Humans will always have needs. What we won’t always have are unfulfilled needs. Throughout history we’ve faced a world defined by scarcity and lived in response to it. We’ve connived, killed and exploited one another, and struggled to even imagine a better way of living. But 10 years ago, Mitchell Hurwitz’s "Arrested Development" managed to conceive of what an escape from such a world might look like. The fourth season of the series, released yesterday on Netflix, shows how fragile that vision was.
Ensemble comedy is inherently communist in form. We’d love to troll Wonkblog readers with such a claim, but we’re actually serious — they operate on the same social logic. 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.
When it’s at work in a sitcom, you have the sort of format seen in shows like "Arrested Development," "Seinfeld," "NewsRadio" and "Friends." In those series, the comedy is generated from a cast of equals. Every character doesn’t have the equal screen-time in every episode, but they do 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.
In the first run of "Arrested Development," Tobias, a former psychoanalyst, is able to pursue an unprofitable acting career and his latent homosexuality, Gob plans elaborate magic acts while fitfully dropping his tough-guy act, and Lindsay mercifully pursues her vanity projects outright rather than dressing them up as philanthropy. Ironically, it is living together in a socialized unit that allows them to dispense with airs of respectability and embrace their bizarre and hilarious selves. Once in a while, work is done — but mostly we’re operating in the realm of freedom.
To be clear, the point is not that we should literally do what the Bluths do, but that we should do how they do. Comedy has its own set of rules. Here, vice is virtue and virtue is vice. What’s important is its social logic, the way the actors relate to one another and their world. In ensemble comedy, the development of each is a precondition to the development of all.
"Arrested Development" was a bit different from its peers. A show like "Friends," with its isolation from scarcity in any meaningful sense, represents something like full communism. And paradoxically, this is what allowed it to act as apolitical wish-fulfillment: Its characters were freed from the struggle for material resources, dealing only with the other, more permanent, problems of the human condition. Sure, they worked jobs — increasingly fulfilling ones — but these were basically doled out to them by the plot from on high, much like their implausible multimillion-dollar apartments. The need to move money around, mortgage assets, mollify investors and pick up work never imposed its logic on the story the way it did in "Arrested Development."
More than any other show, "Arrested Development" drew economics into its texture — harping on the corporate scandals of the day and constantly building plots around the Bluth family’s financial juggling. Consider the late third season episode "SOBs," produced when it was clear that the show was in danger of cancellation. In that episode, a desperate Bluth fundraiser doubles as a direct plea for help from the series’ creators. It wasn’t a high point for "Arrested Development." The quality of the show in the third season seemed to actually track its increasingly tenuous prospects, rolling out gags and characters more cruel, tasteless and grotesque than funny while circling a comedic black hole of self-reference.
Conceived as it was in the aftermath of the Enron scandal and during the early years of the Bush administration, no one would say the socioeconomic context of the first three seasons of "Arrested Development" was ideal. And yet the economy had stabilized and returned to a rate of growth healthy enough to sustain capital accumulation, steadily driving down the unemployment rate throughout the show’s lifespan.
The politics of the show were broadly progressive, featuring a rainbow coalition of decent, perpetually put-upon workers shaking their heads at the reckless and exploitative antics of the attention-starved actors, attorneys and petty aristocrats above them. Dark as those times were, looking back from the new season, the original run’s overarching criticism of the "war on terror," the invasion of Iraq and torture seems almost like a luxury. It was perhaps possible to view the scandals, corruption and wars as an aberrant dip along what had been — and could once again be — a forward-moving society.
So what happens when a socioeconomically sensitive show about Orange County real estate developers collides with a devastating housing-led financial crash?
It’s not pretty.
The fourth season places the history of show, its characters and audience into brutal alignment: "Now the story of a family whose future was abruptly cancelled," the new opening credits read. The intervening years weigh heavily as Ron Howard’s voice-over is tasked with propelling an otherwise inert narrative, giving us exhaustive details about the Bluths’ travails over the past few years. It’s the entertainment equivalent of being invited over to watch slides from your elderly neighbor’s Cape Cod vacation for eight hours.
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. Whereas previously the series focused on attempts to hold the family together, here the episodes follow the efforts of individual Bluths to hold themselves together. The ensemble is all but gone. Where the show once had good fun with homosexuality while skewering casual bigotry, here the gay jokes fail to land, and feel labored and more than a little homophobic. Likewise, race factors more prominently than last time, with the jokes ranging from awkward to offensive. They’re almost never funny.
If there’s a single image that sums up the new season, it’s the capsized Queen Mary listing terminally in harbor. This is, in a word, a world without buoyancy.
It’s far from the only piece of apocalyptic imagery. The first three seasons of the show squeezed a lot of humor out of the exurban evangelical belief in the Rapture; the fourth season greets us with a vision of Michael as "left behind" in an isolated ghost town. Meanwhile, the family’s luxury penthouse has drifted into barbarism. A sometimes-squat for urban terrorists, its only true residents are Buster’s psychotic effigies of his mother and a predatory ostrich.
And in the background, it appears a race war is brewing, reaching full tilt at Cinco de Cuatro!, and even the Bluth model home’s formidable cache of Mike’s Hard Lemonade may not be enough to ride it out. It’s all blood, bruises and roofie-loops for the Bluth boys. All of this could have been good grist for dark comedy, but without the machinery of the ensemble in place, there was no mechanism to grind out laughs.
We’ve dealt with a lot over the past years — jobless rates over 10 percent, cuts hampering the social services we rely on, the massive burden of debt and foreclosure. Now that pain has come to one of the greatest comedies of all time. The spirit of "Arrested Development" is the recession’s latest casualty.
Update: the first sentence has been edited at the authors' request.
Peter Queck is a contributor to Jacobin.