In case you’ve been living under a rock—or a Bluth model home in Iraq—the critical and cult darling of the early 2000s, Arrested Development, returns to its loyal fans this Sunday on Netflix. You would think that seven-years of separation would have subdued the fanaticism surrounding the series, but the years away from Fox and broadcast television have actually sired a rabid fan base through DVD sales, Netflix, and other online streaming sources. Like Van Gogh, Kafka, and I guess George Sr. that time he faked his death and watched his own funeral from the attic,* Arrested Development has earned posthumous fame and fandom. In the years following its cancellation, Arrested Development has gestated its cult status, a status that will reach its apotheosis tomorrow.
Even for those who don’t enjoy scholarly pursuits, Arrested Development is easily–if not somewhat vaguely and esoterically–identified as a “cult classic.” Entertainment Weekly, for instance, ranked Hurwitz’s series 3rd in its list of 26 Best Cult TV Shows Ever. In its explanation, EW stresses the metatexuality, in-jokes, and heightened absurdism as its cult characteristics:
“WHY IT’S CULT The critically acclaimed comedy jacked up the bar on what to expect from a network show: fast, delirious, interlocking jokes that don’t pander to the masses; winky gags (e.g., fake preview scenes for the following week’s episode); and a cast of absurd characters, including a mama’s boy named Buster (Tony Hale) who has a hook for a hand because a seal in a bow tie bit it off.”
But is that what it means to be cult? Witty lines and winking-eye alcohol suggestions? Where does that leave the unironic but undeniably cult Casablancas, or the straight sci-fi Star Wars? This definition rules them out, while media scholars and semioticians have repeatedly referenced both as paradigms for the cult construct. What gives, cult? What gives?
According to Sara Gwenillian-Jones and Roberta E. Pearson–popculture specialists and two chicks who were clearly born at a Renaissance fair– cult texts can be assessed in the following three fields:
- textual characteristics (archetypal appeal, completely furnished world, meta-textuality, etc.)
- reception (audience participation, fans quoting and quizzing)
- mechanisms (nontheatrical distribution, independent film, and television exhibition)
The reason EW’s analysis of Arrested Development is problematic is because it only focused on the first field, textual characteristics. I mean, duh, Arrested Development was written as a cult text. Umberto Eco (really, the parents of media scholars must own one trippy babyname book) speaks of cult texts as “a museum, so to speak” saturated with references, narrative clichés, and genre expectations. It’s not exactly straining to find such things in Arrested Development. The show’s very structure–right down to the Ron Howard narration and mockumentary aesthetic- plays with genre convention and narrative structure. The show boasts both intratextual references (hop-ons, hands, Lucilles and loose seals, etc.) and intertextual references (Barry Zuckerkorn doing the Fonz, Rita’s post-surgery picture , and perhaps most obscurely Buster’s Mr. Roboto dance). Furthermore, Hurwitz made a conscious effort to build a continuous, completely furnished world–although the Bluth world is ironically, but intentionally, shoddily furnished as a nod to the limitation of TV sets and bogus model homes. In fact, the model homes’ less-than-model workmanship is another example of an intratextual reference, as well as an effort to establish continuity in the world through running visual gags–from Cloudmir Vodka ads to Tobias’ blue handprints wallpapering the mise-en-scène…sometimes both!
The density and, god help me, texture of Arrested Development‘s textual characteristics initiates the second cult characteristic–reception. Good ol’ Mr. Eco says that a cult text “must provide a completely furnished world so that fans can quote characters and episodes as if they were aspects of the fan’s private sectarian world, a world about which one can make up quizzes and play trivia games so that the adepts of the sect recognize through each other a shared experience.” Oh, you mean quizzes like…this? Trivia like this? Or this? “The performance of the audience becomes a sort of supertext with its own rules and constraints,” Phillipe La Guern explains, “implying a complete apprentice through its assumption of previous knowledge of the film and its dialogue.” In other words, it is literally the personal mission of every single person on the internet to prove that they are Mr. Manager of Banana Stand, President of the Bluth Company, Coverstory of the proverbial Poof.
The third cult characteristic of Arrested Development, mechanisms, is pretty boring to analyze…that is, until you consider its 2013 revival. Save a few webseries such as Dr. Horrible, Clark and Michael, and Childrens Hospital–the internet isn’t generally the mechanism for initial release of cults; it is the mechanism for tetriatary texts like fanfic, memes, and gifs as well as the mechanism for post-release binge watching and audience participation. The choice for Arrested Development to return not as a film–the most mainstream medium–but as a straight-to-Netflix webseries represents the choice to fully embrace its countercultural, and thus, cult status. With its online, simultaneous, virtually-free release, the new season caters to its cult following entirely. It promotes obsessive consumption, repeat viewings, and Easter Egg hunts. Most of us have committed ourselves to a Memorial Day under house arrest, playing the AD Drinking Game, while restaurants and cooking blogs prepare eight-course meals featuring Mayoneggs, Hot Ham Water, and $10 bananas. Goodwill employees everywhere scratch their heads at the inexplicable spike in denim cut-off sales.
The marketing and pre-release hype mirrors the embrace of cult status, as Netflix, the AD cast, and virtually the entire internet cultivates the supertext performance of the audience. Promotion has been anchored in interactivity: insert Tobias into any movie, record your own #chickendance, hunt for hidden easter eggs on a secret Netflix page. Wait for hours in line for the pop-up, peel-down Bluth Banana Stand, run by Jason Bateman and Will Arnett themselves. (Mr. Bananagrabber didn’t make an appearance…I don’t think they had animation rights.) The show has snuck up everywhere, as ubiquitous as Gene Parmesan. And sometimes as ineffective as Gene, too. In catering to the cult fandom, Arrested Development may have jeopardized the exclusivity and countercultural element definitive of cult. Some people are starting to backlash against the over-saturation online, and one writer declares the series “the internet’s longest meme”–destined for the same fate as the once-popular, now-insufferable Harlem Shake or Call Me, Maybe.
Now, I have the utmost faith in Mitch Hurwitz’s writing and wit. But there’s a fine line between referencing and recycling, and a lot of the new season previews have unfortunately skewed towards the latter. Juice boxes, stair cars, and kissing cousins fall flat, the return of the bees/beads joke didn’t add anything new besides an actual swarm of bees. Any fanfic writer can quote a few catchphrases, rerun a few running gags, and win a few laughs…but I didn’t wait seven years to watch a filmed fanfic.
The question is how seven-years of cultivating cult status has influenced the creative process. As I’ve mentioned, the textual characteristics of Arrested Development have always been cultist…therefore, the textual characteristics shouldn’t change by a heightened cognition of the show’s cultism. But the shifts in Gwenillian-Jones and Pearson’s other two characteristics–reception and mechanisms–might change the show. With increased audience interaction and participation, will the new season cater too much to the fans, compromising the integrity of the show? Enshrouded in an online and social media blitz, has Arrested Development become too hyped to meet expectations, or too mainstream to retain its edge? Or–and this is what I am hoping for–has the heightened self-awareness of its own cult power unlocked another layer of metahumor that will make this season the best one yet?
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*But, let’s be honest, George Sr. was sort of already famous, what with the Cornballer, Boyfights, Caged Wisdom, and that whole bromance with Sadam.