The problem with Arrested Development is right there in the name

The show can’t grow up, becoming the story of a wealthy family that lost everything and learned nothing — both on camera and off.

The problem with Arrested Development is right there in the name

The show can’t grow up, becoming the story of a wealthy family that lost everything and learned nothing — both on camera and off.

There are seemingly endless comparisons between the Trumps and the Bluths, the family at the center of Arrested Development — the rampant grift and incompetence, the casual racism, the abandoned sons, the strong incestual subtext bordering on explicit text. In the last couple of years, the show about a wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together has come back into fashion as a way for many people to interpret the current political moment. That process has taken several forms, ranging from edited versions of the Arrested Development intro using the Trump family to the meme that deploys the show’s narration as a way of creating ironic contrasts to seemingly endless Twitter debates about which member of the Bluth family maps onto which Trump.

Why has this 15-year-old series become a common political reference point? Arrested Development, which premiered in 2003, was finely honed Bush-era satire. The Bluth family was in the business of making flimsy McMansions as part of the growing bubble. They were constantly in the news for no real reason other than being a bunch of rich idiots, mirroring the period when people starting making reality shows about subjects who were “famous for being famous.” Eventually, the Bluths’ “reasonable” son Michael discovers that his father, George Bluth Sr., had been indulging in “light treason” by building houses for Saddam Hussein, allowing a running thread about the futility of the Iraq War at a time when critics of America’s foreign policy were frequently expunged from public life.

This is another way of saying that Arrested Development is about the conditions that made the unending exhaustion of American political life possible, and to rewatch those early seasons is another way of seeing how we got here. But those same conditions are what primed the world for the return of Arrested Development on Netflix, in a fourth season that premiered in 2013 and a fifth set for later this month — a turn that has seen the show, for better and worse, eat itself.

Recently, Netflix released a “remixed” and re-edited new version of Arrested Development’s fourth season, an experiment in what an artist could do with the permanent instability of streaming like the once-incessant tweaks to Kanye West’s The Life of Pablo. It was also, more pointedly, marketing for the fifth season. The remixed version of the season is, like the original, an interesting, if not entirely successful experiment — Arrested Development’s fourth season infamously separated the ensemble because of the actors’ busy schedules and attempted to run a dozen or so different plots in parallel as a result, creating an uncanny sense of artificiality.

Given the mixed reception of season four, reanimating the show’s corpse seems like a huge mistake, even as a large chunk of the entertainment industry is now devoted to dragging out the shelf life of successful properties in a way that almost inevitably makes the original product feel stale. But Arrested Development has taken on newfound significance: In the fourth season, George Sr. tries to get a lucrative government contract to build a wall with Mexico. As Lucille learns early in the fifth season watching then-candidate Trump speak (apparently this season is set in 2015, though season four premiered in 2013), George should have just waited. By now, daughter Lindsay Bluth has fully embracing her family history and become an “authentic” political hero running for Congress by pandering to angry racists. Each time she makes a characteristic Bluth faux pas, it only improves her standing in the polls.

It’s not just the comparisons to the president, though. The newly skeevy, adult George Michael hides behind his adopted identity as a scamming tech entrepreneur, dangling the promise of opting out of the panopticon of social media in front of an eager public. In the new season, he manages to limit his anxiety and completely ignore his own failure, truly becoming a tech guy. Though he and Michael experience some distress over maintaining their father-son relationship — especially in the wake of George Michael punching his father in the face at the end of season four — the two men are now essentially equal participants in Bluthdom.

If there’s an unreported aspect of Arrested Development’s analog to the Trump family, it’s that a huge part of the Bluths’ continued success (or at least, survival) is due to their uncanny knack for drawing attention: As one anchor puts it, “The press is having a love affair with hating the Bluth family.” That level of sustained media fascination with laughably racist rich real estate idiots is, of course, part of what primed American political culture for President Trump, and it’s part of why Arrested Development is coming back into style.

But the elements of Arrested Development that feel the most likely to hold up — Tobias Funke’s total inability to understand the English language, Lucille’s gleeful shrieking every time she finds private detective Gene Parmesan in disguise — are also the least overtly political. Many of these running gags have been memed and merchandised to death, which is why so few of them have showed up in the new seasons, a decision that now feels like one of the more principled parts of the revival.

Arrested Development’s fifth season is more conventional than the fourth — and closer in tone to the original — but several scenes explicitly highlight the impossibility of completely returning to the earlier version of the show. Lindsay’s soon-to-be-ex-husband Tobias is now a vestigial member of the family, a fact he repeatedly calls attention to by pretending to be other Bluths. George Michael undergoes what the narrator calls “total regression,” in which he mostly just runs through the Bluths’ model home shouting in excitement every time he discovers an item from the early incarnation of the series, like the DVD of Dangerous Cousins. The joke here is that, like many fans of the original Arrested Development, George Michael is simply excited to have seen something he remembers.

