Arrested Development and the tricky balance of TV revivals

Jaime Weinman weighs in
ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Jessica Walter, Jeffrey Tambor, Will Arnett, Forget Me Now, (Season 3, aired October 3, 2005), 2003-06. photo: Isabella Vosmikova / TM and Copyright © 20th Century Fox Film Corp. All rights reserved / Courtesy Everett Collection
Older, wiser—but do we like them as much?
Sam Urdank/Netflix

Arrested Development is back with 15 new episodes on Netflix, and its biggest competitor is its own past. Mike Hale of the New York Times warned his readers that if you loved the original series about a crazy, formerly rich family, “it’s hard to imagine being anything but disappointed with a new rendition.” When a show gets revived years after it was cancelled, we all hope it will be the show we remember. Canadian actor Michael Cera, who plays the nicest of the Bluths—and helped write the new episodes— says the plan was simply to “pick up the characters seven years later and see where they’re at now.” But picking up the story can be complicated by changes in age, budget, and even politics: creator Mitch Hurwitz, who based the Bluths on the most famous political dynasty of the ’00s, admits “it was more fun when the Bushes were around.”

Arrested Development is one of a number of recent shows that may get full-scale revivals several years after their cancellation. Fox is bringing back Kiefer Sutherland as Jack Bauer for a new season of 24 next year. Veronica Mars, a teen detective show cancelled around the same time as Arrested Development, successfully used Kickstarter to fund a feature film version.

TV revivals used to be mostly cheesy reunion movies or projects like The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, but the popularity of new media has made it possible for companies to take revivals more seriously than they used to. Joris Evers, director of global corporate communications at Netflix, says Arrested Development was brought back because “it actually grew its audience after coming off the air,” making a revival a good investment. And TV historian Thom Holbrook, who runs the website The Crossovers and Spinoffs Master Page, says he thinks the return of 24 came about because “the TV landscape is currently very competitive and Fox was looking for a fast and easy sure winner.” There are so many shows today it’s hard for new ones to get attention; reviving a familiar show creates built-in publicity and an existing roster of stars.

Bringing back a familiar cast can cause problems, though, especially since everyone is older. Veronica Mars, a show about a high school sleuth, may struggle to recapture the same charm when it shows her as an adult returning to her old town. Sometimes the need to update characters can take them to places viewers aren’t used to. Nick Abdo, who produced a successful revival of Leave It To Beaver in the 1980s, recalls, “We had Beaver thrown out by his wife, forcing him to return to his childhood home.” And sometimes the characters just look different: Fans of Arrested Development have been unsettled by the changed appearance of some of the actors, especially Portia Di Rossi (Lindsay); Shane Ryan of Paste magazine speculated that “the changes have the definite whiff of plastic surgery.”

Viewers of a revival not only have to see characters in new ways, but on a lower budget. The Veronica Mars movie raised money that barely covered an episode of the original. Arrested Development shot around the fact that, as Cera puts it, “Not everyone was available at every moment. People were flying in from other cities, working on other TV series. Jason Bateman could only shoot up to September because he had to go direct and star in a movie, and he’s the star of the show.” These factors can make a revival different from what we remember; Arrested Development focused episodes on a single character, rather than the multi-plot shows it did when all the actors were under contract.

Sometimes the result can be a letdown. A revival of the animated sitcom Futurama has already been cancelled. In the U.K., recent revivals of Red Dwarf and Absolutely Fabulous both failed to live up to the originals. But Holbrook thinks a revived show can “come back refreshed and with new ideas.” Arrested Development may be able to stay fresh because the world hasn’t changed much since its cancellation in 2006. “Economic misdeeds have moved up a notch,” notes Jeffrey Tambor, who pays the family’s corrupt father. That’s one thing Arrested Development has going for it that Leave it To Beaver didn’t. Corruption never gets dated.