In the weeks ahead of the last presidential election, John Kerry ran an ad entitled “Truth on Taxes.” The Massachusetts senator, sitting against a blurry background that looked vaguely like the Oval Office, spoke directly into the camera. “After four years under George W. Bush, the middle class is paying a bigger share of America’s tax burden and the wealthy are paying less. It’s wrong,” he said. “I don’t believe the wealthy need another tax cut. I believe ordinary Americans need someone who will fight for them.”
The Sunday night after the election Fox premiered season two of its critically lauded sitcom Arrested Development. In 22 minutes a small Korean boy dressed in an Uncle Sam costume lost his wig, a depressed psychotherapist coated in blue paint–he was trying out for the Blue Man Group–was hit by a car, and an incompetent magician named GOB (pronounced Jobe) uncovered a contract between his fugitive-from-justice father and Saddam Hussein.
Strange as it may sound, these two broadcasts were profoundly interrelated.
Season three of Arrested Development premieres tonight, and its reappearance is almost miraculous. Last season its Nielsens were hopeless (it finished in 122nd place). Critics beat their breasts and predicted cancellation. The show finished out last April without a contract to renew, but in midsummer judgment trumped ratings. The show’s few, loyal fans are already stocking up on margarita mix for the new season of Arrested. And conservatives should celebrate too: The sporadic critical taste of Fox executives notwithstanding, Arrested Development’s horrible showing, and near extinction, has proved that liberals’ fantasy of an America squirming with class anger is as stale as Wings reruns.
As Arrested Development’s opening montage rolls, accompanied by a ukulele, a voiceover lays out the plot. It’s “the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who’s trying to keep them together.” The family is the Bluths. In the first episode, patriarch and real-estate developer George Bluth (Jeffery Tambor) is arrested for fraud and for the next two seasons, his son Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) tries to salvage the family business, as well as the family. The writing is like a trail of firecrackers tied together with inspired absurdity. Hands are bitten off by trained seals; Michael’s son George Michael Bluth (Michael Cera) wistfully dreams of dating his cousin.; interventions end in drinking parties–all connected by the world’s first sitcom narrator and the type of parenthetical comic flashbacks that Fox’s resurrected cult hit, Family Guy, never quite got right.
“Truth on Taxes” is somewhat less amusing, but revealing nonetheless. Kerry and his advisers thought that its message, a snapshot of Kerry’s larger platform, would get his supporters out. But the message wasn’t about who should pay 25 percent of their gross income to the federal government and who should pay 35 percent. It was about two groups of people–the wealthy and ordinary–and it implied that viewers (presumably Kerry hoped he was reaching that elusive demographic: ordinary Americans) should resent one. The animus of his remarks was the liberal fantasy that middle-class Americans measure their middle class-ness by taking stock of their relative gains.
That last phrase may sound unfamiliar, but it’s not complicated. If you measure your absolute gains you look around at all your possessions, your money, and your prospects and you ask yourself: Am I doing as well as I think I should be? Can I get more if I want it? Answer “yes” and you probably think of yourself as middle class, and are probably reasonably content being so. If you measure your relative gains, on the other hand, you ask yourself: How am I doing relative to the people who are doing best? Unless you’re married to a condiment heiress the answer to this question is invariably bleaker.
Relative gains really capture liberals’ imaginations. Absolute gains, not so much. Imagining that most Americans define themselves in terms of how unequal their paychecks are in comparison to their boss’s allows those on the left, those who feel government’s primary job is to eliminate inequality, to feel they’re in the natural majority. It lets them feel, despite other evidence, that voters are hungry for meaty social benefits and an all-you-can-eat federal-program buffet.
The notion that Americans think in terms of relative gains in nonsense, and TV–especially Arrested Development–proves it. TV Land is a uniquely American utopia; that ordinary Americans spend four hours a day warming themselves in its glow suggests they see in it the sorts of lives they’d like to have. Sitcom wives, for example, are all disproportionately good-looking, and the kids deliver zingers with impeccable timing (instead of picking their noses in a stupor). But, strangely enough, in a society ripe with class resentment, no one is rich: Ray Romano, who everyone loves, plays a sports reporter. Doug (Kevin James), the King of Queens, is a UPS guy. Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) from Seinfeldwas some mid-level white-collar type.
If you were wedded to liberals’ vision of America, you could imagine that audiences–fidgeting with incipient Schadenfreude–would tune in to see their betters brought down a peg. It’s what critics, even the ones at Maxim, assumed was behind the appeal of Arrested Development. The show, it was prognosticated, was as funny as it was partly because the Bluths, in all their rich bastard-ness, were delicious targets of ridicule.
Timing seemed to be on critics’ side here. When Arrested Development debuted in November 2003 it couldn’t have been a less popular time to be tastelessly rich. Enron and Arthur Andersen had folded a year and a half earlier. Top officials from Worldcom, Adelphia, and Tyco were in various stages of prosecution, and then there was the whole Martha Stewart thing. Corporate greed–a phrase that had hitherto appeared mostly on bumper stickers, next to other bumper stickers that urged passing drivers to “Wage Peace” and “Draft SUV Drivers First”–suddenly meant something. If ever there was an audience ready to see plutocrats kicked in the groin, it was this one.
If there was some sort of pent-up demand to see the mighty fall, one would expect to see the show really wallow in it: episodes where Lindsey Bluth (Portia DiRossi) panhandles for a Coach bag or Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) awkwardly tries to order fois grois from the Burger King dollar-menu. There are constant reminders of the Bluths’ fall from a higher tax bracket. Michael had to sell the family’s private jet in the first season. GOB blew up the family’s yacht a few episodes after that, and most of the cast lived together in one of the Bluth Company’s shoddy model homes.
But the deprivations of being formerly rich don’t amount to anything even remotely humorous. That the Bluths sold their jet isn’t really that funny. That for the rest of the series they were driving the ridiculous stair-loading car that went with the jet is hilarious. Likewise, it means nothing that the yacht blew up. That GOB was trying to make it disappear as part of a self-aggrandizing magic trick, or that the company’s cross-eyed, erratic secretary was on board when it blew, means everything.
And despite having lost everything, the Bluths aren’t really poor, as such. In fact, if anything, they were solidly, if inexplicably, middle class. For the better part of two years family members were perpetually borrowing money from Michael, squandering it delightfully (in GOB’s case, by producing a CD of his racially insensitive ventriloquist act) and then borrowing more; it kept coming from somewhere. Ultimately, the wealth was just a set-up. The characters were the punch-line; and none could be as whimsically irresponsible or self-centered as they were if they had to conform to middle-class, job-holding monotony.
America might be a better place if Americans were burbling with resentment over the relative richness of other Americans. Just a million more viewers a week and Arrested Development fans wouldn’t have had to write pleading postcards to Peter Ligouri, Fox’s new entertainment president. If it had really taken off other networks would have run with the concept of vicarious class beat downs; maybe a very special episode of Fear Factor where Warren Buffet has to bite the head off a live bat, or an Apprentice finale where The Donald loses his toupee in his helicopter’s rotor wash. As it was, America’s TV-viewing public was told that rich people would be embarrassing themselves after Malcolm in the Middle, and it changed the channel. And John Kerry lost the election.
Hope, though–and gags that involve blind seeing eye dogs falling into trash cans–can triumph over experience. Maybe when Democrats recycle the same message in ‘08 they’ll have better luck.
–Louis Wittig is a writer living in New York.