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Dysfunction junction

Looks nice, but don't be deceived. 'Arrested Development's' design plays straight man to comedy's odd family.

September 15, 2005|Craig Nakano | Times Staff Writer

IF a set designer's mission is to capture characters' personalities, then imagine trying to decorate for the fictional Bluth family of "Arrested Development" -- some of the most neurotic, self-centered, financially and morally bankrupt, emotionally stunted and clinically lazy characters on television.

Take Lucille, the family's martini-swilling matriarch. Her need to control her grown children is so unrelenting, she adopted a Korean orphan just to alienate her biological son.

And that numskull? Buster is perhaps the world's oldest mama's boy, his unnaturally strong bond to Lucille attributed to "11 months in the womb."

But that's nothing next to Lucille's son-in-law, Tobias. He's a "never nude" -- someone whose psychological disorder compels him to always wear jeans cutoffs, even in the shower. Now, how does one decorate for that?

Such are the designing conundrums of the irreverent Fox series, which premieres its third season Monday. On Sunday, it tries to repeat its Emmy win last year for best comedy.

Production designer Dawn Snyder and set decorator Maureen Osborne see the fictional homes of the Bluth clan as cast members, akin to the straight man of a comedy routine.

One key set is the Newport Beach penthouse of Lucille (Jessica Walter), whose decor Snyder based on the Ritz-Carlton Laguna Niguel suite where the series pilot was filmed. At least at first glance, sophistication seeps from Lucille's brocade print wallpaper, her dupioni silk drapes, her abundant antiques. But the penthouse, like its occupant, carries only a veneer of class. That Tiffany-blue sofa with a fringe of gold? Sateen, not silk.

"The thing with Lucille is that she cares, but she doesn't care. She cares to look like she has money, but really, she doesn't care what the home actually looks like," Osborne says, citing a comic abundance of urns and what Snyder calls "a blend of Florida, Palm Springs and overzealous presidential decor." "We always felt like she thought of herself as the mayor's or president's wife," Osborne says. "It's almost tacky, but not quite."

The bedroom of son Buster (Tony Hale) reflects his status as a professional student who has been schooled in archeology, Native American drumming and 18th century agrarian business and yet has retained no discernible knowledge.

"There are lots of bugs in frames and microscopes and maps on the wall," Osborne says, a reference to another one of Buster's failed forays, cartography. Watch past episodes on DVD and you'll spy inside jokes such as the sombrero on the wall -- a souvenir from when Buster attended the Mexican soap opera awards and unwittingly flirted with his mother's chief nemesis (Liza Minelli, playing an older temptress with ill-timed flare-ups of vertigo).

Most of the family lives in the Bluth Co. model home, a McMansion that starts to falter before the rest of the Bluth-built subdivision has barely started construction. The staircase banister falls apart. The kitchen's range hood crashes to the floor. When Tobias leans against the refrigerator, it sails through a wall and into the garage. By the end of last season, the living room is sinking like a bad souffle and the home gets red-tagged.

Some furnishings come from Target, Macy's and the Wertz Brothers store in West L.A. Perhaps the most fitting source: a Fountain Valley store called Just Like the Model, which owner Peggy Holt says is a clearinghouse for furniture used in model homes throughout Southern California. Among her recent customers, she says: set decorators for "Desperate Housewives."

For the upcoming season of "Arrested Development," another Bluth family home is revealed: a log cabin. "It feels like it's probably in Big Bear or Arrowhead," Snyder says, declining to offer more specifics. Suffice it to say, if it's a Bluth home, it will be full of weirdness, eccentricity and questionable taste -- and it will be very, very funny.

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