“Arrested Development” and American Society

One of life’s tragedies is that “Arrested Development” went off the air after only three seasons. Rubbing salt into the wound, the post-cancellation movie is now stalled. This upsets me a great deal because, with the possible exception of the Dunphys of “Modern Family,” the Bluths are my favorite American TV family. I wouldn’t want to emulate them in any way, shape or form, but they’re great fun to watch.

For those who haven’t seen the show, “Arrested Development”—to quote the tagline—is “the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.” Michael, “the one son,” is upright, uptight, and firmly welded to the “American Dream” ethos that hard work, deferred gratification, and responsible behavior will pay off. (It’s easy to picture an 18th-century version of Michael reciting Ben Franklin’s maxims on good living—“Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy, and wise”—or a 19th-century version voraciously devouring Horatio Alger novels.) But, with the exceptions of his son George Michael and possibly his niece Maeby, Michael’s other family members embody anathemas to the American Dream. Their primary traits are indulgence, irresponsibility, and self-delusion. George, the patriarch of the family, gets arrested for fraud in the first episode and spends most of the rest of the series in jail or on the lam. The matriarch, Lucille, is more cold-blooded than her husband and helped concoct most of his nefarious dealings (including selling fake weapons to Iraqi insurgents). Michael’s brother Gob performs magic tricks and seduces George Michael’s girlfriend, who is half his age. I could go on, but you get the idea.

This oil and water relationship between Michael Bluth and the rest of his famiily is part of what makes his attempts to keep the narcissistic group together so hysterical, but it also illuminates two of the show’s major themes. The first is that Michael’s bourgeois values have practical limits. They’re impossible to live up to, even for him, and they’re predicated on the false assumption that following the rules guarantees success. (The show implies that the sometimes the quickest route to success is breaking the rules. My favorite example is 15-year-old Maeby who, through a series of artful lies, becomes a major motion picture producer with her own convertible and a salary dwarfing Michael’s.) If Michael were less dogmatic, he’d be more interesting. Whatever their flaws, it’s hard not to enjoy George’s and Gob’s carefree lunacy and perversely admire Lucille’s absolute ruthlessness. Next to them, Michael is sadly predictable.

The second theme points to a broader and less happy truth. Amusing as they are, the Bluths’ self-absorbed lives bring them no satisfaction; though they spend tons of time with each other, they regularly fail to connect. The series’ ending reinforces this message by emphasizing the ultimate futility of Michael’s quest to unify his family: he gives up trying to keep them together, at least for a while, and sets off for a tropical island with his son.

Were Michael and the rest of his family to merge personalities, we might see a more complete human being emerge, but that would kill the humor in the show. It would also represent a social ideal rather than a social reality: more and more, our society seems divided between the Michael Bluths and the Gobs, Lucilles, and George Seniors. On one side, there are people who trumpet virtue and then can’t practice it and, on the other, people who more or less say, “forget the whole thing.”

The hypocritical route is represented by basically the entire U.S. senate. Possible winners are John Ensign, who lived in “Washington’s frat house for Jesus” while cheating on his wife, and Larry Craig, who railed against same-sex marriage while hitting on men in airport bathrooms.

The “forget the whole thing” tactic was illustrated by a story that surfaced on AOL News last summer: “JetBlue flight attendant Steven Slater has become an instant Internet folk hero after arguing with a passenger, making a four-letter-word-laced intercom announcement, and then fleeing down the aircraft’s inflatable emergency slide at New York’s JFK airport—with a beer in hand, snatched from the beverage cart.” The most interesting part of the story was the public’s response: “I wish we could all quit our jobs like that,” passenger Phil Catelinet, who was on Slater’s flight, told the New York Daily News. “He seemed kind of happy about it.”

Catelinet’s reaction makes sense. Life is frustrating, full of disappointments and petty irritations. We’re becoming an increasingly irreligious society, which makes it harder for us to sooth current temporal sufferings with the hope of future eternal happiness. More importantly, we are a consumer society focused on individual freedom. When life lets you down, what could be more natural than to say “forget it” and to retreat into private pleasures?

The problem with this approach, of course, is that humans are social beings. We form our self-conceptions from interactions with others, not from walking into the sunset Cool Hand Luke-style with a beer in hand. What is more, meaningful interactions with other people allow us to enjoy intangibles like love and friendship that make life worth living. In our society, though, mutual dependence isn’t a popular theme. It’s drowned out by talk of “progress,” “individualism,” and the like.

That being said, there is no lack of cultural figures honing in our society’s complementary trends toward hypocrisy and narcissism. Celebrated author Jonathan Franzen just wrote a book—subtly titled Freedom—that posits that in a nation which overemphasizes personal freedom, people are becoming emotionally stunted. But I like the Bluths best. Talking straightforwardly about the interaction between the self-righteous and the self-absorbed in American society is a pretty depressing activity. Watching it played out in Bluth family politics is far more fun.

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