Arrested Development and growing up on the tube
Credit: Fox Broadcasting Company
Arrested Development and growing up on the tube

For television geeks such as me, one of the great injustices of the past decade was the cancellation of Arrested Development. When Fox unceremoniously pulled the show after only three seasons, it took with it six separate Emmys, a Golden Globe, a small but feverish following and one of TV’s most memorably dysfunctional families.

 I had mixed feelings when series creator Mitchell Hurwitz announced late last year that a fourth season would debut in 2013 exclusively on Netflix, featuring the original cast members in 10 new episodes. I’m always leery of reboots – Family Guy has been less than impressive after it was resurrected by Fox – and I enjoyed the idea of Arrested Development as a creative watershed. It paved the way for the majority of edgy, single-camera comedies that have redefined network and cable TV, but it might seem out-of-place sharing air time with programs it helped invent.

In terms of cultural posterity, it was a blessing for Arrested Development to get canned early. The fucked-up Bluth family at the show’s core is now legendary, spawning websites, Twitter feeds and endless DVD revenue, plus a top-20 spot on TIME magazine’s 2007 list of the 100 best TV shows of all time. From the opening episodes of the first season in 2003, the clan of self-absorbed, narcissistic brats was wholly original for TV: They drank; they fought; they gossiped; they lied; they cheated; they stole – all in the name of screwing each other over. In a wonderful twist on traditional sitcom conventions, the world of the show returns to “normal” at the end of each episode, but it’s always due to selfishness and backstabbing, not plot contrivance or Leave it to Beaver-style moralizing. The Bluths were the sort of vibrantly flawed characters who would’ve blossomed on cable, where ho-hum ratings don’t automatically doom programs and audiences are more open to the debauched side of human nature.

In the early 2000’s, though, something about Arrested Development was too off-putting for a major-network audience. Maybe it was timing: Two short years after 9/11, people in the United States still harbored extreme cultural anxiety and found safety in the familiarity of home, a kind of reactionary blindness the Bluth family modeled and satirized to the extreme. Hurwitz and his writers also attacked convention: None of the characters act as an audience surrogate – the closest is George Michael, the honorable but easily-manipulated teenage son of straight-man Michael Bluth – and the plot structure is almost recklessly aggressive. The pilot begins with the arrest of the family patriarch, George Bluth Sr., and insanity heaps atop insanity with little viewer orientation or traditional back story.

Thanks to this brand of perceptive, risky writing, Arrested Development reached a level of dysfunction the rote sitcoms of the ‘90s could never muster. Fox’s previous misanthropic comedy, the long-running Married…with Children, tempered its characters enough to keep favorable ratings for 11 seasons. The family patriarch, Al Bundy, wasn’t an inherently bad person: He was grumpy and down on his luck, sure, but his antics and moaning never seemed mean spirited. Even I admit there’s very little redeeming about the central family in Arrested Development – like the gang from It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the Bluths are enormously fun to watch on TV, but I would never want to meet them on the streets of Newport Beach.

All in the family

For all of Arrested Development’s rule breaking and bending, the show had firm roots in a nearly inescapable structure of Western fiction and society: family. From high-minded literature to trashy pulp films, family is a familiar way to humanize characters and offer a grounding element. In a relatively old but accessible article published by Yale in 1990, author Patrick A. Velardi claims it’s impossible to pin down one definition of “family” in U.S. fictional works – the “melting pot” culture implies a variety of experience – but argues that family remains one of the most transitional institutions in .

“While different cultures have different specific values that determine family structure, there are basic social functions that need to be met by families in general, such as child bearing, child rearing and control of sexual behavior,” Velardi writes. “[Family] still is the primary imparter of values, but, in America, at least, the family has had to make many changes, and has had to make them extremely rapidly at times.”

Nowhere has the rapidly-changing role of the family in the United States been more apparent than on television.  Although Arrested Development’s ruthless portrayal of an insulated, self-destructive clan was too uncomfortable (and perhaps too truthful) for its time, current programs like ABC’s Modern Family and FX’s Louie garner praise for brutally honest and funny portrayals of Bluth-like dysfunction.   