Does anyone really need a winking narrator to tell us that American politicians are full of shit?

That the new season is fond of poking fun at Arrested Development’s nostalgia-ready, overbearing past draws even more attention to the most prominent political Arrested Development meme, based on the show’s most heavy-handed formal device: Ron Howard’s narration. The “narrator voice” is an effective way of creating ironic contrasts and, especially in the plot-heavy new seasons, it’s useful as an exposition tool. But the meme-ified version, which juxtaposes statements by Trump, pundits, and other people in the news with flat denial, is less appealing. The meme’s framing frequently assumes “objectivity” and omnipotence on the part of the observer in a way that’s suspiciously reminiscent of Michael Bluth’s self-righteous preening. Does anyone really need a winking narrator to tell us that American politicians are full of shit?

As discerning Arrested Development viewers will remember, Michael is perhaps the least healthy person in the family: The other Bluths may be vain, lazy liars who are committed to scamming their way through life, but at least they’re honest about it. Like the fourth season, much of the fifth season of Arrested Development explores Michael’s need to be needed, to be seen as the straight man even when he’s the farthest thing from it. It’s unpleasant to watch, but it’s the element that makes the new Arrested Development an interesting story rather than a string of depressing jokes about politics. Michael’s desire to be the person who keeps his family together is the inciting action of Arrested Development; his ongoing decision to stay lays the foundation for the show’s examination of the conditions that made American politics in 2018 possible. The revived series’ exposure of Michael’s fraud feels, then, like a critique of the people who have made it their business to comment on the news by claiming that we all need to be “reasonable”; if we just get rid of this one, crazy president, we’ll be back on top.

As a good American expecting to take over a family business and led to believe in conventional authority, Michael is incapable of relinquishing his entitlements — to the Bluth Company, to the cruelly optimistic dream of a “back on top,” functioning family, to the idealized version of his relationship with his son, ruined forever when the two start sleeping with the same woman. This is to say, Michael Bluth has been ensnared by the fundamental promise of the family sitcom. The Bluths’ constant scramble to pursue some new scheme, followed by an inevitable return to the chaotic status quo that forms the foundation of successful sitcoms isn’t a problem for Michael — it’s the whole reason he keeps coming back, as maintaining it is his life’s work. At one point in the new season, Michael declares “Goodbye forever,” only for Tobias and Lucille to respond, “See you tonight.” After a brief beat, we can hear Jason Bateman’s defeated, matter-of-fact reply: “See you tonight.”

This scene is part of a new running gag in season five: the family’s own ongoing in-joke about Michael always needing to come back, and the ways they try to accommodate his own set of delusions. Even more than Michael’s presence, the family’s own ties — and the fact that no one else would ever want to spend time with any of them — keeps them all together, like the gravity of a black hole keeping chunks of debris in orbit. And like typical sitcom characters, the scandal-prone wealthy — the Trumps, tech billionaires, New York Times op-ed columnists — can take a whole lot of punishment, while snapping back into place at the end of an episode, with no real threat beyond making their lives mildly uncomfortable. Even when the Bluths seem to be in dire straits, they (and we) know they’ll be just fine.

That background might, unfortunately, be the most important reason why the new season of Arrested Development still feels politically pressing. In this case, that’s because of the continued presence of Jeffrey Tambor, recently ousted from his regular role on Transparent for harassing several women involved in the production. A column at The Washington Post praised this personnel decision — though the new season of the editing-heavy show was filmed before the first public accusations — claiming that Tambor’s actions were “far more marginal” than those of, say, Harvey Weinstein. This is totally beside the point, especially since Netflix seems fully committed to shielding Tambor from any further public outcry through promotional activity like a poorly-written, victim-blaming, profile in The Hollywood Reporter. There are several jokes about Tambor’s role on Transparent in the new season of Arrested Development and in the remixed season four, which are narrated with just enough ambiguity to suggest he might be the butt of the joke. They’re still in bad taste, and only make the new material harder to watch.

While many people in the press have been critical of Netflix’s conduct, the streaming service has been given sufficient cover to render the press’ secret love affair with the Bluths not so secret after all. And if (maybe when) Netflix comes calling again to make more Arrested Development, it seems likely that the cast will have returned to their status quo, with Tambor largely untouched. It’s hard to imagine that Netflix will not continue to call Tambor “totally professional” in his work. (To put it in the narrator’s voice: He wasn’t.) It would be nice for this outcome — the production of Arrested Development itself becoming an Arrested Development plot, in which blatantly inappropriate behavior by a rich asshole goes largely unpunished — to not feel inevitable, but it does. Don’t trust beloved, politically-astute sitcoms to age gracefully without running into their own problems — a lesson you don’t need a one-armed man to learn.

Eric Thurm’s writing currently appears in Real Life, Lithub, and Esquire. He previously wrote about David Feinberg for The Outline.