Head in the Sand
For all of the recurring images of Banana-Grabbers, Blue-Men, sad-sacks, and hop-ons that have become signatures of the show, the most ubiquitous recurring image this season was that of the ostrich.
In the first episode, returning from Phoenix to remake himself once again, Michael was run over by one in the wrecked Bluth penthouse; Lindsay believed that the Indian guru who placed her on her spiritual path transformed into one, and follows her face-blind lover because he owned an ostrich farm, and that couldn’t be coincidence; George Sr. was visited by what he thought was an ostrich spirit in a desert hallucination; Maeby was attending a school that had an ostrich as their team mascot (Go Ostriches!); Lucille 2 was amorously savaged by one; in lieu of the family stair car Michael was driving a vehicle described as one (a Google street camera); Buster fails to read the cartoon warning of one on his juice box; and when GOB swerves to avoid an ostrich he unleashes his box of bees, sees a decorative statue of one in Tony Wonder’s storage room, and hears one speak to him at his lowest moment (at rock-bottom in the bottom of a rock) informing him that if he does not dare to open himself up to others, then the treasures within him would never come out… (The use of the Google maps car as an ‘ostrich’ has a lovely additional layer of metaphor due to that company’s own hypocrisy. For, as Ron Howard’s narrator observes with a stinging bit of snark, Google – as a company that posts the address details and photographs of every address in the world without anyone’s permission – does not allow themselves to be identified freely because that name and logo ‘is their property.’ )
That’s pretty deep advice for a novelty drinking bird (...or the host of Locker Hawkers, who it is revealed was actually the one speaking).
Flightless, gangly, somewhat absurd in appearance, the ostrich shares a good deal of traits with the Bluths themselves – but it is the bird’s reputation that proves to be most revealing. Proverbially, the ostrich is a creature famous for sticking its head in the sand. When they see danger, it is said that they bury themselves underground, oblivious to the world around them and ironically still open to attack. It is a cliché that Maeby even expresses to her mother while disguised as the shape-shifting Indian guru: ‘Pull your head out of the sand’ – advice that both Lindsay, and Maeby herself, choose to ignore.
And fittingly, this utterly erroneous myth perfectly encapsulates the behaviour of almost every member of the Bluth family this season. Troubled by a sense of loss and bewilderment, they foolishly choose to abandon their familial bonds and indulge selfish pursuits that more often than not further obscure rather than inspire self-awareness. They bury their heads in the sand. Indeed if the metaphor were not overt enough, we even see that whenever an ostrich appears it being directly aligned with some kind of wisdom – observed in a vision or as a spirit, uttered by a sage or a motto. But every time that such a message is conveyed it is ignored by the wayward Bluths, who rather than heeding its advice – opening up to one another, seeking for validation and support – instead dysfunctionally continue to push people further away, compounding their misery in a roofie circle of de-actualisation.
And the most egregious example of this self-destructive blindness occurs in the most deceptively impactful scene of the entire series…
The narrative conceit of Arrested Development‘s season four is intentionally misleading. The show initially sets itself up as something of a noir mystery, purporting to slowly answer the mystery of what happened on one dark, debauched night at Cinco de Cuatro (a celebration long ago created by the Bluth’s themselves to peevishly undercut Cinco de Mayo). In each episode we appear to be unravelling the truth about this literally explosive evening, travelling back in time to contextualise a night where people are going to be threatened, led to question their identity and sexuality, hospitalised, morally compromised, and possibly (although let’s face it, probably not really) murdered.
But while the narrative does gradually disentangle Cinco de Cuatro’s elaborate knot, dancing across the ingeniously interwoven experience of a family that seems cosmically fated to intersect, these revelations are ultimately proved less impactful than a deceptively innocuous scene that is dually being gradually unpacked in every episode: a gathering of the entire family in one of the most familiar of the show’s locations, the Balboa Towers penthouse.
In its earliest appearances in the season, the scene is appears to be little more than a company briefing between Michael and his parents, an exchange in which he declares that he is out of the business, and out of the family, for good. As each episode continues to build upon the one previous to it, the scope of that scene literally widens, however, the camera angles shifting to reveal that more and more characters are present when this event take place. Lindsay and Tobias have announced they are giving their marriage another try. GOB declares that he will be marrying Plant… I mean, Mouth… I mean Egg… I mean, Ann. Buster is workshopping his testimony for the trial. Maeby is looking on ignored. And significantly revealed last is George Michael – for whom, ultimately, the whole gathering is taking place. Because, as the banner above the door reveals (‘Look at banner, Michael!’), this is a farewell party for George Michael on the eve of his moving to college.
We therefore come to see that in the midst of this fractured series, this is chronologically the last time that this family have gathered together, and they are there to celebrate the boy who originally brought them together at the beginning of the first season – the young man who was the reason that Michael decided to stick around when his father’s business had dissolved into a legal quagmire. George Michael has grown into a young, aspiring man, and (despite the fact that everyone eventually starts thoughtlessly singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to him by mistake) they are there to celebrate whatever future lies before him.