Dysfunction was a vital characteristic of TV families even before the current crop of cynical yet humanistic programs – much like slapstick defined comedy in the Three Stooges era – but it took several decades to fully develop. In the early 1960’s, television was a ripe medium filled with live-action versions of the family-based programs found on the radio. Early favorites like The Andy Griffith Show and Leave it to Beaver always focused on outside threats to the familial structure: Andy encounters relatively innocuous locals with help from his son, Opie – played by Ron Howard, who voices the narrator on Arrested Development – while Theodore “The Beaver” Cleaver contends with bullies, adventure and suburban hardships, leaning on his mother and father as a single unit. 

Every decade since has brought a new iteration of family to the airwaves, progressively hinting at the possibility of family as an unstable structure. In the ‘70s, The Brady Bunch toyed with sibling rivalries in the most innocent way possible, while Happy Days focused on a non-traditional family formed by a core group of high school students. The ‘80s saw more friends-as-family situations – The Golden Girls, Cheers and more – as well as the first appearance of minority sitcoms, led by The Cosby Show and Diff’rent Strokes. An interesting wrinkle from the decade was NBC’s Michael J. Fox-led program Family Ties, which found a traditional nuclear family tackling the relatively complex social issues of Reagan-era conservatism as it won out over the free-spirited liberalism of the past 20 years.   

When The Cosby Show ended an eight-season run on NBC in 1992, dysfunction was an integral part of any television family, particularly in sitcoms. Most of the top programs in ABC’s formidable TGIF lineup were heavy on family – complete with a likeable but bumbling husband, forever-suffering wife and variable number of colorful kids, a la The Simpsons – and every other major network followed suit, culminating with the brash hilarity of swan-song sitcoms like CBS’s Everybody Loves Raymond and ABC’s weekday champ Roseanne. The characters in a near-infinite number of shows were flawed, marred and disgruntled thanks to their blood relatives or chosen siblings, but viewers demanded more. After all, it’s just what family life is like.

But this tempered dysfunction didn’t predict Arrested Development’s militant assault on family life, the sort of meta understanding of family feuding that worked as both perverse comedy and social commentary. Families on modern TV don’t just reflect culture: They critique it and challenge it in a way other institutions – including news media – no longer do.

What about real life?

Given the popularity and pervasiveness of dysfunctional families in the past three decades, it’s odd that television news programs paint such a different portrait of family life in the United State. Audiences are often inundated with divorce statistics and stories of troubled youth, but it’s often presented in a moralizing way – much like sitcoms of old.

In a sense, TV news has filled the gap left by TV entertainment when the latter abandoned the traditional, fully-functional nuclear family. On CNN, Fox News, MSNBC and more, abortion and women’s rights have become a hot-button issue for pundits and politicians who decry the downfall of family values and champion their subsequent restoration. As Velardi points out in his article on the concept of family, though, family in the United States has been historically ethereal. When candidates campaign, they try and often fail to present their families in the best light possible – remember the holier-than-thou backlash over Bristol Palin’s pregnancy or massive finagling by the Clintons to keep only child Chelsea largely hidden?  – but this image highlights a false sense of perfection: TV audiences (and voters) are told “real” families don’t have issues, problems, fights or conflict, when they are just as flawed as the rest. According to the current dynamic on TV, fiction is the only place suitable for dysfunction – if real life is equally messy, it must represent a woeful breakdown of character.

The gap highlights a disparity between mediated entertainment and actual experience that’s always plagued modern television. Audiences felt safe watching the easily-solved problems of The Cosby Show’s Huxtable family, but were confused or made uneasy by the complexly harrowing comedy of the Bluths. If television is a mirror of cultural values, viewers look only as long as they like what they see. In a quietly realistic satirical touch, the only time the Bluths feel true anxiety about their antics is when they’re broadcast on TV; news coverage of George Sr.’s housing development in Iraq, subsidized by Saddam, is a recurring source of humor and horror in the first season. It’s also the only time the entire family gathers in one place without some ulterior motive – TV as another one of the brood.

The folks behind Arrested Development understood the role of the medium they fought (and failed) to win over. When entertainment becomes threatening – particularly sitcoms, which have long opted for broad comedy over satire – viewers switch to more palatable, handsome programs, for fear of having to confront the darker issues that fuel dysfunction. It’s the kind of cultural discomfort I’m sure led to Arrested Development’s original cancellation. When the fourth season premieres next year, let’s hope nearly a decade of staring into the mirror has paid off. 

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