Now the story of a beloved cult sitcom that lost its first network home, and the one dedicated creator who had no choice but to spend seven years getting the cast back together for new episodes (and, God willing, a movie). At long last, it's ''Arrested Development.''

By Dan Snierson
Updated April 26, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

Arrested Development‘s journey back to the screen has been long and unpredictable. It has taken many turns, involved the use of many birds. And on this December evening, it has banked a hard right onto a Hollywood side street and pit-stopped in a magic club on gay night.

Inside the gothic lounge of mystery, patrons in leopard vests, Army fatigues, and assless pants groove about. Near the bar, series creator Mitchell Hurwitz studies Will Arnett and Michael Cera as they rehearse a scene that will play out in multiple episodes: Decked out in leather and chains, Arnett’s sleazy-cheesy illusionist Gob Bluth has lured his innocent-faced nephew, George Michael (Cera), here under false pretenses (naturally). He busts a move on a flustered George Michael and shouts, ”Ow! You bit my lip!” before apologetically whispering to him: ”Hey, thanks a lot. I owe you big-time. Not a lot of nephews would do this.” Loud, so the crowd can hear: ”Now get out of here! I never want to sleep with you again!” Whispering: ”I do. I would sleep with you, George Michael… I mean, I probably won’t…

In between takes, Hurwitz offers scientific pointers like ”When you say ‘hot little ass,’ put your hand here,” then scoots behind the monitors to survey the action. ”This may be the creepiest thing we’ve done so far,” he observes.

With take after absurd take under his leather-daddy belt, Arnett catches a breather. ”I did some disturbing things tonight,” he says. ”I kissed Michael Cera no fewer than eight times.”

And how was it?

”It felt like…coming home.”

After an absence of seven years, three months, and 16 days, Arrested Development will give fans who prayed for its return the mother(boy) of all gifts on May 26: Fifteen new episodes will be released all at once on Netflix. Designed as a prequel for a not-yet-greenlit movie, these installments have been the source of great anticipation and speculation since Netflix announced the show’s resurrection 17 months ago. Four weeks from now, our hearts and minds and Twitter feeds will tell us whether the wait for this moment of Bluth was indeed worth it.

Why all the fuss over a series that aired for only two and a half seasons on Fox and saw its final four episodes burned off opposite the opening ceremony of the 2006 Winter Olympics? Because Arrested Development was one of the most hilarious, subversive, inventive comedies of the aughts, featuring brisk-and-brainy jokes (”What’s Spanish for ‘I know you speak English’?”), labyrinthine meta-plots, and a quirky-jerky family that redefined dysfunction. The Emmy-winning critical darling only grew stronger in cancellation, with waves of people discovering it on DVD (3 million copies sold and counting) and the Internet, and fetishizing its myriad memorable lines like ”I’ve made a huge mistake,” ”No touching!” and ”Are you forgetting that I was a professional twice over: an analyst and a therapist, the world’s first analrapist?” (You really want to pronounce that last one correctly.)

With every passing year, it became increasingly clear that there was life in the old underdog yet. ”This audience has something invested that is alchemical at this point,” marvels star Jeffrey Tambor (George Bluth Sr.). ”This is the right time. This is the right audience… It’s actually more right now than it’s ever been.”

So here it comes: the ambitious next chapter in the zany tale of the Bluths, the high-society clan that fell on hard times after its elusive patriarch, George Sr., nearly leveled the family’s Orange County, Calif., real estate business by apparently committing ”light treason” — forcing pragmatic son Michael (Jason Bateman) to accelerate construction on his savior complex. Seven years later, things aren’t much better for the family, which also includes Michael’s cocksure older brother, Gob; younger brother Buster (Tony Hale), a mama’s boy saddled with panic attacks and a hook hand; sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), a fickle socialite-activist wannabe who’s married to Tobias (David Cross), a bumbling shrink–turned–aspiring thespian with a host of sexual and identity issues; vodka-fueled mother Lucille (Jessica Walter); and Michael’s own son, the achingly earnest George Michael, who harbors a shame-fueled crush on his jaded cousin, Maeby (Alia Shawkat).

”If the first series aspired to be The Godfather in terms of the family, this thing aspires to be a Godfather II,” says Hurwitz. ”I’m sure a lot of people went to see The Godfather Part II and said, ‘What happened to the machine guns? What are we doing in Cuba? Meetings? Who cares about meetings?’ But The Godfather II was more substantial and rewatchable. It was more complex. I aspire to do that kind of evolution with this. I don’t mean to compare it to The Godfather II — I just mean that, well, it’s not exactly what the audience expects, but I think it’ll scratch the itch.”

Will the new AD offer long-lasting comic relief — or remind us that past magic is impossible to recapture? Can a franchise that was too smart for the room find new life in a new decade in a new medium? Will this be a fun, sexy time for all? As Tobias would grandly declare: Let the great experiment begin!

