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This undated publicity photo released by Netflix shows Will Arnett, left, and Jason Bateman in a scene from "Arrested Development," premiering May 26, 2013 on Netflix. (AP Photo/Netflix, Michael Yarish)

When TV shows die, they tend to stay dead.

That's just the way it works: A callous network big shot pulls the plug, and the show is dumped into the vast TV graveyard. It doesn't matter if it's a revered critical darling or a horrid stink bomb that aired for three measly weeks -- they share the same fate. With few exceptions, there is no rousing comeback or big-screen movie. Everyone moves on.

Ah, but then there's "Arrested Development," which defiantly refused to follow the script. Seven years after being canceled by Fox, the wacky cult comedy about the narcissistic, insanely dysfunctional Bluth family, is returning Sunday, with 15 episodes on Netflix streaming all at once.

Just call "Arrested Development" the Lazarus of TV shows.

"I think I just kind of always held out hope that this would work out," creator and executive producer Mitchell Hurwitz told reporters during a news conference to promote the revival. "It was a very naive hope. I know we shouldn't be here. I accept that premise."

So why did "Arrested Development" not stay dead? From the very start, the show defied convention. When it debuted in 2003, critics raved about its blazing wit and originality, its dense collection of interlocking gags, memorable lines and an extraordinary cast featuring, among others, Jason Bateman, Jessica Walter, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi and Jeffrey Tambor.

But few viewers took notice. In that first season, "Arrested Development" ranked 120th in TV's ratings race and even an Emmy for outstanding comedy series failed to perk up the numbers.

By Season 3, Fox gave up, cutting the show's episode order from 22 to 18 and burning off its final four episodes against the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics. So much for that.

Based on numbers alone, "Arrested Development" should have been the stiffest of stiffs. But its die-hard fans refused to let go. They prayed for more of its comedic brilliance. For a while, there was talk that the series would resurface on Showtime. Then there was some buzz about a possible movie. Neither panned out.

Still, Hurwitz continued to reserve a file for fresh "Arrested Development" story ideas -- just in case. Meanwhile, something else was happening: Die-hard fans were spreading the "Arrested Development" gospel, and people who had never seen the show on Fox began to discover it on DVD or the Internet.

"After it was canceled, you could sit down and watch its greatness from beginning to end in a short amount of time," said Matt Lieb, a Bay Area comedian who discovered "Arrested Development" while attending UC Santa Cruz. "I think that's a big reason why the legion of fans grew. People began telling their friends, 'You've got to see this!' I even made my girlfriend watch, so we could connect on a deeper level."

Now comes the rebirth -- and an extraordinary chance to right a TV injustice. But be forewarned: This version of "Arrested Development" is not a straight revival of the old show. Each episode is told from a single character's perspective and will overlap chronologically and narratively. Together, the interwoven installments are designed to serve as a prequel to a not-yet-greenlit movie.

"The episodes are all meant to work within one another -- sort of a hybrid package of 'Arrested Development' stuff," said Bateman, who as dutiful son Michael Bluth, is the only actor to appear in every episode. "And to be fair, you cannot and should not compare them to what the series was. This is something that is completely different."

The change in format was necessitated by the limited availability of the actors, who had other projects on their schedules.

"The family grew apart, and everybody else kind of grew up and got on other shows and had contracts elsewhere," explained Hurwitz, who said he confronted a slew of logistical nightmares during production but eventually came to find the narrative approach "really fun, engaging and interesting."

As for the actors, they apparently picked up right where they left off. The first time they reconvened en masse for a scene in the penthouse of boozy matriarch Lucille Bluth (Walter), they felt right at home.

"It was surreal," Walter recalled. "There we all were nine years later. Except for the two kiddies (Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat) who grew up, we all were like the same. The same voices came out. The set was re-created down to the nails in the wall. It was really surreal."

But with the rebirth comes great expectations. Many wonder if the new episodes can come close to recapturing the past magic. A decision by Netflix not to preview the show for critics only fueled the skepticism.

Hurwitz said that he, the writers and cast all feel "a sense of responsibility" not to disappoint the fans who made this revival possible, and he admitted that pressure has taken a bit of the fun out of the process.

When asked by a reporter if he was worried at all about doing anything to tarnish the legacy of "Arrested Development, Hurwitz replied in the affirmative.

"I literally could vomit on cue," he said.

Contact Chuck Barney at cbarney@bayareanewsgroup.com. Follow him at Twitter.com/chuckbarney and Facebook.com/bayareanewsgroup.chuckbarney.

'Arrested development'

When: Sunday
(all episodes)
Where: Netflix

Family matters

Yes, the zany Bluths are back in 15 fresh episodes of "Arrested Development." It's been seven years, so let's reintroduce you to the family:

Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman): The family straight man and dutiful son who strives to keep his self-absorbed, idiotic clan together.
George Michael Bluth (Michael Cera): Michael's shy, overly earnest son, who feels constant pressure to live up to Dad's expectations.
George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor): The manipulative patriarch of the family. Decimated the Bluth's real estate empire and served prison time for unlawfully building houses in Iraq for Saddam Hussein.
Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter): George's materialistic, booze-fueled wife. Known for being hypercritical of her children and for being constantly drunk.
"Buster" Bluth (Tony Hale): Michael's younger brother, who, as a result of Lucille's controlling ways, is an unstable, socially inept mama's boy with a hook hand.
"G.O.B." Bluth (Will Arnett): Michael's older brother -- a preening, mediocre magician who craves attention. (His name is an acronym for George Oscar Bluth II).
Lindsay Fünke (Portia de Rossi): Michael's spoiled sister. A neglectful mother, indifferent wife and social-activist wannabe.
Tobias Fünke (David Cross): Lindsay's husband -- a failed shrink-turned-aspiring actor with lots of sexual and identity issues.
Mae "Maeby" Fünke (Alia Shawkat): The jaded, rebellious daughter of Lindsay and Tobias. George Michael once had a shame-ridden crush on her.