TERRY GROSS, HOST:
Our TV critic David Bianculli was on vacation when Netflix unveiled all 15 episodes of its new revival of the cult sitcom "Arrested Development." He was able to dive in anyway, watching all the episodes in a row in one overnight binge-fest the morning Netflix made it available. Series creator Mitch Hurwitz advises against watching the new "Arrested Development" that way, but our critic begs to differ.
DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: When Mitch Hurwitz and his collaborators began making the Fox sitcom "Arrested Development" 10 years ago, it was so loaded with jokes - in-jokes, recurring jokes, and just plain bizarre jokes - that it rewarded viewers who watched more than once. But even though it won the Emmy for Best Comedy Series one year, not enough viewers bothered to watch it even once, so the show was cancelled in 2006 after three seasons.
And that would've been it, except for a loyal cult following that built up once the show was released on DVD and the Internet. So, finally, on Memorial Day weekend, "Arrested Development" was reborn with 15 new episodes released all at once. I binge viewed them all immediately and loved watching them that way. It's the structure of this new season of "Arrested Development" that impresses me the most.
Like Larry David's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," it's got a season-long story arc, as well as tightly sculpted plot twists within each installment. And "Arrested Development" tries something even more daring, by focusing each episode primarily on a specific character from the large and talented ensemble. This allows the show to revisit the same moments from various points of view in a way that becomes its own running gag.
Hidden identities, sudden surprises, perplexing mysteries, they're all unfolded slowly in intertwined fashion, like some sort of comedy double helix. And watching everything in one sitting helps to make those connections even clearer. It also helps to watch in large doses, because the season's plot doesn't fully reveal itself until episode four. That's when Jason Bateman's Michael Bluth - the sane center of a mostly insane family of misfits - is approached to make a movie about his unusual relatives.
He sorely needs the money. At the time, he's driving one of those photo-taking Google Maps cars, and is excited to pursue the offer. But here's where it all gets complicated and illustrates how "Arrested Development" is so wonderfully twisted. While Michael is driving in his Google car, the lawyer who phones with the movie offer is played by recurring cast member Henry Winkler.
Later in the same scene, Winkler is defended by another lawyer played by Scott Baio, both of whom became famous on the '70s sitcom "Happy Days," playing, respectively, the Fonz and Chachi. And the Hollywood producer-director who is seeking to make a movie about Michael's family? That's Ron Howard, the "Happy Days" star who not only is one of the executive producers of "Arrested Development," but also serves as its narrator.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT")
RON HOWARD: (as narrator) Michael was driving a car from a company that shows every private residence in the country. But it's also a company that won't let us show the car that takes those pictures. In fairness to them, it is their property. (as narrator) If you want to know what the company is...
JASON BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) Save it. We're just going to blur it anyway.
HOWARD: (as narrator) ...all you have to do is something it.
BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) Barry, you still there?
HENRY WINKLER: (as Barry) So I got a really interesting call from Ron Howard, of all people. He's directing now, apparently, and wants to meet at in his office in, get this, Beverly Hills.
BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) Why does Ron Howard want to meet with me?
WINKLER: (as Barry) Well, I don't know. His office didn't say. And if you don't mind, I'm a little busy with a case of my own.
BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) Did you get any other information?
WINKLER: (as Barry) Apparently, he directed a movie called "Cocoon."
BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) Sorry, I was unclear: about why he wants to meet with me.
WINKLER: (as Barry) I don't know. You want me to tell him to go (beep) himself? I can tell Ron Howard to go (beep) himself. I can tell him to shove it up his (beep). I just can't do it now. Because I'm in front of a jury.
BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) Barry, I will meet with him. You're in front of a jury right now?
WINKLER: (as Barry) Oh, and the looks I'm getting. Gotta go.
BIANCULLI: Since each cast member gets to take center stage for at least one episode, it seems almost unfair to single out any of them, except for Bateman, whose dry delivery is the gravity that keeps this whole enterprise from spinning off into space. But it would seem just as unfair not to heap extra praise upon Jessica Walter and Portia de Rossi as Michael Bluth's mother and sister, respectively, for their fully committed, truly funny work here.
So much about these new "Arrested Development" shows had me laughing out loud and often. Sometimes it was the revival of a running gag I'd forgotten about, like the use of the music from "A Charlie Brown Christmas" to indicate sadness. Or the simple use of the phrase: get this. And get this: These 15 shows are loaded with guest stars, from Kristen Wiig and John Slattery to recurring players Liza Minnelli and James Lipton.
And Ron Howard even shows up onscreen, playing himself. And I guess I shouldn't be surprised, but after all these years since being on camera on "The Andy Griffith Show" and "Happy Days," Ron Howard still knows how to deliver a punch line. Here he is, portraying himself, explaining his movie idea to Michael Bluth, played by Jason Bateman. And at the same time, Howard does double duty during the scene in his regular role as narrator.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT")
HOWARD: (as himself) Really, I've been dying to figure out a way to do something about the market crash, ever since my partner Brian Grazer was tipped off that it was three months away from happening.
BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) What's that?
HOWARD: (as himself) But I never had a face to put on it, until now. You. Your wife is dying. You're trying to hold your family together.
BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) Oh, gosh. No, no, no. My wife died years before any of this.
HOWARD: (as himself) Oh, gee. I think it's a lot more fun if we see her die.
BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) That is fun.
HOWARD: (as himself) And, by the way, then it gets a fantastic part for a leading lady. In fact, my girl Rebel would be great in that part.
BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) Your girl?
HOWARD: (as himself) Rebel Alley. She's an actress. You know her.
(as narrator) He didn't.
BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) I do. Yes, of course I do. Your girl, huh?
HOWARD: (as himself) Well, we kind of like to keep that quiet.
(as narrator) Michael assumed that by my girl, Ron was referring to his mistress.
BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) So I can see why you're telling me on the lam, huh?
HOWARD: (as narrator) But Ron was actually talking about his daughter.
(as himself) You probably think I'm terrible for even mentioning her to you.
BATEMAN: (as Michael Bluth) Oh, no, no. I'm not one to judge. I'm sure you've all got girls up here in Hollywood.
HOWARD: (as himself) Brian's got two boys.
BIANCULLI: It'll be very interesting to see at the end of the TV year if Netflix's "Arrested Development" earns its way into one of the nominated spots for a Best Comedy Emmy. It's eligible, and it's been there before. And even though it's no longer on TV as we used to define it, it deserves to be nominated again.
GROSS: David Bianculli is founder and editor of the website TV Worth Watching, and teaches TV and film history at Rowan University in New Jersey. Tomorrow on our show, we'll feature the interview I just recorded with the creator of "Arrested Development," Mitch Hurwitz. You probably won't be surprised to hear he's really funny.