Today, Netflix released the final batch of episodes for Arrested Development’s fifth season. Who cares? I mean, I am sure many people care; I myself, even care, a little. I am relatively certain that I will hit play on these eight new episodes and let them play in the background as I do some work in my apartment (I’ll occasionally lift my head up to watch a scene and think to myself, “hmm… I guess!” and then roughly four hours later the show will end, and I’ll be like, “I missed a lot of that, but I am not going back to find out what it was.”). Still, I’m not particularly enthused about watching comedic stylings of the Bluth family psychodrama.
That I have such apathy about Arrested Development is kinda weird, considering how desperately people were lobbying (or at the very least, passionately hoping) for its resurrection a decade ago. The series, which was perennially on the cancellation bubble from its debut on Fox in 2003 to its cancellation three years later, invited repeated rewatches, offering up new jokes and meta-gags to obsessives. It was a show that presaged the current TV-watching mode, which is one that requires that you not only watch the show but also read recaps and Wikipedia entries and blog posts breaking down every scene or runner. It was a cult hit with a fervent online fandom, before every single show had a fandom and before “fandom” became overused vernacular.
And then, in 2013, Arrested Development returned. But it was just not as good as it once was. The fourth season suffered from both structural problems and unrealistic expectations, and five years later, a fifth season just feels … off. Everyone’s back together but the episodes feel older, clunkier, rusty. Memories of a once-great show are tarnished by diminishing returns, and offscreen controversies generated by the series’ stars.
Who is to blame for all of this? Who is responsible for the ruination of Arrested Development? Former president Barack Obama, of course.
If Obama had not brought back Arrested Development, it would have stayed a gem of a series, gone too soon, preserved in amber. During the show’s absence, the custody of the Oval Office changed hands. In August of 2009, with two wars raging and economy threatening to implode, the newly inaugurated Obama was tasked with the impossible: bringing back Arrested Development. The request came as most important requests do, via a protest sign. Obama was holding a town hall in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, to pitch Obamacare to voters, and demonstrators on both sides of the issue came out in force to say how they felt.
One of those demonstrators was a New Hampshire high-school student named Brett Chamberlin, who stepped into the anti-Obamacare crowd and held up his simple cardboard sign, which read: “OBAMA BRING BACK ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.” He didn’t know it yet, but he was about to become a meme.
“I decided to integrate myself with the opposing side because I wanted to respect the seriousness of people in support of the Affordable Care Act,” Chamberlin told New York when reached by phone on Monday. “I do recall receiving some confused looks, some confused reactions, a couple of people commenting that it was inappropriate.” Another anti-Obama sign in the crowd compared him to Adolf Hitler.
An amateur photographer posted a picture of Chamberlin bearing his sign to Flickr, where it quickly went viral. “Pretty much instantly I was receiving it from folks. I think I may have even seen it trending on Reddit,” Chamberlin said. “Even now, every couple of months, I’ll get an email from a friend or a Facebook message from someone I know, where that photo has appeared in a list of funny protest signs, and they’ll say ‘Is that you?’”
The notion — that nothing short of White House intervention would bring the beloved show back — quickly took on a life of its own. Universal health care could wait, the American public needed to laugh at farcical, inept rich people and the need was urgent.
Obama didn’t see the sign that day, but it eventually made its way to series creator Mitchell Hurwitz.
In October of 2011, the cast reunited for a panel at the New Yorker Festival, where Hurwitz announced plans for another season leading into a movie, the first confirmation that new material was on its way. Fans were excited.
(Netflix did not respond to questions about whether its decision to green-light the show’s revival was spurred by lobbying from then-president Barack Obama. Obama, who landed a production deal with Netflix last year, did not respond to similar questions.)
When season four hit in 2013, its mere existence seemed to gloss over any problems one might have with the series. The main problem is the well-known fact that the ensemble never really reassembled — because of busy schedules, it was impossible to get every actor for every episode. The show is structured around this limitation: Each episode focused on a different character. Chamberlin paused diplomatically when I asked him what he thought of season four. “It’s hard to re-create the magic so many years after the fact,” he said. “I think the tone is still there, the actors are still incredible actors, but it’s difficult.”
Season five, whose main selling point was getting the entire cast in the same room, still felt like going through the motions. Many reviews described it as familiar but not as revolutionary as its earliest seasons. To be fair, how could it be? The half-decade gap between seasons four and five certainly didn’t help either. “It’s fun in places and labored in others, sometimes in the same scene,” a Vox review, typical of the lack of enthusiasm for the new season, reads.
Looming over the fifth season as well was Jeffrey Tambor, who had been dismissed from his other show, Transparent, following allegations of sexual harassment and inappropriate behavior on set. A painful group interview conducted by the New York Times revealed that he had also been aggressive toward Jessica Walters, who plays his wife, on the Arrested Development set. The other male actors on the show inadequately tried to justify Tambor’s conduct, and then apologized for doing so.
All of this is to say that the Arrested Development revival, which began with such promise, has been a total mess. Even if Obama did not have a hand in resurrecting the series (and to break kayfabe for a second, he absolutely did not) the meme Chamberlin started served as a rallying cry throughout the campaign to get the Bluths back together. Which brings me to the main question I had for Chamberlin: Does he regret asking Barack Obama to revive the series?
“No regrets,” he declared. “I suspect that whether or not I had held that sign, Arrested Development would still hold the cultural cachet that it does, it would still have the cult following.”
The Obama–Arrested Development meme still floats around the internet, but Chamberlin has turned his activism towards other causes. He now works at the environmental nonprofit, the Story of Stuff. “It’s important that all of us stand up and talk about the things that are important to us,” he said. “If it’s a TV show, that’s great. If that’s protecting our environment and protecting human dignity, and fighting for human rights and social justice, that’s even better.”