Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Arrested Development

There are two general types of allegories: closed ones, like George Orwell's "Animal Farm" and Arthur Miller's "The Crucible," whose meanings are static and fixed, and more open-ended ones, which suggest a spectrum of over-lapping interpretations; one of the more extreme cases of the latter is Alfred Hitchcock's The Birds (1963), in which the waves of bird attacks that punctuate the narrative at once invite and confound interpretation by their very lack of any logical explanation. Roland Barthes' famous statement "The death of the author is the birth of the reader" seems particularly apt when discussing Arrested Development (2003-06) as its ostensible auteur, series creator Mitchell Hurwitz, played less of a hands-on role in his creation than Orwell, Miller and Hitchcock did theirs. If the name "George Bluth" suggests "George Bush," the scandal that sends George, Sr./Jeffrey Tambor to jail in the pilot episode recalls the Enron story. Given the length of the series (53 episodes), a close reading of the text is far outside the scope of this essay; instead of persuing one overarching thesis, I'd like to explore it from several different angles, using the various characters as jumping off points: the model home, the show's primary location and central metaphor, it's as important to the series' meaning as any of the characters (an emblem of the show's metaphyiscal doubts); Buster/Tony Hale, the baby (critique of the family); and George-Michael/Michael Cera and Maeby/Alia Shawkat, who represent opposite ends of the spectrum of adolescent behavior (crisis of parenting).

It's My Illusion

The model home is so rich as a metaphor it's hardly surprising Atom Egoyan got there first with The Adjuster (1991), but in both the series and the film it takes on slightly different meanings in relation to the story. In Egoyan's film, the characters bought their home for next to nothing when the developer went broke, while here the Bluth company is unable to go forward with building more homes when the SEC freezes their assets--it's literally an arrested development. In the series, the empty land surrounding the model home on all sides takes on an added signifigance, recalling the deserts of Iraq where George, Sr. built houses for Saddam Hussein.

What the model home represents is an artifice, a mask. With the model home, what the Bluth company is selling is an image of family living (when Michael/Justin Bateman decides to spend an evening at home reading, he finds that the Bluths doesn't own any real books), and the family is at pains to present themselves in a certain way. Michael's siblings, Lindsay/Portia de Rossi and Gob/Will Arnett are ostensibly independent adults, but in the first episode it's revealed that the only thing keeping Lindsay's anti-circumcision charity afloat are "donations" from the Bluth company, who also payed for Gob's latest illusion. Gob's full name, George Oscar Bluth, suggests George Walker Bush, who likewise failed miserably in his career as a businessman, and after building the exterior of a second model home with nothing inside, Gob--president of the Bluth Company in name only--raises a "Mission Accomplished" banner. In this metaphysical universe where only appearances matter, the US goes to war based on faulty intelligence ("These are balls") and the final measure of the company's strength is what Jim Kramer says on CNBC, an all-knowing narrator/Ron Howard becomes necessary to ground the viewer in an objective reality.

Indeed, for all of the show's metaphysical doubt, truth is ultimately ontological, which places the series in opposition to Cartesian thought and its separation of body and mind. Although others may adopt masks to intentionally decieve us, it's not as if their true face disappears. Here Lindsay's husband, Tobias F√ľnke/David Cross, is in denial about being gay even though it's obvious to everyone else--except perhaps Lindsay, who decieves herself into thinking their marriage still has a shot, and Maeby who is after all his young daughter--because of Tobias' heavily innuendo-laden manner of speech ("Even if it means taking a chubby, I will suck it up"). At one point, Michael suggests Tobias tape himself for a day so he can hear himself objectively. When the narrator tells us that "This would be the happiest moment of George Michael's life," (1) this seems like the sort of knowledge no one could have access to as it presumes absolute certainty of both his past and his future, but the freeze frame on his expression finds objective evidence to support this statement in George-Michael's face.

Families With Low Self-Esteem

Another metaphor is the loose seal that bites off the hand of Michael's younger brother, Buster, when he goes swimming in the ocean--an act of rebellion against his mother, Lucille/Jessica Walter, who's always forbidden it. Like the seal, who was raised in captivity and is unable fend for himself in the wild, Buster, Gob and Lindsay lack the confidence to take care of themselves because their parents never supported them. Buster in particular is torn between two father-figures: George, Sr. and Uncle Oscar/Tambor, George, Sr.'s identical twin and Buster's biological father. As a child Buster was told there was a family ban on playing sports, so when Lucille signs up her adopted Korean son, Annyong/Justin Lee, for soccer practice, Buster pays a visit to George, Sr. in prison. There George, Sr. finally reveals the truth to him that he wasn't allowed to play soccer because he was a "turd" on the field. "You couldn't run, you couldn't kick. You were just a turd out there." During one of Annyong's games, the ball is kicked in Buster's direction and, after being taunted by several children, Buster has his moment of victory, kicking the ball down the field while knocking over anyone in his way, finally scoring a goal. It's then that he notices Oscar cheering him on and realizes that Oscar is the only man who's ever supported him.

