Golden Words — Arrested Development, “Pilot”

Since great television comedy always begins with the script, this series of posts considers the individual episodes that have claimed the Primetime Emmy Award for Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series over the years.


In my memory, Arrested Development was a total revolution when it popped up on the Fox schedule in the fall of 2003. Taking a closer look at the significant Emmy wins it collected for its first season suggests that assessment isn’t exactly airtight. More accurately, I supposed, it’s the competition it bested and the award dispersed in immediately preceding years that offer a brow-furrowing contradiction to my longstanding theory.

Held against the multiple seasons that followed, it is remarkable how fully formed Arrested Development is in its pilot episode. There are plot elements that would continue to yield comedic wonders in the future as the creators found novel ways to circle back to them, but the real feat is the strength of the characters. Often, especially in television comedies, the writers start shifting the material to play to the strengths of the performers, especially after starting off with a relatively untested cast. Instead, the voices are entirely in place already, astutely exploiting the actors’ most distinctive gifts: Jason Bateman’s bone dry exasperation, Jessica Walter’s withering superiority, Tony Hale’s man-child moodiness, Michael Cera’s tenderized reticence, and on and on.

Creator Mitchell Hurwitz would strengthen other comic techniques, most notably the contradictory assessment of the narrator (voiced by Ron Howard), but there’s an immediate command of the splintered narrative and the long-build set up capped by a firecracker punchline. From the jump, it is satire that diverts from its acidity with burbling absurdity and then manages to keep that element corralled through sharp specificity. Arguably the first live action television comedy to approach the sheer density of The Simpsons, Arrested Development keeps a lot of plates spinning and somehow does it on a storm-tossed ship with a soapy deck.

Although I would have testified to the contrary, Arrested Development wasn’t alone in its ingenuity. In the Emmy category for outstanding writing — in which the pilot episode prevailed — the show was up against an episode of Scrubs, then in its third season and trafficking in its own goofball deconstructions. And Fox’s Malcolm in the Middle had a few years earlier won the writing category in consecutive years, using some similar tricks and in its own off-kilter approach to narration. What Arrested Development was doing wasn’t all that new. It simply did it all so much better than its contemporaries and predecessors that it felt like a dazzling discovery.

Other posts in this series can be found at the “Golden Words” tag.