Comedy television has in many ways reached something of a golden age. For decades, sitcoms with live audiences instructed to laugh at designated times dominated primetime. But over the last few years, we’ve seen a gradual shift toward well-written single-camera comedies that often play with the format in new and exciting ways. This all really began back in 2003, when Fox picked up a small show from Ron Howard, Mitchell Hurwitz and Brian Glazer called Arrested Development.
It spent the better part of three seasons constantly on the chopping block, thanks in large part to flagging ratings. Audiences didn’t quite know what to make of a show like Arrested, featuring long-running gags that only the most attentive viewer could catch. It soon found itself cancelled, only to be revived seven years after the fact as one of Netflix’s first original series. Over its odd yet successful run, the show quickly became one of the biggest influences for modern comedy as we know it for some very specific reasons.
1. Pioneering the single-camera comedy
Up until 2003, most comedy television was shot in front of a “live” studio audience with four cameras. With boards that lit up to tell the audience when to laugh and applaud, by extension audiences sitting at home were told the same quickly following each gag and joke. But then along came Arrested Development, showing us that the single-camera comedy sans a laugh-track was more than a viable alternative: It was the future.
Since then, shows like Community, Brooklyn Nine-Nine, New Girl, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and more found their way on to network TV. The result: Sitcoms are now the exception rather than the predominant trend. The overall quality in turn has risen, now that we’re no longer spoon-fed the proper time to pause for laughter.
2. The birth of mainstream meta-comedy
There aren’t many television shows out there that reach the level of self-reference that Arrested Development accomplished over a decade ago. During their tenuous time on the chopping block, Ron Howard even narrated over an episode where the family held a charity function called “Save Our Bluths,” imploring viewers to “please, tell your friends about this show.”
Fast forward years later, and we see the ultimate meta-comedy evolve out of this, in the form of Dan Harmon’s Community. Suddenly, it became OK for characters on a TV show to act even tangentially aware that they were in fact on television. This kicked the door wide open for the format to be played around with, to the extent to which following shows became defined by their meta-ness.
3. Telling a story in a brand new way
The fourth season of Arrested Development represents some of the most masterful storytelling you’ll ever see over the course of a single season. The season functioned as a series of point-of-view episodes told from the perspective of each individual character within the Bluth family. It only ended up this way though, due to time restraints for the cast that made shooting the whole season together almost impossible. It was art born of necessity in the best sort of way, and it produced a story arc that was unlike anything we’ve ever seen.
4. Comedic density
Part of what alienated audiences back when Arrested Development was first cancelled was the sheer density of its jokes. Characters would say throwaway lines referencing something that occurred in the background of a frame episodes ago, rarely pausing long enough to give audiences any time to even conceive of what just happened. Every single scene is jam-packed, making it so that watching the background was just as important as watching the main action. At its heart, Arrested is a show that get better with each viewing; odds are every time you rewatch any of its seasons, you’ll find something you didn’t notice last time.
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