When death came, there was sadness but not surprise. Arrested filmed much of its 2003–06 run with the noose of cancellation slowly tightening around its neck. ”We were always sort of ready to get kicked out of the party,” explains Bateman. Recognizing that the prestigious series had a small but obsessive fan base, Showtime was interested in adopting Arrested, but ultimately those talks fizzled. Instead of bidding farewell to the Bluths forever, though, Hurwitz began brainstorming movie concepts over the next few years, with Fox Searchlight theoretically interested. (One idea was Arrested Development the Movie: The Movie, starring Jason Bateman as Michael Bluth and Greg Kinnear as Jason Bateman.)

It wasn’t until early 2011, after Hurwitz wrapped the short-lived Fox comedy Running Wilde, that the Arrested revival began to gain traction. While pitching a multiple-movie scenario to Imagine Entertainment cofounder Ron Howard, AD‘s exec producer/narrator, Hurwitz came to a realization: Even if he spent only five minutes catching up the audience on each Bluth, it would be 45 minutes before the movie’s story line actually began. ”I started thinking, What if we do an anthology, little short stories about each character?” he says. ”Make little skits and try to get the movie going.” Howard, who had wondered whether the Bluths could be resuscitated via a cable special, was intrigued. ”I just lamented its passing in a big way,” he recalls. ”So I was always interested in trying to fan the flame.”

Howard would turn up the heat by arranging a meeting between Netflix chief content officer Ted Sarandos and Hurwitz. Impressed with Arrested‘s rising popularity, Sarandos tossed out an enticing proposition: Was there any way to corral the cast for new episodes? ”Between the DVD rentals and streaming on Netflix, the audience was already nearing what the show had seen in its network run,” explains Sarandos, whose company was expanding into original programming by commissioning David Fincher’s House of Cards and, later, Eli Roth’s Hemlock Grove. ”More importantly, it was a very engaged audience who was watching certain episodes over and over again…. Television cult fan bases typically get smaller and more intense. The Arrested fan base has gotten bigger and more intense.” For additional proof, look no further than the streets. ”No one recognized me when it was on,” says Shawkat. ”No one recognized me briefly after. And ever since, it has grown so much that practically every day now I get recognized for the show.”

With AD‘s studios, Imagine and 20th Century Fox Television, on board, Hurwitz designed a 10-episode Arrested arc that would serve as the first act of a larger story for the big screen. It would also solve the availability issue with the actors, who had other projects on their schedules: Each character would be the focus of one episode and pop up in several others. (To help provide continuity, the show’s center, Bateman, would appear in all episodes.) In October 2011, Hurwitz reunited the cast in Manhattan at a New Yorker panel to reveal plans for the TV comeback. Showtime also bid for the new episodes, but in November the producers announced their deal with Netflix, whose delivery service offered creative potential. Notes Bateman: ”When Mitch started to get his arms around how all the action could happen simultaneously and there was an ability to stop one episode, start another, and have all this crossover and braided plotting, it became clear that he was going to try to accomplish something incredibly ambitious, the kind of escalation that the audience would expect from him.”

In early 2012, Hurwitz, along with veteran AD writer-producers Jim Vallely and Dean Lorey, opened the writers’ room and began corralling this complex beast. Also recruited to help pen episodes: Cera, whose initial fears of jeopardizing Arrested‘s legacy with a film had been assuaged over lunch with Hurwitz. The actor called the offer ”intimidating” and ”really moving.” Perhaps another word would be terrifying. Take this description of the writers’ room, courtesy of David Cross: ”You know the murder scene where they go to the psycho killer’s apartment and he’s got all this crazy s— mapped out? That’s what it looked like. Post-it notes and index cards all across the three walls in this big conference room. Yarn stretching from one thing to another and pinned in one place, and then a sharp angular uptick to the Lucille character and down. And then there’s a different-colored yarn that intersects and weaves in. It took [Hurwitz] 25 minutes to explain what I was looking at. And I still didn’t get everything. When you see that, of course it has to be a TV show. There’s no way else to do this.”

Shooting began last summer at Culver Studios in Culver City, Calif., where the actors gathered inside a painstaking re-creation of Lucille’s penthouse for their first onscreen reunion. (There would be only one other scene filmed with all nine actors.) ”I remember feeling really overwhelmed and not knowing how to process it,” says Cera. ”A silence fell over the room when everyone was on set. And then Will broke the tension by screaming something really loud like ‘Victorious! We did it!’ in a ridiculous way and everyone loosened up…. It was a well-orchestrated scene where everyone had a moment, and you could see all these characters coming back to life right before your eyes.” For Hale, the instinct kicked in when he came within disapproving distance of his AD mother, Walter: ”Hearing her completely patronizing tone for Buster — not even patronizing, just flat-out abusive — it was almost like a nostalgic click.” Walter describes that day with deep emotion. ”It was…words fail me,” she muses. ”Oh my God…I actually had tears in my eyes while I was saying it to you.” (Apparently she can spare the moisture.)

