40. "Pilot," Arrested Development (2003)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
I'd put that joke next to Archie Bunker's first racial epithet in terms of its influence on TV comedy. Here we have:
1.) The introduction of a character so self-absorbed and cartoonish that she makes Seinfeld gang look like the Waltons.
2.) A discrepency between a character's spelling (Gob, for George Oscar Bluth Jr.) and pronounciation (Job) that non-fans are sure to find confusing and that adds to the show's science-fiction-like cult status.
3.) A joke that depends on editing and that couldn't be accomplished on a traditional three-camera sitcom.
After the success of The Sopranos, TV dramas with self-contained episodes, such as Law & Order, became déclassé among critics and more sophisticated viewers. In order to be more than comfort food, a TV drama had to be "novelistic," with slow-moving plots that lasted for months or years. (I seem to be in the minority in thinking that a season-long mystery was a big mistake for the brilliant-but-cancelled Terriers.) And Arrested Development pretty much killed the three-camera, live audience sitcom among discerning viewers. If a TV comedy doesn't have cutaway gags (like the one above), flashbacks and other narrative tricks, and a disregard for what is logically possible, it's not worth watching.
Michael: (watching his brother Gob) So this is the magic trick, huh?
Gob: Illusion, Michael. A trick is something a whore does for money...
(Michael nods toward the youngsters watching the magic show and listening to the conversation)
Gob: ...or candy!*
*"...or cocaine!" in the extended version of the pilot on DVD.
I hate that every high-aspiring sitcom has to follow Arrested Development's rules now, but the show is still damn funny. One reason I didn't put any of the sillier '60s sitcoms on this list is that they seem so slow and labored next to the more cinematic AD, which follows the family of highly unethical (and now broke) real estate developer. The pilot episode is a masterpiece in introducing its large cast of distinct characters and setting up future situations. GOB riding the Segway, George Michael's lust for his female cousin, Tobias getting the acting bug, the frozen banana stand... all would be durable sources of comedy over the next three seasons.
George (when his son Michael visits him in prison): Michael, listen to me. These guys, the SEC, they've been after me for years. I put you in charge, you're going to be wearing one of these orange jumpsuits too!
Michael: I could have helped you...
George: You'd be an accomplice! No! It had to be your Mom. (whispers) They cannot arrest a husband and wife for the same crime.
Michael: Yeah, I don't think that's true, Dad.
George: Really? (takes off glasses in despair) I've got the worst [bleep]* attorneys.
*"Fucking" on the DVD.
• I missed most of the first season when it aired on Fox, partly because I didn't care for the short-scene structure. Then I bought the first season on DVD when I found it in the bargain bin at Tower Records (back when one discovered new things that way) and found it much funnier and enjoyable without commercial breaks (and with the ability to repeat scenes). This wouldn't have made Fox advertisers very happy.
• The A.V. Club has reviews of AD episodes beginning with the pilot here.