Positive Developments

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(This review of season four of Arrested Development, which became available for screening on Netflix on May 26, was originally published in Red Wedge Magazine.)
I’m going to go ahead and say what few diehard Arrested Development fans have dared to: the new season is pretty damn good.

Of course, there are some problems. Now that they’re adults, the show’s writers seem at a loss for what to do with George Michael and Maeby. Before George Michael’s straightlaced behavior contrasted brilliantly with Maeby’s attention-seeking antics; now, they don’t have much to separate them from their parents, grandparents, aunts and uncles.

The first episodes definitely did not take a running start, and even midway through the fifteenth episode, things had only somewhat begun to cohere. I’m sure one could find many lists of these and other faults of the fourth season online in fan communities, so I won’t bother to write another one here.

Nevertheless, for having been off the air seven years, the show had a remarkably strong return. Of course any group of fans which can be counted on to appreciate the intricate amount of detail that goes into Arrested Development-style humor might have some trouble looking at the big picture, but should nevertheless try.

After all, we could have passed another seven years, or the rest of our lives, without another scrap of Bluth wit, wisdom and folly. This isn’t an argument that anything at all is better than nothing – but anyone with half a brain in their head could surely see the fourth season of Arrested Development is much better than nothing at all.

I have only watched it once so far, obviously the first of many times, but the play on words, multi-level puns, self-referential treatment, inside jokes, etc were all there in spades. The new season is practically a love letter from the show’s creators to the fans who waited so long for its return.

The show, as all of us who travelled with it through its abrupt termination and then seven years in the wilderness no doubt recall, never gained a huge following. At its very highest it had a few million watching some episodes, even during the relative “golden age” of the second season. If as it’s been said that ten people locked in a room could convince themselves of anything, surely the thousands of AD fans could convince themselves the whole world watched our favorite show. This was sadly never the case.

Though we may be flippant about the return of a TV show in an era which has given us the return of both brilliant and awful shows post-cancellation on network TV, it says something that a show like Arrested Development could be revived. In a modern capitalist economy where TV (yes, even Netflix) goes for the highest profits, what makes AD-style humor relevant?

Still Relevant

I’ve tried to briefly analyze Arrested Development before in terms of the truly epic levels of governmental and ruling-class hypocrisy that characterized the early Bush years. This makes sense for a show that ran from 2003 to 2006. But what makes it seem like a realistic prospect in the age of Obama?

My earlier comments certainly require some broadening out. It wasn’t the case, for instance, that the crisis of the Bluth company merely responded to the Enron and WorldCom scandals of the early zero years, although this was one context.

It surely did not miss the show’s writers this time around, as it could not have then either, that the Bluths are housing developers as opposed to any other number of businesses they could run. Though the collapse of the housing market occurred a full year and a half after the show’s initial cancellation in early 2006, this gave the show an eerie prescience in retrospect, which could have only strengthened its prescience in the collective unconscious.

GOB Bluth, the tragicomical magician, stripper and sometime (P)resident of the Bluth Company, had in the second season urged his brother Michael to build fake houses with “nothing on the inside” (tapping his own skull as he did so) as a show of confidence to investors, but this itself took on tragicomic proportions when the housing market went underwater in 2007. Nationwide, houses and the housing business itself truly had “nothing on the inside.”

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A few of the Bluths at pawnshop/restaurant/Marxist-Leninist commune Swappigans.

In the new season, we see George Michael as a latter-day Mark Zuckerberg. Though his software “Fakeblock” starts out as one of several woodblock apps for smartphones, it goes through a mistaken Michael’s belief that it is designed to protect online privacy (based on the observation that poor George Michael’s Facebook page “doesn’t have a single friend on it”) and becomes “the anti-social network” after George Michael sees the opportunity to impress his cousin Maeby, still the object of his incestuous desire. Just like that, young George Michael has become an online entrepreneur.

Of course, we can’t expect a one-to-one correspondence with reality. The Facebook IPO went down with a whimper last year, and does not seem poised to spark another round of financial crisis.

But we have something here that points to the absurd level of financialization in the late developed capitalist economy, where every absurd scheme by the ruling class to generate a windfall of profits (of which there are many) threaten to shipwreck the economy just as Lucille Bluth shipwrecked the Queen Mary. This has changed none since 2006, and it is one thing making the return of Arrested Development plausible in 2013.

Correspondingly, we have the horror show that is contemporary American politics. Lindsay, after a brief affair with a lifestyle anarchist with whom she squats in her mother’s apartment (echoes of Occupy) is inadvertently pimped by her daughter to Herman (Cain) Love. Love, who seems to care little for actual politics, charges George Sr. just as much for adopting a positive stance on a border wall with Mexico as he does later when George Sr. asks him to retract his support. “It’s 50 [thousand] for the flip, and another 50 for the flop,” he says.

