For Arrested Development
fans, the May 26 release of Season 4 on Netflix cannot come soon enough. The show was cancelled in 2006, but nevertheless remained a cultural phenomenon especially among twenty and thirty-somethings. Die-hard fans flaunt scores from the latest Arrested Development
online quizzes (I got a 32, can you do better
?) and can’t help but pepper their conversations with Bluth references. What explains the appeal?
is a layered show. On one level, it’s a funny, screwball comedy that follows a series of odd characters. Michael Bluth is the main character and the most normal member of the Bluth family. After family patriarch and Bluth Company C.E.O. George Bluth is arrested, Michael steps us to run the business and keep the Bluths together. The Bluth family is delightfully bizarre. Michael has an awkward, teenage son (George Michael); an overbearing mother (Lucille); a part-time magician
older brother (G.O.B., pronounced like the Biblical “Job”); and his young brother (Buster) is a mama’s boy. Michael’s twin sister (Lindsay Fünke) has just moved to town with her psychiatrist-turned-actor husband (Tobias Fünke) and their crafty daughter (Maeby Fünke).
The show’s humor is layered with multiple inside jokes developed over the course of the series
. The more you watch the show, the more jokes you pick up. For instance, virtually every member of the Bluth family has a signature chicken dance
, G.O.B. always messes up his magic tricks, and the family vehicle is a stair car. The running gags explain not only the devoted fan base but also the show’s premature cancellation—it couldn’t last on network because one had to watch the show faithfully from the beginning to appreciate it.
But on a deeper level, Arrested Development
can be understood as a serious commentary on contemporary American culture.
Family, according to Michael, is the “most important thing
.” But what does it mean to be a family, in Arrested Development
and in modern America? The show toys with divorce, open marriages, homosexuality, adoption, and surrogacy. For instance, Lindsay and Tobias think having an open marriage will save them from divorcing. The Bluths help each other out, but there’s no true friendship between any of the characters. After the family’s publicist plants negative news stories on the Bluths, Lucille bristles “Let me tell you something, sweetie. We may pick on each other, get into little scrapes, call each other names, and occasionally steal from each other, but that’s because we are family. You have no right. You don’t get to do that.
” This from the woman who adopted a child to punish Buster for not eating his cottage cheese.
There are glimpses of true familial affection: Michael demonstrates genuine fatherly love for his son, George Michael. But incest is also a common thread. Buster has never gotten over his six-year-old self’s desire to marry his mother, Lucille. George Michael has a crush on Maeby, who, in turn, has a crush on Steve Holt
, G.O.B.’s illegitimate son
. In Season 3, we learn Maeby isn’t related to either George Michael or Steve Holt. Does that deus ex machina
sanction George Michael’s obsession with Maeby?
George Michael struggles with how to “know what the right thing to do is
.” He is pretty sure his feelings for Maeby are wrong (possibly illegal), and at the very least the yacht club will disapprove.
Whatever moral standards exist beyond yacht club policies, the Bluths are hilariously unaware. In “Justice is Blind
,” the Bluths’ ignorance of the Ten Commandments is a running joke. G.O.B. berates Michael for forgetting “Thou shalt protect thy father, and honor no one above him, unless it be-eth me, thy sweet Lord.” Michael is hooking up with a woman he picks up in a bar who turns out to be his father’s prosecutor. She tells him not to worry about their secret, conflict-of-interest ridden trysts: “Well, it’s like the Ten Commandments say, you know? Be true to thine own self, and to thine own self be true.” Michael replies: “Yeah. Number seven.”
At one level, these scenes mock the Bluths’ religious illiteracy and shallowness. But the deeper commentary is how the Bluths’ most ostentatiously moral member, Michael, doesn’t realize he’s turned a prohibition on adultery (you know, actual Commandment Number Seven
) into a justification for sexual self-indulgence.
The Bluths live in a post-religious culture. The few Christian characters (e.g. George Michael’s on-again-off-again girlfriend, Ann Veal, and her family)
are odd, alienating, and disconnected from the real world. The Bluths observe Christmas by reenacting scenes from the Sistine Chapel
. But the real holiday the Bluth Family and contemporary America celebrates is spring break
. In the opening scene of “Missing Kitty
,” Lindsay questions why the Bluth Company remains open “during the holidays.” Michael retorts that the company isn’t that observant. Spring break is a celebration of debauchery, foolishness, and commercialization, making it the perfect occasion for Lindsay to skip work and G.O.B. to perform a magic trick on the hit TV show Girls with Low Self-Esteem
(a parody of Girls Gone Wild
is more than a hilarious sit-com. It brings up key moral questions about family, society, and religion, but does it through quirky characters and a light-hearted tone. So as you binge-watch Arrested Development
this weekend, don’t just get caught up in the never-nude jokes
and miss the larger cultural commentary. After all, it’s been seven years since America has seen the Bluths. Perhaps by now they’ll have worked out some of their issues.
Julia Shaw is research associate and program manager at the B. Kenneth Simon Center for Principles and Politics at The Heritage Foundation. This column appeared first in
Acculturated. Image of Arrested Development’s Jason Bateman and wife Amanda Anka courtesy of Big Stock Photo.