From Whence It Came

On Tuesday, Beutler Ink launched a project that we’ve been working on for quite some time, and which we’re very proud of — Recurring Developments: An interactive visualization of the jokes in Arrested Development.

The response to this site over the past two days has been overwhelming: over 42,000 likes on Facebook, more than 246,000 unique visitors, and assortedmediacoverage. We’re totally floored with how well this has been received, and we’d love to share a behind-the-scenes look at the project. The original concept for the site came from myself. I spent a great deal of time in grad school watching Arrested Development (time that I probably should have spent working on my dissertation), and developed a solid knowledge of the running gags. But familiarity with these jokes and mastery of these jokes are entirely different things: which jokes happened in which episodes? Who can tell? Flash forward to 2012. When I started working with the Beutler Ink team, I approached company president-namesake William Beutler with the idea of creating something that would organize Arrested Development not in terms of the linear order of the episodes, but by the jokes that tie the series together, providing a new way of looking at the series.

Since nearly the entire staff of Beutler Ink already considered themselves serious Arrested Development fans, this was not a hard sell.

2012-10-21 10.19.12
2012-10-21 10.19.12

Early concept for a poster

That was back in May 2012, though we didn’t actually get started on collecting data in earnest until November. It was around this time that we realized that: oh wait, if we want the site up and running for fans before Season 4 premiered on Netflix, we’d best get on this now.

Putting together a large project like this is full of challenges. The first is deciding how to deal with the data, especially when the data is dense and qualitative (read: messy), like the running gags in Arrested Development. For example, what counts as a recurring joke? Is Lindsay’s “SLUT” shirt a joke or is that just a wardrobe choice? Do we count an occurrence of “Blue Man Group” if all we see is a blue handprint on a wall?

And should character dynamics be included? The fact that no one likes Gob seems pretty noteworthy (or joke-worthy), but what about the fact that Michael often ignores or corrects George Michael? Is that a joke, or just part of who their characters are?

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We tried to make our decisions about what to include in a consistent way. A joke was included in the site if we thought that any fan would agree about whether something happening on-screen should count as that joke or not. So, if you could ask the question, “Is a Bluth doing a chicken dance?” and people would agree on the answer, then we included it. If the question would take more interpretation, like, “Is Michael not listening to George Michael as much as he should?” we decided to leave it out.

Based on the emails we’ve received so far, some fans had plausibly differing ideas about what counted as a joke, and in some cases we’ve come to agree; we’ll be rolling out an update soon to include a few more jokes.

Once the data was collected and collated, the challenges continued through the development process. What’s the best way to represent this data? How do we show which connections exist, which jokes are the most frequent, and where in the series they cluster? We’re fortunate to have had a great development partner along the way, Red Edge, who took the open-source project peoplemov.in (by Carlo Zapponi and licensed by MIT) and turned it into something that worked for this project. Fun, explorable, and beautiful.

Finally, once we’d figured out how to represent the data, then how do we represent the jokes themselves? They’re so iconic in the series, and some so visually memorable, that we wanted them to be just as iconic on the site. Our VP of Content, Jenny Karn, tapped the awesome skills of Noah Smith and Lydia Wallbaum to design and deliver images that represent some of the best-known jokes in the series—and boy did they deliver! You can see some of the early design explorations they did for us throughout this post.

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YusQrFd_orWNAop2tDLgoyv2jUVMs07QXHONFxJ3_LY

The challenges were dozens, but the results are hotter than a Cornballer in summer—a new way of appreciating the whip-smart storytelling in one of television’s best series ever. As fans of the show, we were excited how it turned out, and we’re even more excited to see that the rest ofArrested Development's whip-smart fans agree.