Manatees with Memories

Okay, yes, I’m watching Arrested Development and Supernatural for the first time. It’s 2003 in my house. It’s awful; Bush is still President, everybody’s getting shipped off to war, and Fullmetal Alchemist is a dark, cynical series with an absolutely terrible left-field final twist and a seriously small-potatoes villain.

Anyway, as I’ve gotten into the second season I’ve noticed something interesting the show does structurally. Much like Family Guy and the comedies it inspired, it relies heavily on cutaway gags, but where most of the cutaways in Family Guy and its ilk are non sequiturs, in Arrested Development they are quite frequently references to past episodes.

This is a very interesting way to use the growing emphasis on continuity in American television (which is largely a product of the increasing availability and accessibility of archives of past episodes via first home video, then DVD, and especially the rise of on-demand streaming services). Most reference-heavy shows use references to past episodes to enhance the appearance of dramatic unity (not quite in the Aristotelian sense, but close enough) and reward dedicated viewing, but Arrested Development does something quite different. By using them as cutaway gags, which by their nature are disruptive and jarring, the references simultaneously create an appearance of dramatic unity to reward dedicated viewers, while also creating a non sequitur joke to amuse more casual viewers who don’t catch the reference.

It’s honestly quite a clever way to combine current fads in both dramatic and comedic television to get something that feels fresh and original. I can see why people made a big deal about this show, and why it’s still remembered so fondly a decade later.