussion about metatextual techniques will occur later). These serial plots, however, did not control the storylines each week. Instead, they served “primarily to offer backstory for in-jokes and self-aware references,” (“Narrative Complexity” 34), a device that is very common on Arrested Development. For example, George and Jerry’s NBC pilot, which in the show’s narrative was based on their experience waiting at a Chinese restaurant from an earlier episode, acted mainly as a framing device for the season, as well as a way to make metatextual jokes about the perception of what the actual Seinfeld show was perceived to be. Seinfeld also almost always made an effort to disregard the typical resolution found in sitcoms. Not only would there be at least four separate plot lines that would collide at the end of an episode, they would often leave the characters in uncomfortable and unresolved situations. In a drama, this would serve as a cliffhanger for the next episode, but Seinfeld used these unresolved moments as punchlines and they wouldn’t need to be referenced again (“Narrative Complexity” 34).
More recently, there have been more new television programs that are experimenting away from the traditional narrative structures that have been found on television for the last sixty years. Most notable is probably 24, another FOX television program. 24’s narrative structure maintains the expected linear chronological order expected from the action/thriller genre, but its experimentation arrives from the fact that the story plays out in “real-time,” so the twenty-four one-hour episodes that make up a season also make up a full twenty-four hours in one day of the show’s time. Craig Jacobsen notes how the success of the show illustrated that taking risks with the narrative presentation could pay off and there was an audience waiting that could adapt to and appreciate a show that “challenged at least some of its expectations” (Jacobsen 1-2). Other recent shows, such as Lost, The Nine, and Reunion have also attempted to use narrative structures that use non-traditional time constructions, most notably with flashbacks (Jacobsen 1).
Arrested Development as a “Sitcom”
As previously mentioned, Arrested Development fits into enough of the structural elements of the situation comedy (along with being funny) so that no one has questioned its place in that genre. Yet, it set itself apart from the According to Jim’s of the world by helping the genre evolve and combining elements traditionally only found in other genres. While show such as Scrubs have made use of narrator’s, Arrested Development used an omniscient narrator voiced by Ron Howard as a way to structure the cutaway scenes, flashbacks, family photos, and websites amongst other media samples that made up the show’s narrative (Jacobsen 2). Jacobsen also remarks that the show “had time to explore and exploit the potential of the structural decisions made at the show’s creation” (Jacobsen 2).
One of the easiest structural decisions to notice is the cinematography. Arrested Development was shot primarily using handheld cameras in order to create a feeling of a documentary (Goldman 1). There is a contrast between this style and the documentary style that has since been used by The Office (US) in that the Bluths and the characters they interact with are not aware of the cameras. The use of the narrator actually helps establish this reality through his omnipresence.
Similarly to Seinfeld, as well as soap operas and dramatic genres before it, Arrested Development made the most out of its talented cast by having storylines for each of the main characters every episode. These interwoven plots between characters are “bouncing off one another, resulting in unlikely coincidences, twists, and ironic repercussions, some of which may not become evident until subsequent episodes or seasons” (“Narrative Complexity” 34). Arrested Development did not just make use of callbacks (a joke referring to another joke that has previously been made), but also call-forwards, where a plot is foreshadowed. For example, the character Buster has his hand bitten off by a loose seal in the second season episode “Out on a Limb.” However, episodes in the first season feature allusions to Buster losing his hand, such as when he gets back his hand-shaped chair and states “I never thought I could miss a hand so much.” Parts of the show such as this are much more rewarding upon multiple viewings, which will be discussed in more detail later.
Finally, Arrested Development plays around with the idea that series return to an equilibrium following each episode. This was especially true of most sitcoms that use traditional narrative means. Once an episode ends, everything is back to normal again. This was obviously not the case on Arrested Development. Not only were there unresolved plot lines that would continue for a few episodes, or the rest of the season, or even the rest of the series, each episode would end with a “Next week on Arrested Development” segment. For the most part, these scenes would not actually be part of the next episode, nor would they have taken place during the actual continuity of the show, although sometimes that was questionable as that specific storyline would be finished (of course, there were a few exceptions to this rule, such as the earlier mentioned scene of Buster loosing his hand) (“Narrative Complexity” 34).
