Why Arrested Development is a work of art and the 2nd greatest TV show ever made

21 Mar

*Arrested Development Spoilers Follow!

Arrested Development is the Godfather 1 & 2 of comedy.  It is a perfect expression of our cultural  ideas on the subject of family that makes other shows like the Cosby Show or the Simpsons seem like liars.  AD is a great and honest reflection on what we all have suspected, that staying close to one’s family is downright poisonous and adverse to personal growth.


I recently showed the 3 seasons to my BF who greatly enjoyed it, and I watched along for my second (or was it third…) time.  I was excited to sit down and write about my love for this show because it perplexed me somewhat.  How could a failed half hour comedy show charm me so thoroughly and lead me to compare it to The Wire (the greatest TV show ever made)?

Well the Wire and AD have a lot more in common than you think.  The Wire and AD both present consistent worlds with consistent characters that face hardships that lasts for more than one or two episodes.  Things don’t “reset” at the end of each episode, but continue to build and build to hilarious and/or tragic results.

But Arrested Development is a comedy, so then what makes it so great? Well to understand that we first have to identify with the show’s main character; Michael Bluth.

Michael is the everyman

I wasn’t kidding when I mentioned the Godfather.  Michael Corleone and Michael Bluth both share more than just first names.  The Michaels both start off in large family functions seemingly alienated from their family.  Gradually both men get sucked more and more into the murky depths of their respective family’s dirty dealings on the basis that they are the most competent members of their families.

Both men seem to respect their father, but it is this respect and love that leads them into compromised situations. It’s easy to identify with these Michaels as there are hints of a life and morals beyond family for both of them.

Michael Corleone came back from the War in full military uniform with a girlfriend in tow, while Michael Bluth cares for a son and we later learn that he was married to a woman who passed away.  The Bluth’s disdain for this unseen woman leads one to believe that she was a decent human being as the Bluth’s tend to favor inept and duplicitous personalities. Michael Bluth has strong morals that he wants to impart to his son, but we suspect that these morals were formed IN SPITE of his family as his relatives, in particular his mother Lucille, lack any sort of moral center. Whenever his relatives do act on good faith it is due to twisted intentions.

Michael Bluth is still a Bluth

If we accept that Michael Bluth is a good man, then we must see how much he is a product of his family.  Throughout the show Michael lies like his father, attempts to get what he wants at all costs like his brother Gob, is neglectful of his son’s feeling as his sister is neglectful of her daughter Maebe, hears what he wants to hear like his mother Lucille, and is easily manipulated by his family the way his younger brother Buster is kept infantile. Every family member shares characteristics and these traits only become worse the more time he spends with his family.  One of my favorite things about AD is the artful use of running gags.  Gob and the rest of the family throughout the show utter the phrase “I’ve made a huge mistake.”

Running gags  in AD are used to illustrate how much this family thinks alike.  The Bluth’s are distinct parts of one giant bumbling beast. Michael puzzles “her?” when his son George Michael talks about Ann, this puzzled mantra is repeated by different characters in regards to other people.  Michael continuously shows disdain for his son’s girlfriend similarly to how George Sr. talks down about Michael’s ex-wife and every member of the family has a penchant for mishearing things.

Nature vs Nurture? Whichever wins, you lose

What about the peripheral characters with no blood ties to the Bluths? Barry Zuckercorn idiot lawyer, the conniving secretary Kitty, Tobias Funke? These characters don’t share any genetic makeup but they behave as bumbling as the Bluths.  We must pay attention to the peripheral characters who are brought in by the family (idiotic and Bluth-like) and those brought in by Michael (less idiotic and more efficient).  We are hardly surprised to learn that Michael’s sister might not be related by the show’s end because she is so thoroughly indoctrinated into the family that it doesn’t make a difference.  Nature or Nurture doesn’t matter because like attracts like.  Families will attract the same types of people, see the adopted Tom Hagen in the Godfather.

Incest

Why is sticking by your family a bad thing?  Well in it’s most extreme instance it’s bad for genetics!  Rita, the mentally handicapped girlfriend of Michael (who Michael was oblivious to her condition in the only way a Bluth could be), was the product of two cousins mating, a theme repeated in George Michael and Maebe’s romance.  Buster is so beholden to Lucille’s company that he starts dating her neighbor referred to as Lucille 2.  What the show stresses are not diminishing returns of genetics, but of ideas.  This Family is so intertwined that they cannot function in a real world capacity.  The incest in the show is not only sexual but psychological.  The Bluth family cannot advance but can only find temporary reprieve until the next time trouble finds them. This sounds familiar as it is an obvious mirror to countless other sitcoms about dysfunctional families like The Simpsons.

Suspended Animation

The Simpsons presents a dysfunctional family but rarely do any of the Simpsons actually share traits with one great exception. Lisa The Simpson was an episode where the brainy Lisa suspected that she was losing her intelligence to her father’s Neanderthal level.  There’s a scene where Lisa sits with Homer and Bart watching a stupid TV show because she feels like she can’t fight her genes so she might as well give up.  The episode ends with everyone discovering that the “stupid gene” only affects the males in their family, and that’s that.  Dysfunctional family tv shows rarely inform us as to how related we are to our families by bond and by behavior, and in this one Simpsons episode we get a glimpse of this only to have it be erased at the end of the episode.

Dysfunctional families in television are nothing new, but the members of these families resolve that they should stick together, and they do week after week despite the fact that it doesn’t make sense for them to do so.  The Simpsons fall apart and sometimes outright hate each other, but they remain in a state of (literal) suspended animation, or arrested development (hey that’s the name of this show!)

Anti-Family Values

My mother once remarked how strange the values in America were in regards to families.  In Guatemala it wasn’t unusual to see my extended family stay home until their 40’s.   In hindsight my extended family resembled the neurotic Bluths and I suspect that Guatemalan values as a whole have changed with a younger generation.  In North America it is expected that one leaves the home and become their own person at a very young age.

AD can answer the question as to why this is the case.  Simple, spending time with relatives is maddening, something we all suspect when we go visit for the holidays, but WHY are they maddening? Because we’re made of the same stuff.  The world is a vast and mysterious place and there are lessons and morals and wisdom to impart from it, but families can oftentimes lead you to stagnation and into an attitude where all that is important is the preservation of the family at all costs.

The Godfather ends in tragedy, but AD, like any great comedy, ends in catharsis as Michael tells his son that the lesson in episode 1, “families should stick together” isn’t really the case, and that some major space is needed between them and the rest of the Bluth’s.  Michael temporarily escapes from his family not because he doesn’t love them, but because  he is concerned for his son, the ultimate symbol of Michael’s interaction with the world beyond the family.

Remember how George Sr. spends all of season 1 in jail, then in season 2 he escapes to be trapped in the family’s attic, then in season 3 is transferred to his estranged wife’s bedroom?  What’s the difference?  Absolutely nothing.

More Reading: The Godfather vs Arrested Development

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