Politics & Policy

Arrested Criticism

Pretentious meets preposterous in pop analyses of Arrested Development.

On November 2, 2003, I sat down with my brother in our parents’ basement to watch the first episode of Arrested Development. I don’t know why we decided to watch the show that day, but I suspect it was out of boredom. As we made our way through the inaugural episode, and then through the inaugural season, it slowly dawned on me that the show was really, really funny.

A funny show. That’s it and nothing more. Not a metaphor for anything. Not an explication of anything, either. In reaction to Sigmund Freud’s pervasive use of phallic symbols, someone retorted, “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.” That sums up my feelings towards Arrested Development: Sometimes a TV show is just a TV show.

#ad#But that’s not how many journalists see it. It seems as if our nation’s elite writers see Mitch Hurwitz’s Arrested Development as everything but a TV show. An explanation of the housing crisis? Yep. An explanation of the Obama presidency? That, too. A metaphor for the seven deadly sins? Yes, sadly. A reminder that “everything is the end product of something that happened elsewhere, and that each person’s life is made up of a zillion other lives criss-crossing through the frame”? Yeah (sigh . . . ). House Republicans have co-opted it for their own political interests. Even when the Arrested Development mania isn’t political, it’s still weirdly obsessive. NPR, for example, created a chart of all the show’s recurring jokes, listing every episode they occur in. Imagine John Nash being interested in sitcoms instead of numbers, and you can begin to understand the obsessive nature of Arrested Development fans.

But there is one article that is so ludicrous, so preposterous, that I want to reach my hands through the computer screen, grab the authors by their lapels, and shake them out of their black sleep of the Kali Ma — or whatever it is that has possessed them.

In the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, a blog that’s supposed to be based on empirical data, Peter Queck and Bhaskar Sunkara claim that the first three seasons of Arrested Development, which aired from 2003 to 2006, depicted a Communist utopia, but that the fourth season, produced and broadcast by Netflix, ruined it. I know this because the title of their piece is “‘Arrested Development’ was a Communist utopia, and season four ruined it.” Queck and Sunkara are socialist authors who write primarily for a socialist publication, Jacobin, and they follow a long and proud socialist tradition of compiling words into sentences in a way that only other socialists could find appealing.

The authors’ argument — and I use the word loosely — is that since the world is “defined by scarcity,” humans have always “connived, killed and exploited one another.” Arrested Development, on the other hand, “managed to conceive of what an escape from such a world might look like.” The show is an ensemble comedy, so it “is inherently communist in form.” This is the key point, according to Queck and Sunkara: “When this logic is at play in society at large, you have the Marxist ideal put to life: The free development of each is the condition of the free development of all; from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.” Just as ensemble comedies work only when all the characters join forces as a collective, the development of any individual member of society is dependent on the development of every other individual member of society. Or as Bruce Springsteen is fond of saying, “Nobody wins unless everybody wins.” The authors continue, “The comedy is generated from a cast of equals,” whereby each character retains “the freedom to be truly different and exist fully in their own right.”

Like all Communist utopias, however, this one cannot last. Of the fourth season, the authors write, “shattered is the collective, free-wheeling life of the Bluth family and the show’s underlying progressive optimism about the basic decency of the people.”

What is this babble? Just about every word the authors write is false, including the underlying premise of their entire piece. Arrested Development does not depict a world where humans no longer connive, kill, and exploit one another. On the contrary, the show is all about how the Bluth family exploits Michael Bluth. Equally false is the claim that Arrested Development shows “progressive optimism about the basic decency of the people.” Maybe I was watching the wrong show, but I did not detect a shred of progressivism, optimism, or basic decency in its characters.

But this is all entirely beside the point. While the show certainly dabbles in political topics from time to time, it is a manic comedy first and an explication of our nation’s trials and tribulations last, if at all.

But that’s not the impression one receives from our chin-stroking journalistic elites. They scour the series like Talmudic rabbis, looking for parables and lessons. The rabbis had God and the Bible as their guides; the journalists have Mitch Hurwitz.

— Noah Glyn is an editorial intern at National Review.

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