Arrested Development still featured enough of the conventions of a traditional sitcom to ensure its place within that genre. But through the use of radical narrative structures as well as techniques found more often in other genres, such as drama or documentary, it served to help the genre of television comedy evolve.
Postmodernism and Television
The genius of Arrested Development did not simply come from its combination of various genres. A large part of it also came from its use of intertextual and reflexive techniques to set forth a postmodern ideology.
Much of the thought about postmodernism in regards to television derives from the thought about postmodernism in film. Linda Hutcheon says that postmodernism “at once exploits and contests that which went before, both modernist and traditionally realist…it simultaneously destabilizes and inscribes the dominant ideology through its almost overly self-conscious ‘interpellation’ of the spectator in and of ideology” (Hutcheon 125). An example of this would be the Woody Allen film Stardust Memories which parodies and challenges Federico Fellini’s 8 ½, which itself is considered a modernist film (Hutcheon 125).
In recent television history, two of the best examples of shows besides Arrested Development that have really made an effort into putting for a postmodern ideology are Mystery Science Theatre 3000 and The Simpsons. MST3K set its main character as a prison in space, forced to watch bad movies. The only way he could escape with his sanity in tact was to make jokes and sarcastic comments about them with his two created robots. John King sees the show as “an allegory of existence in a corporate-controlled media-state” (King 38). Television as an institution had reached a point where it could make fun of itself to a point that essentially acted as a way to “deflect all criticism of itself as a witless redundancy, even as its outrageousness continues to attract viewers” (King 40). A show like MST3K worked as an allegory for the “postmodern American family held captive by television.” There were tons of intertextual references on the show, such as the name of the main character for the first few seasons, Joel Robinson, was a reference to the Robinson family from Lost in Space, which was a reference to the family from Swiss Family Robinson which in turn may have been a reference to another lost character, Robinson Crusoe (King 41).
Another postmodern idea that MST3K presented was that theoretically, there was no end to the media. Some of the movies the crew would watch would feature someone watching a television monitor as well (King 43). The show also become more self-reflexive as time went on. Jokes and callbacks would be made to earlier episodes. The final point that King makes is that MST3K was essentially a movie show that commented on how we consume movies. It “does not stop television from dominating American culture, but it does complicate that dominance, and at least temporarily seems to offer viewers a sense of agency in their great cultural captivity” (King 49).
The Simpsons (which Arrested Development was paired up with on the FOX schedule for a short time) also presents almost an unlimited amount of intertextual references regarding other texts, as well as probably just as many reflexive jokes. In “The Simpsons 138th Episode Spectacular,” the entire episode plays with the clichés of live action sitcoms celebrating milestones, even though The Simpsons is obviously an animated series. Troy McClure hosts as a “relentlessly showbizzy host” and shows off the “set” of the Simpsons’ house “complete with “live audience” and applause signs” (Knox 74). Not only does the show poke fun at the conventions of a traditional sitcom, but it also makes fun of itself and its double-codedness as a critical and commercial success. In another episode filled with postmodernism, “The Itchy & Scratchy & Poochie Show,” it is “one of a growing number of episodes invested with a pronounced meta-status, but what specifically demarcates this episodes is the dark tone in its parodic treatment of itself and how it inscribes a challenge to its own existence as onscreen and intraframe with a criticism by and of its own fans” (Knox 76). There is a scene in which Bart Simpson and Comic Book Guy, the de facto stand in for the show’s superfans, have an exchange that is “functioning as an explicit inscription of the tension between the production and reception of the text” (Knox 77). There is this “dilemma” that the show has created for itself in that the criticism of the shows’ fans fails to take into account that the show serves commercial needs as well as critical needs. Similarly as to how King’s MST3K article mentioned how television’s sense of humor about itself served as a defense, Knox argues that The Simpsons “not only admits its complicit critique, but also defends it by responding to the critical reception of its viewers” (Knox 77-78). Even as the episode concludes and there are more of the usual “in-jokes” for fans of the show, the gaps between the creators of the show and the fans of the show still remain (Knox 79).
