Badass Drama: Arrested Development

Proposing to Rita
S03E05 – “Mr. F”
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz and Richard Day

Michael has been dating Rita for five episodes. He believes that she’s a kindergarden teacher; viewers believe that she’s a British spy. In reality, she’s retarded.

The final season of TV’s greatest comedy is a juggling act of perception. Let’s start by discussing a classic device that is the foundation of all drama.

The following example is usually attributed to Alfred Hitchcock in the context of “suspense” versus “surprise”: consider a simple scene with two men discussing the health benefits of coffee in a diner. Boooooring. Now picture the same scene, but add a shot of a ticking time bomb hidden beneath the table BEFORE the dialogue begins. Suddenly, it doesn’t matter what the characters are talking about… dialogue becomes drama.

Surprise, Hitchcock says, is short-lived. Sure, if we don’t know about the bomb, we might jump when it explodes. But then it’s over. However, if we show the bomb first, we prolong the emotion for the length of the dialogue.

We have two layers of perception in this example:

Layer one: the reality that the viewer AND characters know. In this case, the dialogue.

Layer two: the reality that only the viewer knows… the bomb.

The bomb keeps our attention. It heightens every word the characters say. It raises questions and involves us in the story.

How does this relate to “Arrested Development?”

Two layers is enough for most writers, but not for Mitch Hurwitz and his writing team!

Michael Bluth believes that Rita is a kindergarden teacher and falls head-over-heels in love with her. Booooring. However, the writers reveal to the viewer that Rita is actually a British spy on a mission to uncover information against Michael and his family. Now we’re engaged in the story as we ask ourselves a thousand questions: when will Michael discover that Rita’s a spy? What will he do when he finds out? Could Rita fall in love with him anyway? Comedy ensues.

BUT. There’s something else at work in this six-episode arc, and we don’t get the answer until the end of episode five: Rita is mentally challenged. Surprise!

Now we have three layers of reality: great dialogue (the reality known to the characters), suspense (the reality known to the viewer), and surprise (the reality that no one knows).

Because they’re brilliant, the Arrested Development writers refuse to drop the ball before squeezing every possible laugh from this storyline. Now that the viewer knows the truth and Michael is still in the dark, they can sustain the drama for one more hilarious episode.

Re-watching Rita’s storyline with the new information provides the cherry on top. Did you notice the finger-painting on the wall behind Michael? The tutu? The play on words with Rita’s name? Her disability is so obvious, we can’t believe we missed it. We find ourselves re-watching two-and-a-half hours of television just to see what we missed. THAT’S good writing.

I’ll conclude with a conundrum: what did the writers come up with first? “Wee Britain” or Rita’s “Wee Brain?”

I suppose we’ll never know.


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