The Impact of Arrested Development on Current TV Comedies

Arrested Development (Arrested) is widely considered to be one of the best television comedies of all time, or at least the best comedy ever canceled. Enough has been written about how brilliant and ahead of its time it was, so I’m not here to wax poetic. What I do want to discuss is its impact on the current television comedy landscape. Though it is no longer with us, the posthumous popularity of the handheld single-camera style of Arrested with it’s callbacks and call-forwards, wacky sensibility, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it joke speed, and world and self awareness is evidenced in primetime now, on several viewer intelligence respecting shows including Modern Family, Community, How I Met Your Mother, Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.


Arrested can be viewed technically as a vérité-style[1] mockumentary, with its use of a hand-held camera, continuity, third-person omniscient narration, and complete “world access” by which I mean the narrator could cut from the “present” action to anything else, including “archival Bluth footage,” other television shows (Fox News), and newspaper headlines (“Tony Wonder: Born and Bread in the USA[2]”). Though Christopher Guest films and the original UK The Office can be credited with popularizing the mockumentary genre, Arrested subverted it, taking out the “talking heads” (moments where characters are interviewed) and creating a world where the characters don’t know that they’re being filmed, thus making moments where the fourth wall is broken that much more jarring and funny. There are a rash of current TV comedies that employ the mockumentary including NBC’s The Office and Parks and Recreation, ABC’s Modern Family, and in a sly way, CBS’s How I Met Your Mother.

The Office and Parks and Recreation adhere more strictly than Arrested to the mockumentary genre, in that they are single, handheld camera shows where characters know that they are being filmed, there are talking heads, and typically an episode is continuous and presented in real time. That is, there are rarely[3] any cutaways to events that happened independently of that episode’s fixed time sequence. Furthermore, there are moments in these worlds that the camera crew does not have access to.[4] These two shows are also not narrated or typically[5] scored with music (unlike Arrested), However, both of these shows are presented in the same vérité style as Arrested, with more naturalistic, seemingly improvised performances, and provocative camera work. By provocative camera work I mean that, unlike in a multi-camera show like Friends, the camera has its own personality and makes specific choices to zoom in or out to try and elicit a reaction. It should also be noted that the talking heads in The Office and Parks and Recreation achieve the same goal as Arrested’s narration—they explain plot points, character motivations and episode morals (i.e. what the protagonist learned). Often, The Office and Parks and Recreation run a talking-head monologue as background narration over events at the end of an episode, summing up plot and illustrating the lesson events in the episode taught the protagonist and consequently, the viewer.

Modern Family also adheres to the vérité-style mockumentary format, employing a handheld single camera, talking heads, and characters’ acknowledgment of the camera, however it is looser in terms of how it treats time and editing. While events in The Office and Parks and Recreation unfold mostly in real time, Modern Family, like Arrested, frequently flashbacks to events not occurring in the episode’s fixed time, typically to prove or disprove a point made by a character. For example, in Arrested, when Michael suggests that his father was keen on using a one-armed man to teach them lessons, flashbacks are introduced (by the narrator) to the audience to illustrate this. On Modern Family, flashbacks are shown in a slightly different context, but to the same effect. Mitchell may say in a talking head that he is a great listener, but flashbacks (to events not temporally related to the episode) will run of previous, independent events proving the contrary. On Modern Family though, often times the characters are privy to watching these flashbacks. It’s as if the filmmakers are showing the clips to them as well as to the viewer, so it is for the character’s benefit as well as ours. Of course, Arrested Development would take these flashbacks, or callbacks[6] much further. They would use multiple “flash-cuts” in a single episode, intricately correlate them to that episode’s action, and repeat certain ones throughout the series. Arrested also of course, pioneered the flashforward, which alluded to events that happened in the near future, but the audience wasn’t privy to yet. This includes foreshadowing references to Buster losing his hand, or Rita being mentally retarded, episodes before those plot points are revealed. Flashforwards are a risk because they essentially delay viewer gratification in a medium that values immediate viewer gratification. It rewards steady watchers and re-watchers, and in a way, punishes first-time viewers.

