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‘Arrested Development’: Family, Privilege, And The Price of Losing Yourself

June 4, 2013

There aren’t a lot of shows that root for their characters to fail. That was my main thought as I watched Netflix’s newest installment tothe Arrested Development universe.

©2013 NETFLIX  CR: F. Scott Schafer

There are many complaints from critics about the newest season and I agree with most of them. It’s also telling a slightly different story than it has before. Whether that’s because it’s hoping to lead into a movie or because the writers were just interested in showing us a different perspective, it does lead to an important question that Think Progress’s

The classical definition of the forms means that in comedies, everyone will be all right—if by all right you mean hitched—by the end, while in dramas, things are destined to conclude poorly. But the best sitcoms have a talent for tricking you into forgetting that their characters’ predestination. I have been utterly convinced byCheers that Norm might permanently drop out of the workforce, by Community that Abed Nadir might not survive his encounters with the social rules of the wider world, by 30 Rock that Liz Lemon might be crushed by Jack Donaghy, and later that their friendship might not survive some of the obstacles flung in its path.

But Arrested Development is a story about people who are privileged in the most basic sense: no matter what happens to them, and no matter the circumstances in which it happens, they’re always going to be all right. Land in prison for securities fraud or commandeering the Queen Mary? You’ll find your way in with a prison gang—and in Lucille’s case this season, maybe even onto a reality show. Have your assets seized? There’s money in the banana stand, or a rent-free model home to which you can retreat. Reduced to prostituting yourself out to your wealthy, vertiginous neighbor as Michael does in the first episode of this fourth season, proposing to Lucille Austero (Liza Minelli) that they have sex as a substitute for repaying a very large loan? The very presence of a Lucille Austero in the various Bluths’ lives is a rather odd form of good fortune, but there’s no denying that’s what it is.

At The Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber argued, both as a reflection of the fourth season’s interlocking structure, in which all the episodes contribute, from different perspectives, to our understanding of a few key events, and in recognition of the way the characters come together, that “for all its many bait-and-switches, Arrested’s most impressive trick is a humanitarian one: caking itself in the makeup of narcissists to disguise the fact that it’s a shaman, preaching the message that we’re all in this together.” But marathoning the episodes on Tuesday and Wednesday, I felt a little overdosed on the Bluths’ blithe sociopathy, and the fact that they’re conning not just institutions, but each other.

Rosenberg is spot-on with her take on privilege and how that creates a more difficult lens to relate to already un-relatable characters, but I think she misses the relative optimism of the fourth season. Yes, as a whole it climaxes as each character has their own, “I’m a Bluth” moment whether it’s Lindsay bankrupting her identify and political views, Michael recreating a cycle of poor parenting with his son, or George Michael realizing he’s a born huckster like the Bluths before him, but I’m more interested in how they got to that point.

The first three seasons were interested in the ways that privilege, whether through wealth or institutions, or governments—could create and allow for selfish and reckless decisions to be made. Season four is a story about what happens when the bonds on family break despite those privileges.

As a fan I was waiting for the Bluth clan to be reunited for 15 episodes and I think that was point. Despite how many times Michael claimed he’d move to Arizona it’s off-putting to see how the family survives without each other. The single focus episodes and the inability to get the entire cast in one place adds to that feelings making the overarching theme from the first three seasons– that these people are impossible to escape — seem much more faulty.

I’m left with the crazy idea that family –not just it’s obligations, but it’s comfort and understanding, is what this show was all about and that in losing that the Bluth’s have lost their most (and ever dwindling) redeeming qualities.  For all their sociopathic tendencies the best of each of the Bluth’s have always been most apparent when they’re together.

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