Around this time last year, it came to my attention somehow that the show Arrested Development was coming back on the air. Its last episodes (embarrassingly, I can recall the precise date) aired on 10 February, 2006, at which time I was a sophomore in high school. From that time in my life, the cancellation of AD was probably one of the things that sticks out – along with certain more minor events in my life, such as my parents’ ongoing and acrimonious divorce, or my constant ongoing frustration around girls. I cannot recall getting very emotional as a teenager, ever, but the end of Arrested Development brought it out of me somehow.
So when I realized the show was coming back on the air, I was kind of nonplussed, aside from a general positive reaction. There are, as I see it, a couple reasons for this. While the 16 year old me had little better ways of expressing his alienation than the one-size-fits-all outlet of commodity fetishism, the 22 year old me had available a variety of ways to do this, alcohol being the outstanding method. Of course, it’s also hard to get so excited about one show coming back in particular when pretty much every cancelled show gets to come back at some point – those I love (Futurama), and those I hate (Family Guy), excepting of course Joss Whedon’s neglected and perfect Firefly.
I imagine seven years ago, the new episodes would have been one of the few things to make me really happy. Of course, I’m excited to see them in a few months, but this has to be heavily qualified. This is for several reasons. First, despite the short timeframe which they were given, the show’s writers managed to wrap the series and tie a bow around it, which is much better than is possible for many series. And second, because television as a medium of culture is so immediate that it tends to go bad quickly. Which is not to say great TV cannot be made, but as an intervention in society, the cultural products (except for series like The Wire, which being on HBO was in any case free from the constraints of normal TV production) tend to have a short sell-by date based on immediate appeal. And therefore, the best TV tends to emerge as a reaction to and commentary on its period.
For Americans at least, Arrested Development is one of those shows that defines an era. This era was the first administration of George W. Bush. For a number of reasons, it is right to mark these four years or so as a turning point in American history and culture. For the purposes of this discussion, the “high points” of this era are:
- The completely obvious and shameful stupidity of our president (the president of “Is our children learning,” “I’m the decider,” and “My Pet Goat”) which marked the decline of our political culture,
- The war on terror, the height of which was the plainly phoney war Bush launched into in Iraq, followed by the surreal proclamations of victory – “Mission Accomplished” and so on – against a growing anti-imperialist and anti-American trend all over the world, including the developed West,
- The apex of the neoliberal economic boom, followed by its abrupt end. This is symbolized best by the rapid collapse of the energy firm Enron in 2001. This made the most clear latent class anger that has always existed in American society, underlying the precipitous decline of the class struggle since the ’70s.
Arrested Development, I recently realized while re-watching the show for the upteenth time, is most effective as it responds to and critiques the excesses of our ruling class along these lines. The ongoing references to the rhetoric of the war on terror, I would imagine, might make the show somewhat incomprehensible to non-Americans, or those Americans who came of age after that period.
In its setup, AD mirrors almost too well the circumstances of the end of the boom, and its impact on the American ruling class. The show starts with the retirement party of George Bluth, head of the Bluth Company, a real-estate firm in southern California. As his wife and children raise toasts to his career, boats of the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) arrive at the corporate yacht to arrest him for investment fraud, an obvious reference to the executives of Enron – Ken Lay, Jeffrey Skilling, and Andrew Fastow. The show is incredibly incisive as it mocks the decline of this executive class. It is noteworthy, for instance, that all the members of the spoiled Bluth family continue to demand paychecks from the company even as they refuse to work for it.
Perhaps more significantly, the paranoid slapstick that was the first Bush, Jr. administration is matched by the surreal happenings in AD – and here, it gets hard sometimes to tell fiction from reality. Any except the segment of the American population which has spent the past ten years living under a rock cannot recall the circumstances leading up to the Second Gulf War with anything but a mixture of outrage and horror. Looking back on it now, the press conferences seem staged and pantomimed, with Bush half leering at us as he tells us in complete sincerity that Saddam Hussein has links to al-Qa’eda, has access to yellowcake uranium, is part of an “Access of Evil” with Iran and North Korea. It beggars belief.
Arrested Development is almost hyper-aware of its own backdrop. Throughout the second season (aired in 2004-5, the same period in which Bush’s acolytes were scrambling to find some sort of “weapons of mass destruction” in occupied Iraq) the show’s characters are drawn into the national slapstick. Buster is enlisted into the Army by his mother, who was afraid of being seen as unpatriotic by a Michael Moore impostor. George Bluth, Sr. (whose name, along with that of his son GOB, has a more than coincidental relationship to those of the dynastic 41st and 43rd presidents) is discovered to have built homes in Sadaam’s Iraq that violate the sanctions – a vicious parody of the cozy relationship enjoyed by Reagan, Bush Sr., Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz and other neocons and neocon enablers with the Middle Eastern strongmen they now sought to overthrow.
The woman GOB marries on a dare joins the army as well, and to prove her penchant for daring, becomes a very thinly fictionalized version of the torturer Lyndie England, of Abu Ghraib Prison. In a scene as bizarre as it is hilarious, a map supposedly pointing to WMDs in Iraq actually turns out to be a picture of Tobias’ testicles taken with his camera phone. When Michael, GOB and Buster finally travel to Iraq to clear their father’s name, they discover a warhead in the attic of a model home their father indeed built – but the warhead is just one of the shoddy house’s many Home-Fills.
So I think it’s pretty clear that Arrested Development‘s timeframe is the Bush administration. In one sense, it’s hard to imagine the show outside of that background. Seemingly, at least, a lot has changed. Instead of a silver-spoon fratboy, the face of our government is now a sophisticated constitutional law professor, who happens to be black as well. No longer does the US invade sovereign nations. Scratch that – we still do (Libya, Pakistan, dozens of other countries that host our armed forces) – but when we do, it is with a bit more research than the rationale which was dreamed up in 2003.
As I said, changing times pretty much guarantee changing TV. It would be hard to imagine a show like 24 in the Obama era – Homeland fits our contemporary nation much better. But on the other hand, a comparison of those two shows, which I’ve made before, also remind us of the continuities between the Bush era and the Obama era. We remain at war with a mysterious and brown foe with a bearded face and turban. Our government continues to assault the civilians of other nations on a daily basis. Considering how many flying death robots have been deployed under Obama, it would even seem the war on terror has grown more bizarre and frightening than it was under Bush. Most of all, our economy has returned to a prolonged state of crisis, and as ever, the corporations and financial institutions are bailed out while the working class pays for their losses.
Maybe I was too quick to pass judgment. The Obama administration is as rife with jingoism and hypocrisy as the previous one. I can’t imagine any show better than Arrested Development to take this on – for a new era.