As a side note, this devices also makes it harder on the writers because it forces them to intricately plot episodes in advance, and gives them the challenge of ensuring that all the proverbial balls they’ve thrown in the air land successfully. It is a testament to Arrested’s brilliance that no other show has really come close, or even tried to achieve this level of intricacy[7]. Perhaps it was also this plot intricacy that alienated audiences. Arrested is not a show built for syndication. Unlike episodic shows such as Modern Family and The Office, a first-time viewer could not turn on a random episode of Arrested and understand what was going on.

The show that most closely imitates the desired effects of Arrested’s use of the mockumentary is How I Met Your Mother (HIMYM). Though technically, HIMYM is a multi-camera sitcom (so it does not have that vérité style) and its entirety is a flashback, that is, a story told from the future, it still employs several Arrested mockumentary techniques. It employs an omniscient third-person narrator (well, technically a first-person narrator, but one who knows more than the lead character does in the episode’s fixed time), uses many elaborate flashbacks and flashforwards[8] in a single episode, and does not use talking heads or let the characters (the ones we see at least,) directly communicate to the audience. Because of this format, the characters on HIMYM act in a way similar to the characters on Arrested, that is, uninhibited by a viewing public. Even though the characters on The Office and Parks and Recreation act naturally, often times their behavior is impacted by the presence of the documentary crew. For example, Michael Scott, might be about to utter something inappropriate, but then he’ll look at the camera and try to alter his language. Ironically, HIMYM is the only Arrested-influenced show I’m discussing that employs a laugh track and occasionally films in front of a live audience. So while the characters on HIMYM are the least self-aware characters I’ve discussed because they are unaware they’re in a mockumentary, the actors on HIMYM are probably the most self-aware because they perform in front of a live audience.


In terms of tone, Arrested’s impact is felt throughout the mockumentaries as well as the other comedies mentioned earlier. Arrested created a wacky world with absurd, non-realistic characters and situations. Often times these absurdities are pointed out, but accepted nonetheless. Arrested did not invent the “absurd tone”, and in fact, has a lot to owe to cartoons like The Simpsons and sketch shows like Mr. Show. But it should take credit as one of the first live-action sitcoms to incorporate this specific tone. The shows that best emulate this tone are Community, 30 Rock and to a slightly lesser degree, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.

A lot of a show’s tone is derived from its characters; their pace, the way they talk and the way they interact with their universe. Like many other comedies before it, Arrested followed a comedy form known as the “center and eccentrics.” In this form, the protagonist is a “straight man” who serves as the audience’s point of view, and is surrounded by a litany of “eccentrics,” or wacky characters who prevent him from reaching his goals. But compared to past shows, Arrested increased the level of eccentricity of its eccentrics to an unparalleled degree. While the supporting cast of Seinfeld, Cheers, and Friends had their quirks, no character comes close to the level of eccentricity of say, GOB Bluth (well, maybe Kramer.) Currently, main supporting characters on 30 Rock, Community, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia and even Modern Family follow in Arrested’s footsteps. Jenna Maroney and Kenneth Parcell (30 Rock), Charlie (Always Sunny), Abed (Community) and little Manny (Modern Family) are a far cry from regular folks like Cliff the Mailman (Cheers) and Rachel Green (Friends).

As eccentric as its main cast was, the satellite characters on Arrested were even more wacky and unbelievable. Current comedies follow suit. Arrested has its Gene Parmesan, J. Walter Weatherman, and Ice the Bounty Hunter, while Community has its Dean Pelton (who is eerily similar to Tobias Funke), Black Rider, and Magnitude, 30 Rock has its Dr. Spaceman, and the hook-handed Dr. Andrew and It’s Always Sunny has its the MacPoyle family, Rickety Cricket, and Mac’s homicidal father. It is also testament to Arrested’s creative impact and eye for talent that character actors such as Craig Robinson (The Office), Ken Jeong (Community), Amy Poehler (Parks and Recreation) and Jack McBrayer (30 Rock) all guest-starred on Arrested before becoming regulars on their own shows.

