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Sunday, March 25, 2018

Films for the Trump Years: Arrested Development

**blanket alert: pretty much ALL of Arrested Development will be spoiled in the following article**

            Few TV shows have proven to be as enduringly meme-able as the glory that is Arrested Development.  Created by Michael Hurwitz in the early 2000’s, the show originally aired on Fox until low viewership led the studio to pull the plug.  Things stayed that way for a while, with the show accumulating a larger and larger cult status, until Netflix got hold of the rights and produced a fourth season, which debuted back in 2013.  Starring Jason Bateman, it was a tale of the hilariously sad antics of a perpetually dysfunctional rich family forced to confront their demons after their father is arrested and the company (along with their fortune) threatens to fall all to pieces before anyone can say, “Banana.” 

            From episode one onward, the show is a masterclass on how to build a story for the long-haul.  The lengths the show’s creators went to set up jokes and plot twists episodes, and sometimes seasons, in advance, and the myriad references to hilariously obscure movies or past roles of the actors in the show are rightfully legendary, and may prove Hurwitz and his team to be the greatest (or most terrible?) masterminds in television history.  And even beyond the writing, the show constantly used shifting cameras, perfectly-timed sound effects, and spot-on editing to throw just about every possible audio-visual gag at the audience it could. 

            And that could have been enough.  It could have been a show driven solely by its own pessimistic nihilism ala Family Guy or South Park, and make bank on how fiendishly layered its fourth-wall breaking plot contrivances were.  But it didn’t.  Instead, its creators went the extra mile and ended up creating a damn-near perfect time capsule of America in the early-to-mid-2000’s.  There are probably no two events as seminal to the fall of American public trust as the twin hammer blows of the Iraq War and the Great Recession, so it is eminently fitting to examine how they both became focal points of Arrested Development’s ever-winking cynicism. 

            It starts gradually at first, but as the second and third season go on more and more of the story centers around the unique cultural myopia around the start of the Iraq War and the fallout a year into the conflict, when people started to wake up to just how extensively the Bush administration had lied and manipulated to pull us into a war humanity is still paying for in spades today.  Depending on how you swing it, in fact, the Iraq War might be the most important external event in the show that affects the plot and characters. 

            Some (by no means exhaustive) examples; George Senior, we learn, is arrested and put on trial in part for building palaces for Saddam Hussein in the 90’s (one of which turns out to be hiding a veritable army of Hussein doubles).  A side character Gob marries was a torturer in Abu Ghraib.  One episode revolves around supposed proof the Bluth company was building WMD bunkers in Iraq…..except by the end the “evidence” ends up being a hacked picture of Tobias’ testicles.  Buster enlists in the army and is only taken because of how direly low recruitment has gotten….because of the Iraq War.  It’s his emotional struggle with the risk of enlisting that eventually leads him to take his fateful swim in loose-seal-infested waters.  The show was one of the first to parody the use (read: overuse) of “because 9/11” to justify the shitty, shitty policies of the Bush years.  Rob Cordry has a brief side role as an NRA-fanatic who literally forces people at gunpoint to accept his extreme interpretation of the Second Amendment.  The use of a black hand puppet to skewer racism and police violence YEARS before Ferguson.  And on and on and on.  

            The show is the debacle of Iraq.  It is crass, 21st-century capitalistic commercialism at its nihilistic peak.  It is the devil-may-care economics of the wealthy that directly caused the Great Recession.  It is one dig after another at the demise of reality TV and all it touched, and of the descent of local news organizations into Nightcrawler-style pits of ethical darkness. 

            With the original show being such a perfect product of its time, it was perhaps inevitable that the long-awaited fourth season could not possible match it, being too far disconnected from the era and culture that spawned.…..

…..oh my God, there’s a subplot about Lucille proposing a wall on the Mexican border to keep minorities out, and her and George Senior searching for a politician dumb enough to latch onto the idea.  And this aired in 2013.  TWO YEARS before Trump opened his Presidential campaign. 

            Guys.  Arrested Development warned.  They fucking warned us. 

            And once again, while this coincidence would be scary enough, the deeper I got into Season Four the darker the rabbit hole became.  Much as the war on Terror became central to the story of the original three seasons, the Great Recession becomes a recurring theme tied to season 4.  Family members constantly gripe over who gets a cut from “the Stimmy.”  Tobias and Lindsay are directly roped into the housing bubble scam right before the market goes belly-up.  The season also managed to slip in predictive digs at the sheer absurdity of the “bubbled elites control the world, dude” conspiracy theories currently in vogue amongst the left AND the right, a phenomenon that proves stupidity is the only true equal-opportunity employer in this world.  In a passing remark, Ron Howard suggests that he and other Hollywood producers knew about the housing and market crash before it happened, implying an alternative world where tinfoil-hat claims that a cabal of snooty leftist elites control the world are real- and then never addresses these implications again, almost directly giving the finger to people who buy into such crap.

            Nothing there?  Overinterpretation on my part?  Maybe, but then this show has always been so meticulously constructed that even thinking such a possibility feels like a form of heresy. 

            The fourth season, by the end, almost feels too harsh, too cold, too terrifying.  People get really, genuinely hurt; Lucille 2 ends up dead, Maeby is going to prison as a sex offender, a desperate drug addict is literally left to die in a trash heap, and the relationship between Michael and George Michael- once treated as the show’s lone emotional center- is left so broken and twisted in the season’s brilliant final scene that it’s hard to imagine it ever healing again. 

            Sad?  Harsh?  Too much?  Perhaps.  But it’s a fitting conclusion for the Bluths, because there ultimately is no happy end for people like this.  Such constant lying, selfishness, close-mindedness CAN’T end any other way.  And it’s here the parallels between the Bluths and the Trumps, the GOP, and American conservatism and evangelism writ large get downright uncanny.  It’s not a perfect 1-1, obviously, but the shallow ignorance, the vain superficiality, the obsession with toxic masculine “strength” and the shows of wealth and might to hide the existential emptiness within- all present and accounted for. 

            One example in particular won’t stop haunting me.  Every time an uncomfortable truth about his life rears its ugly head, or he’s called out for his lies, cruelty, and hypocrisy, what does Gob do?  Grab whoever confronts him by the neck and shove a roofie down their throat so they forget by the next morning.  If there is a functional difference between that and the unceasing efforts of Trump and the GOP to cover up their lies and corruption with even more of the same, we haven’t yet invented a microscope strong enough to spot it. 

            And what better summation is there of the mental state of any sane, moral, thinking person in America over the past two years than the deep spiritual horror signified when characters are faced with a terrible truth, stare into the middle distance, and “Sound of Silence” begins to play in the background?  If there is one, I haven’t found it yet. 
            There is, of course, a very key difference between fiction and non-fiction to consider in all this.  The Bluths are monsters, but they mostly just hurt themselves.  The desolation of Trump and the GOP, however, could all-too-easily encompass the world if we don’t fight back enough. 
            Guys, Arrested Development tried to warn us.  We chose not to listen.  And now we’re paying the price. 

-Noah Franc

Previously on Films for the Trump Years:

Part 1- Selma

Part 3- 13th

Part 4- Get Out

Part 6- The Big Short

Part 7- Human Flow

Part 9- Black Panther

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