The principled opponent of Love’s over-the-top rightism and corruption? None other than “Lucille 2” Austero, who makes her campaign promise to usher in an era of — you guessed it — “Austerity.” This could not have happened before the multiple rounds of bipartisan budget cuts under this name — a term that did not actually enter into popular discourse before 2010.

This marks one significant change in the show’s political discourse: whereas the first three seasons played well to a liberal audience fed off of hatred for Bush and claims that a Democrat would do better, Arrested Development in 2013 has to deal with the actuality of Democratic Party rule, and acquits itself rather well.

Nowhere is this better seen than in the absolutely horrifying prosecution of the war on terror. In the show’s first three seasons, we saw George Bluth being prosecuted for (“light”) treason, in an hilarious extension of the American political class’ hobnobbing with Saddam Hussein and other Middle Eastern autocrats before they outlived their usefulness, when the houses he built in Iraq became the focus of a government desperate to find the elusive WMDs by any means necessary.

The war on terror has undergone some great changes since Fox cancelled Arrested Development. No longer do we launch full-scale invasions; our enemies, who include American citizens as well as Waziri peasants, are surgically eliminated through the merciful use of flying death robots. We now have a president who talks about the dangers of creating an endless war mentality and the merits of other cultures instead of about “axes of evil” and how “you’re either with us or you’re against us.”

Style versus substance, of course. While the focus of the fourth season is rather more domestic than that of the first three, we see Buster returning to Army devastated after the imprisonment of Lucille. His loss of a hand rendering him useless for physical combat, he becomes a drone pilot, believing himself to be playing a video game.

His partner, confused and somewhat horrified at Buster’s enthusiasm as he takes out children and even a wedding party from the sky, remarks that he should watch out after he nearly misses a museum in Madrid. “You could have hurt some innocent people there,” he says. “You mean I’ve been hurting guilty people?!” answers a shocked Buster, who promptly becomes the first on-the-job casualty in the history of drone warfare.

A Communist Utopia?

Arrested Development excels at displaying the ignorance, perversity, greed and barbarity of the American ruling class; in the era of Obama it has shown it can do this better than ever, and better than all other contenders.

We don’t get much about a different kind of society in Arrested Development, though there are hints in Lindsay’s affair with Marky, an obnoxious meth-addicted lifestylist and ostrich farmer, especially in their visit to “Swappigans,” a restaurant that in the words of a waitress “combines a pawnshop with a restaurant with a Marxist-Leninist commune.”

It’s probably fortunate that Arrested Development mainly limits itself to vicious criticism of our ruling class rather than trying to portray resistance; one could think of many examples of TV shows whose attempts to show anti-establishment activism (such as the usually brilliant Joss Whedon’s attempt in Dollhouse) which fell more than flat.

In this light we should well consider the recent piece by Bhaskar Sunkara and Peter Queck, two editors of the leftist magazine Jacobin, for the blog of the Washington Post with the title “Arrested Development was a communist utopia, and season four ruined it.”

The column in some respects makes me wonder whether Sunkara and Queck are those type of diehard fans who would never be pleased by the fourth season – I admit to having some tendencies in that direction. But if they think that “the spirit of Arrested Development is the latest casualty of the recession,” then, as I have outlined, we must have been watching different shows, or at least had remarkably different expectations.

The first three seasons, they say, followed ensemble sitcoms in being “inherently communist in form… 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.”

In shows like Seinfeld and Friends, they say, “the comedy is generated from a cast of equals… characters have the freedom to be truly different and exist fully in their own right, following their own path rather than laboring to merely advance the story of a main character.”

It’s a somewhat common misconception on the Marxist left that a collective of main characters versus an individual protagonist can be assigned respective positive and negative social content. Even Victor Serge, the great anarcho-Bolshevik polemicist and novelist, discoursed at length about his hatred for the pronoun “I,” making his novels ensemble projects for the sake of revolutionary politics.

Yes, of course, the single individual subject is in the final instance a creation of bourgeois society- however, transcending these forms is just not as simple as proposing a collective protagonist. Even in the pre-Stalinist Soviet Union this was demonstrably not the case. This is why Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, for all its technical brilliance, comes off as cold and clinical compared to Pudovkin’s The Mother, a more simple story of a mother caught between her loyalty to her husband in the Black Hundreds and her love for her revolutionary son amidst a worker’s uprising at a factory.

In the second place, I dispute the idea that so very much has changed in the format of Arrested Development. Whereas before we got intersecting lines in the course of a single episode that come together, the Netflix episodes have extended this dynamic to a whole season. The fourth season might almost be a single mega-episode. This method of plot construction meant a lot of lag in the early episodes, it’s true, but the ending of the season left me in tears of laughter- and as always with AD, desperately craving more.

If as Rosa Luxemburg said that the highest revolutionary act is to boldly say what is happening, then Arrested Development is a truly revolutionary TV show. Sunkara and Queck would do well to watch the new season again with this in mind. Come to that, we would all do well to watch it again, and again and again, until we finally (maeby?) get the movie.

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