It is worth mentioning that at their core, many of the characters on Arrested were spiteful, prejudiced, mean-spirited people who tried to hurt each other. Of course, Archie Bunker and George Costanza paved the way for the TV executive/focus group-hated “unlikeable” character, but I do happen to think that for some reason, the characters on Arrested were just too unrelatable for audiences. Or maybe the audience was there, but just wasn’t alerted to the show. Nonetheless, characters like Pierce (Community) and the entire cast of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia follow in Arrested’s footsteps, while more viewer-friendly shows like Modern Family and The Office took a different lesson from Arrested—they make an conscious effort to make their characters likeable[9].

Unlike in mockumentaries The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family and to an extent, HIMYM, the plots of 30 Rock, Community, and It’s Always Sunny are often not grounded in reality. While plots are continuous and carry over to subsequent episodes in these shows and Arrested, (for example, a character can be wheel-chair stricken (Community), lose a hand (Arrested), go missing (30 Rock), or get married (Always Sunny)), for the most part, many rules of reality don’t apply. Characters can get badly injured and not die, characters can go through ridiculous changes in one episode and be unaffected in future episodes. While shows like Modern Family and The Office feature real world problems like forgetting a birthday or offending a co-worker, Arrested’s plots revolve around the fictional town of Wee Britain or a photograph of a character’s genitals igniting military action. Similarly, absurd plots are carried over in Community, 30 Rock and Always Sunny. In Community[10], a small fort can built which subsequently becomes an entire network of cities. On 30 Rock, Tracy Jordan goes on the run from the Black Crusaders (a terror cell that assassinates black celebrities), and on It’s Always Sunny, Frank hides in a leather couch to spy on someone. Even on HIMYM, there are plots revolving around Robin’s past as a Canadian pop star. These aren’t your typical “boss is coming over for dinner” sitcom plots.

Americans liken television to comfort food. Most Americans like being able to turn on the TV, see the same people do the same thing, and after 22 minutes, feel a sense of closure, or a catharsis. That’s why Cheers was so popular and why Two and a Half Men is the highest rated comedy on television. Arrested was not comfort food. Each episode was full of surprises and open-ended plots that forced you to pay attention so you could get all the jokes and connections. In shows like Two and a Half Men there is a certain rhythm so you can tell when the punch line is coming, and then hear it hammered home. Arrested’s rhythm was different from anything viewers were used to. Punch lines and zingers delivered by Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) were often delivered under his breath, and in the middle of another character’s sentence. This different style is one of the reasons why it wasn’t popular and why shows like Community, which emulate that style, are not massively popular. I’m not saying necessarily that this type of humor is better or worse than the type on Two and a Half Men, but its unfamiliar, and Americans like familiar. Although I will say that now, thanks to Arrested, and probably Family Guy and videogames, Americans are currently more predisposed to “faster” entertainment. So again, maybe Arrested was ahead of its time.


Arrested is notorious for it’s high volume of jokes, much involving wordplay. Whether the joke was a innuendo-laden Tobias quote (“Oooh, I can taste those meaty, leading man parts in my mouth!”), an observation from the narrator, (“Buster had been bitten by a loose seal”), or a off-hand remark taken incorrectly that subsequently drives the plot (Rita calling Michael a “pussy”), Arrested’s writing was so intricate and precise, that you know it couldn’t have been improvised. Similarly, the comedy writing on 30 Rock, Community and Modern Family is filled with wordplay and a high volume of jokes per minute. Case in point, everything Tracy Jordan says, and the conversation between Phil Dunphy and a man who saw Phil’s realty ad[11]. Phil thinks that the customer is asking about a house, but he is actually asking about Claire. The audience laughs when Phil says, “I think the carpet matches the drapes. I haven’t checked in a while.”