The ocean symbolizes both the freedom Lucille has denied Buster and the danger she wants to protect him from. It's clear however that what she's doing to Buster is just as harmful; before he's wounded Lucille prays to God to get him out of the army, whose recruitment slogan "Army of One" suggests independence and self-reliance, and when the lifeguard calls out "Loose seal!" Buster thinks he's saying "Lucille." The loss of his hand makes Buster even more dependent on his mother than before, yet instead of taking care of him, she's embarrassed by his deformity. When it comes time for the annual Mother-Boy pagent, which Lucille and Buster have participated in for over twenty years, she recruits George-Michael in his place, which horrifies Michael because she's doing the same thing to his son that she did to Buster. Determined to "do something about that kid's self-esteem," Michael gives George-Michael a job at the family banana stand, which we learn is the only profitable part of the Bluth empire--a testament to hard work and humility which the rest of the family lacks (when Lindsay applies for a job at a clothing store, she goes in cognito).

Les Cousins dangereuse

Although we learn nothing about Michael's late wife, her death is a significant part of his backstory and helps us to understand his approach to parenting. If Michael is almost single-mindedly focussed on his son, Lindsay and Tobias are too wrapped up in their own problems to pay proper attention to their daughter--imagine Tokyo Story (1953) in reverse. Lindsay justifies her lack of parenting by chastizing Michael his over-parenting, which does have a ring of truth to it; he plans various activities, like bike rides and driving lessons, and even enrolls George-Michael in an exclusive private school without even consulting him. Conversely, animated graphs illustrate how Maeby has more time to herself when her parents are getting along than when they're fighting, which provides her motivation for keeping them together.

In "Civilization and its Discontents," Freud writes that children with strict parents are less rebellious because they're more afraid of losing their parents' love than children with permissive parents, so for George-Michael even to be attracted to his cousin Maeby is just as bad as acting on it because God, the father, knows what you're thinking, and as we saw above, even thoughts the characters hide from themselves have an objective presence. (When Lucille Austero/Liza Minnelli asks Buster if he's ready to show her off to God and the world, he responds that he's not worried about his father (2).) Indeed, when George-Michael does kiss Maeby, the floor of the model home suddenly sinks, as if the characters are being sucked into the depths of hell. A moment later, Gob (his name suggesting the book of Job) walks in on them and says "Dad's going to be crushed." Gob is of course referring to George, Sr. who he's hidden in the basement, but George-Michael doesn't know this ("You don't have to tell him!"). So afraid is George-Michael of displeasing his father that, when he's assigned to write something critical about Michael for school, he has to get Maeby to do his homework for him. And as if he didn't feel guilty enough about cheating, Michael overhears him presenting his paper to the class. Michael's interpretation of this is that the teacher/Andy Richter is turning his son against him, and makes threats against him echoing his own father's muffin poisonings in the late 1970's. When George-Michael discovers this he finally has something to criticize his father for. "You don't respect me. How can I respect you?"

Conclusion

I don't watch a lot of TV but Arrested Development has captured my interest like no other show has and it deserves the kind of serious attention given to great films, although its length makes it impossible to do the series justice in a short essay. Here I've just scratched the surface of what this show is saying about family, and the compulsive cross-referrencing of current events (always loose and approximate rather than a static one-to-one gloss) make it endlessly suggestive. I wouldn't hesistate to include it in the same company as Olivier Assayas' demonlover (2002), Jia Zhang-ke's The World (2004) and Edward Yang's Yi Yi (2000) as one of the most resonant portraits of life in the early 21st century we have--on film or television.


Endnotes:
1. To put this line in the context of the specific episode, the Bluth family is putting on a charity fundraiser where guests pay to spend a night in jail, and George Michael learns that he's sharing a cell with Maeby.
2. On a literal level, this line is an allusion to the Orange Country Living Classics pagent which the family participates in every year, with George, Sr. and Buster recreating "The Birth of Adam."

3 comments:

  1. Although I can't say I always agree on your opinions on film, there is no doubt in my mind you have some of the most interesting, and thoroughly detailed theories and analysis on film I've encountered. Even as an avid watcher of Arrested Development, I can't say I picked up on what you have so wonderfully set up, and yet I can't help thinking you are probably right. Keep on writing, because although I rarely comment I always enjoy the read.

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  2. Thanks for taking the time to read all that, and thanks even more for commenting (I wish people would do it more; I like to know that some one's reading this and I'm not wasting my time).

    With regards to Arrested Development, it's one of those things that's hiding in plain sight. No one took Hitchcock seriously until French critics started to look at his work more closely.

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  3. While 3 seasons is understandably a lot to address in a practical sense with any essay, I can't help but feel that little to no conclusions have been drawn in an academic sense here.

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