Meanwhile, Hurwitz & Co. were discovering that the 10-episode plan could not contain their Arrested ambitions, so they asked Netflix for five more. (Six characters’ installments will be two-parters.) Production proved to be an intense, seat-of-your-denim-cutoff-shorts adventure. Scenes from a half-dozen episodes were filmed on some days. Trying to smooth out logical kinks in the knotty interwoven plots meant rewriting on the set, which meant actors had to learn scenes on the fly. Sometimes it wasn’t rewriting but just writing — some episodes began filming with only partially completed scripts. ”Occasionally we’d laugh that we had no idea what we were going to set to shoot,” says de Rossi. ”[Guest star] Terry Crews and I actually learned our lines off a computer screen at one point. Mitch wrote it, and he just turned [the laptop] to face us…. It really made me a better actress. I was in awe of Mitch, because I saw how it all came to him. He always knew which wardrobe you should be in.” Hurwitz spent the entire shoot as an unflappable multitasker, doing punch-ups while directing each installment with guerrilla-comedy guru Troy Miller (Mr. Show) — and editing on a portable setup in spare minutes. ”It was the purest sense of production improvisation,” says Miller, adding, ”There’s never been a half-hour comedy with the level of complexity here. The idea of how characters interrelate and the episodic arcs in A, B, C, D, and E stories — it’s this crazy wormhole he’s created.” Recalls Hurwitz: ”It was like writing with a big clock on you…. I never got to relax. We’d get hilarious things and people would say, ‘Oh my God, this is going to be so funny!’ I’d go, ‘Uh-huh, yeah, we’ll see. I just hope it makes sense.”’

Provided it does, each episode of the new Arrested Development will track a character through three stages: the aftermath of the 2006 finale (the feds chase after Lucille on the Queen Mary! Michael, George Michael, and George Sr. sail to Cabo San Lucas! Maeby pitches a show about the Bluths to Ron Howard, who sees it as a movie!); the intervening years; and the family’s current circumstances. ”This year is about the enduring entanglements of family,” says Hurwitz. ”They are 10 years older than when we met, so that means emotionally they’re, like, two years older than when we met them. Amazing things happen when one goes from being emotionally 12 years old to emotionally being 14 years old.” Or as Arnett sums it up: ”It’s the story of shame, cunning, thievery, dishonor, backstabbing, deceit, bold-faced lying, one-upmanship, psychological torture, lust, financial ruin, and magic, all supported by a very broad beam of dysfunctional love.”

There will be an eclectic stream of guest stars, from familiar (Liza Minnelli, Ben Stiller, James Lipton) to new (Kristen Wiig, Seth Rogen, Isla Fisher, Conan O’Brien). There will be certain events that are revisited in multiple episodes from different perspectives. There will be jokes set up in early installments that pay off in later ones and, as usual, backgrounds stuffed with Easter eggs. And apparently there will be fowl play. ”At one point [Lindsay] lives with some birds,” teases de Rossi. ”And at another point a bird lives with her. I don’t recommend acting with birds. Worse than dogs or kids.”

As these fresh episodes take flight, the AD gang is aware that they could affect the legacy of the revered comedy. But Hurwitz tried to ignore the risk and pressure when bringing back the Bluths, focusing on the opportunity to play with his cast again: ”I would look at these people and think, Don’t take it for granted that we’re all still healthy and that this isn’t one of those sadder reunions — which I also hope to have, by the way — where we’re more infirm and, in some cases, Will Arnett is obese. Or Tony Hale is just an upper torso or something.” Meanwhile, the cast is basking in the warmth of second chances and big-screen possibility. (Hurwitz says he has ”a great deal of it mapped out” but there’s no script yet.) ”If we get the movie, it’s the cherry on top of the sundae,” notes Hale (who was unable to participate in EW’s cover shoot due to a scheduling conflict). ”If we don’t, it’s been a really delicious sundae.”

On the Arrested soundstage one February night, a black-eyed Bateman and a tight-trousered Arnett are filming a trepidatious reunion in the old Bluth model home involving roofies, marionettes, contrition, and confusion. While the cameras are repositioned, the pair try to articulate the glow of reviving their beloved show.

”It feels like we’re still in our own little bubble, only this time we’ve invited all of those people that said they liked us,” says Bateman. ”It’s still a small group, but it’s a bigger family.” He nods with mock sincerity. ”It’s a bigger hug.”

”And you can feel a hand on your butt and you’re like, ‘Who is that?’ ” adds Arnett.

”And you’re like, ‘I don’t care because I know it’s a friend,’ ” continues Bateman.

”And if something feels good, you don’t need to explain it,” finishes Arnett. ”You just enjoy the feeling.”

And then they trot off to bewilder, wrestle, and sing to each other some more, two-ninths of the luckiest family on TV.