Arrested Development as a Postmodern Text
Much of the enjoyment of any given episode of Arrested Development is derived from an understanding of the rest of the series. Not only do the recurring jokes about incestuous themes and the family’s various “chicken” dances become stronger with each reappearance, but as previously mentioned there are numerous call-backs as well as call-forwards littered throughout the series. The program also is reflexive back onto the idea of television. Like the Seinfeld story arch, Arrested Development at times seemed fascinated with the idea of a show within the show. One of the final episodes features courtroom shows within the show featuring not only Judge Reinhold and Bud Cort, but reality television “star” William Hung and his Hung Jury. Somehow, more obscure references to television were also made. Henry Winkler’s character jumps over a shark in an allusion to his Happy Days days, and later his character is replaced by one played by Scott Baio, who can do anything he can but skews younger in the demographics (ala Chachi).
Maybe the most self-reflexive and metatextual episode of any television program ever is the season three episode “S.O.B.s” which stands for “Save Our Bluths.” This episode revolves around the Bluth family’s attempt to save themselves. Created as a response to their pending cancellation, the episode not only references the online, fan-based campaign to keep the show alive, but it also features a variety of stunts that networks traditionally try and pull to draw higher ratings such as a parade of guest stars. In one especially amusing conversations, the characters try and figure out if that their problems exist because they are not relatable enough (which was a common criticism of the show and the difficulty that new viewers would have understanding it). Finally, Michael Bluth decides at the end of the episodes that maybe his family has had more than enough chances and maybe they don’t deserve to be saved.
Arrested Development and the New Cult Success
While Arrested Development was ultimately canceled after its third season, the lasting impact of the show in terms of its cult following may be its most important artifact. Part of the reason that the show lasted as long as it did with its low ratings was that FOX not only aired the show, but they also produced it so they stood to profit from any syndication, foreign distribution, and home distribution deals (“An Arresting Development” 1). The last part of that, the home distribution, is one of the most important factors of this argument. Arrested Development was released on DVD, which allowed a whole new set of viewers who had missed it on television to discover it. DVDs and digital video recorders have begun to change the way that television is viewed. No longer is the viewer just at the will of the broadcaster. They are now given the a choice of when they want to watch a program and how they want to do it. This ability to easily rewatch episodes allows for complex shows like Arrested Development to become more appealing to the viewer and ultimately lead to a longer lifespan for the show, even if it no longer in production (“Narrative Complexity” 31). Shows like Arrested Development represent how the way people watch television is changing. The show’s fanbase grew in similar ways as other cult shows, but the way new fans were exposed to the program were in ways that traditional measures could not record. Fans watching on DVDs don’t count in the Nielsen ratings, so it looked as though there weren’t many fans of the show, yet when it was in danger of cancellation, there was a huge outcry in support (“An Arresting Development” 2). As these alternative viewing methods continue to take off and become profitable, other cult hits like Arrested Development may find a way to stay in production due to these new revenue streams.
By blending traditional genres, traditional narratives, and having a good sense of humor about itself and about television, Arrested Development stood out from any sitcom that had come before it. Looking at the show now, however, it is much easier to find sitcoms that have traits in common with Arrested Development, such as 30 Rock and How I Met Your Mother. Because of its cult success, Arrested Development’s innovations in storytelling have now become one of the standards of the modern sitcom. It is very interesting to think that what was groundbreaking for the genre five years ago is now almost standard. Each new development will continue to drive what we as viewers, and as readers, come to expect from the sitcom genre to challenge and entertain us.