Miscommunication and misunderstandings are as old as comedy itself. But Arrested took it to another level entirety. While Friends and Seinfeld had six and four characters whose plots may overlap, Arrested overlapped stories of eight characters and developed these stories to Shakespearean levels. Over two seasons on Arrested, the lawyer Maggie Lizer (Julia-Louis Dreyfuss) convinced Michael she was blind, then not blind, then pregnant, then faking a pregnancy, then actually pregnant, then not pregnant. Episodes of Arrested might even contain “fifty scenes.”[12] Post-Arrested, shows like Community and Modern Family are emulating these qualities, employing fairly large casts and interconnecting their stories in intricate ways, but to be honest, no one does it on the scale that Arrested did.

This is not to say that Arrested did not do physical comedy or put characters in wacky situations. This clip is probably the funniest moment of the series for me. But Arrested has a balance of written and physical comedy that shows like Modern Family[13] and Parks and Recreation emulate to great success.


Arrested takes place in the “present” where events in the real world exist in the show. It is laden with topical (at the time) references to the War in Iraq, the Abu Gharib prison scandal, and the Teri Schiavo case. In fact, most of the show’s overarching plot about George Bluth Sr. is that he committed treason by building houses in Iraq. Similarly, The Office, Parks and Recreation, Modern Family, Community, 30 Rock, and It’s Always Sunny take place in the present. They integrate current the current state of the US economy, popular YouTube videos, rapper culture, and references current bands, political leaders and trends. But lots of shows have taken place in their respective “present.” What Arrested pioneered was the degree to which it was reflexive, that is, it commented on itself. On Arrested, actors were acknowledged for their former roles[14], direct references to its television competition were made[15], commercial sponsors were acknowledged[16], characters mention act-breaks, and its own ratings struggles were integrated into plots. My personal favorite Arrested meta joke was replacing family lawyer Barry Zuckercorn (Henry Winkler) with Bob Loblaw (fellow Happy Days alumnus, Scott Baio), and having Bob Loblaw acknowledge on the show that it wasn’t the “first time he’s replaced Barry,” and that he appealed to a younger demographic. Some other of my favorite meta-Arrested moments occur in the season three episode, “S.O.B.s” when the pre-show (slyly desperate ratings ploy) promo for the show promised dramatically that someone would die in the ensuing episode) and that the ending would be shot live. At the very end of the episode it was revealed unceremoniously that a racist elderly woman in a restaurant was the character who died, and only the last moment of the show was shot “live,” after which Jason Bateman remarked that they’d have to repeat the scene for the West Coast Feed.

While like I mentioned earlier, The Office and the like are not afraid to make pop-culture references, undoubtedly Community and 30 Rock have come closest to matching Arrested’s amount of meta-commentary and self-reflection. On Community, for example, Malcolm Jamaal-Warner’s character came on the show wearing a Cliff Huxtable-esque sweater, and remarked that he got the sweater from his dad. Also, it seems that one of the purposes of the character of Abed is provide the voice of the cynical viewer who thinks, “I’ve seen this before.” Abed incessantly points out pop culture references and sitcom tropes that the show is currently adhering to.[17] 30 Rock also makes a lot of “in-jokes.” For starters, its show within-a-show, TGS, is on the NBC network, the network which airs 30 Rock. This device enables a lot of meta-jokes. For example, in one episode[18], NBC head Jack Donaghy (Alec Baldwin) brings in Jerry Seinfeld to appear on NBC programming to raise the network’s ratings. I imagine Seinfeld was asked to appear on 30 Rock for the same reason. Similarly, when NBC-Universal was actually bought by the Comcast Corporation in early 2011, 30 Rock introduced a plotline[19] where a company called “Kabletown” bought NBC. As 30 Rock takes place in the world of show business, television, film and celebrity references are also rampant, with characters like Liz constantly likening moments in life to film and television plots.

The risk in constantly making these types of references is that it alienates audiences who aren’t as pop-culture savvy or Hollywood-literate. This is another reason why perhaps Arrested, Community, and 30 Rock have relatively small audiences.


All art is derivative and Arrested is no exception. Individually, each comedy element of Arrested was not groundbreaking. Arrested creator Mitch Hurwitz is not shy in admitting his influences[20], which include The Simpsons, Seinfeld, I Love Lucy, All in the Family, The Sopranos, and I imagine The Larry Sanders Show, Woody Allen, and Zucker Brothers movies. But what makes art unique is the extent to which it simultaneously acknowledges and rejects previous forms and proceeds to apply the form in new, unfamiliar ways. Arrested achieved something special in that by fusing previous comic sensibilities together, it created its own entirely unique style and television series. While at the surface it seems like a typical sitcom (it was about 22 minutes long, it followed a three-act structure, it was on during primetime, it followed the happenings of a dysfunctional family), it is unique in the way that it rejected and subverted certain sitcom tropes. Part of this was because of purely creative decision making, and part of this was due to its precarious circumstance of constantly being on verge of getting cancelled. This external pressure certainly influenced its creative decision-making, which is what inevitably happens when you mix art and commerce. Some people say that it was a travesty that Arrested got cancelled, and maybe it was, but then perhaps we wouldn’t have such brilliant pieces of television as the aforementioned “S.O.Bs” episode.

Nevertheless, through a combination of a creative vision, well-trained and educated comedy writers, and extraordinary circumstances, Arrested Development became the most successful unsuccessful comedy of all time. It was an entirely original show, lightning in a bottle, and the likes of which we may never see again.[21] And though it only lasted on the air a short while, its impact is undeniably felt on television comedy today. It didn’t change America’s comedy tastes, (as relatively low ratings for Parks and Recreation, 30 Rock, and Community indicate), but it did influence an entire generation of comedy writers and remains the gold standard to which every current and future television comedy will be compared. That is, until something even better comes along.

[1] Cinema vérité is a naturalistic style of documentary filmmaking which strives to reveal “truth.”


[3] I say rarely because occasionally they do callbacks to events that viewers have not seen yet. For example, the opening sequence in “The Convention” where we are shown a montage of Michael enjoying his “Fun Jeans.”

[4] See: Moments where Michael closes the blinds to his office, the instance where Pam and Jim find out that Pam is pregnant (“Company Picnic”), the hug between Pam and Michael at the end of Steve Carell’s last episode (“Goodbye, Michael”).

[5] There are rare exceptions: Jim and Pam’s wedding and the end of The Office episode, “The Dinner Party,” which showed the three different couples leaving Michael and Jan’s dinner party, with the previously mentioned song of Jan’s assistant Hunter, playing in the background.

[6] Callbacks including character phrases such as “Come on!,” “I’ve made a huge mistake,” and the family’s various chicken dances.

[7] Arrested also used their epilogue as a sly call-forward. The narrator would say, “On the next Arrested Development” and scenes would play out that actually wouldn’t occur on the next episode. This was just a funny touch and a play on a television trope, and so far, no one has copied it.

[8] Though in a slightly different way. While Arrested would allude to things that would happen in the future, but haven’t occurred yet in the episode’s real time, HIMYM actually shows footage of future events.


[10] Community is especially unique in that its tone, genre and form vary from episode to episode. Some episodes are grounded, while other episodes conform to certain genres (Western, mockumentary, stop-motion animation, etc.) with the characters alternately unaware and extremely self-aware of these changes.

[11] Season 2, Episode 19; “The Musical Man.”

[12] Hurwitz, Mitch. And Here’s the Kicker. (2009)

[13] I have to think that the running Modern Family gag about that one bad stair in the Dunphy house is like Gob’s “C’mon!”

[14] For example, Fonzie and Happy Days references were abound surrounding Henry Winkler’s character and in one episode, a picture is shown of Charlize Theron’s character Rita before her plastic surgery; it is a picture of Charlize Theron as Aileen Wuornos in the film, Monster.

[15] In one episode George Senior is called a “regular Brad Garrett” in reference to the fact that Mr. Garrett had beaten out Jeffrey Tambor for the Emmy that year.

[16] Tobias eats at a Burger King and says flat out, “This sure is a great restaurant,” to which the narrator reiterates, “It sure is.”

[17] In one Community episode that takes place in a single location, Abed remarks that they’re “doing a bottle episode.” A bottle episode is an episode of television that takes place in a single location.



[20] Hurwitz, Mitch. And Here’s the Kicker. (2009)

[21] Unless it becomes a movie.