And so, Michael’s once clichéd storm out – declaring that he has had enough of his family’s selfishness; that he is leaving them all behind and taking his son with him – suddenly takes on a whole new and disheartening dimension. Because for once his exit is in fact successful. The family does indeed implode, causing far more damage than he had foreseen. As part of his selfish exit, Michael forces George Michael to tear up a gift just given to him by his grandparents, a gift of money that would have set him up to pursue his studies on his own terms.
Although Michael has always considered himself the most altruistic of the Bluth clan, in truth he has always skirted the edge of the rational himself. Seemingly the uber-straight man to the panoply of madness around him, he is actually just self-deluded enough to believe that he is the only normal one in a family of spoiled egomaniacs. In reality, he reveals himself to be just as self-involved as any of them, blind to the smothering relationship he has cultivated with his son. For all his indignation and pomposity, Michael too has his head buried in the sand, his pride preventing him from appreciating the line that he has crossed in imposing his own issues upon his son’s life. Consequentially, the tearing of that cheque symbolically echoes throughout the remainder of the season.
From that point on, although George Michael still tries to be the dutiful son, he finds his father’s presence and expectations a progressively choking imposition. He wants to go by a different name than ‘George Michael’, given the pop-culture baggage that it carries, but is guilted into relenting. Having stretched his wings in Spain he tries to reinvent himself at college as a young, sexually confident man, but ends up finding his father crashing on his top bunk, passive-aggressively convincing him to shave off his new moustache, and literally not willing to give him any space. And most damaging of all, he tries to outgrow his childhood crush by dating someone else, only to find that his father has actively tried to steal this new girlfriend for himself.
This season ultimately proves to be about severing the final, previously most stable bond that this family has managed, in spite of itself, to maintain. In the end, in his selfish efforts to divorce himself from his own family, Michael has managed to accidentally build the only successful wall amongst the many proposed but never brought to fruition this season: he has managed to drive a barrier between he and his son. After a season of Michael licking the wounds of being voted out of George Michael’s dorm room in the first episode – a course of events that he still hubristically wants to believe was due to everyone else misunderstanding the ‘plan’ – the revelation that Michael was knowingly pursuing Rebel Alley behind his son’s back leads to the real emotional and literal blow that stops this rollicking, spritely story in its tracks.
And so, as the final scene of the episode (not including the epilogue) hangs in the air, George Michael having punched his father in the face, and both men left standing staring at each other, one seething with betrayal, the other numb with shame, both shocked by the new distance between them, there really does seem to be a divide where once there was unity. Finally Michael and George Michael – like the audience itself – must acknowledge that this is a different world into which they have grown, and it is one that will require selflessness and trust if there is any hope to heal.
Love Each Other
Selectively blind to their own realities, the members of the Bluth family repeatedly miss the most important advice that the universe tries to impart to them. Through broken walls, the preponderance of missed avian counsel, the inevitable, spectacular collapse of each of their selfish pursuits, there is a message that they keep overlooking, shouted at them from every conceivable angle, one that – like the proverbial ostriches, heads buried in the sand – they are unable to see. Written on the tags of dead doves, gasped by a dying mailman, seared across the back of a sacrilegious magic spectacular; mumbled out as rambling romantic advice from a lecherous uncle (who means it as an excuse for promiscuity) to his befuddled nephew (who re-interprets it as a call for integrity and respect):
‘Love each other.’
It’s a even offered as the very last piece of dialogue in the season, in what is chronologically the final moment to which everything else has built, in the earnest sign-off of television presenter John Beard, who wishes his audience well as he bids them goodbye:
‘This is John Beard. Remember: love each other.’
And despite the Bluth characters’ inability to cherish this instruction (even George Michael soon abandons his revelation by mistaking a threatening letter for an offer of enthusiastic lovemaking), it is here that we in the audience, with our metatextual perspective, can get the most out of the line.
Like the program Arrested Development itself, which swam in a kind of production vacuum until finding its voice again in its triumphant return on Netflix, newsreader John Beard is shown throughout this season similarly displaced. Popping up all over the media dial in a variety of formats – naff morning talk shows, airport cable news networks, Catch-a-Predator gotcha specials, gas station update reports (seemingly geared around ‘pump’ puns) – by season’s end he eventually finds his home on Ron Howard’s burgeoning and remarkably personalised (there is a reminder to go to the doctors in the newsfeed crawl at the bottom of the screen) news network. And it is from this new home, finally secure, that Beard stares out at us, through Howard’s television screen and though ours too, to offer his new mantra.
As has always been its style, when Arrested Development gets sincere, it does so in the most metatextual, subversive way possible – after all, this is the show that could go cornball while ‘cornballing’ it in the same second, that turns heartfelt hugs into an opportunity to ‘taste my tears’, to ‘taste the happy’ – and here, through Beard’s rote but heartfelt counsel, we have a statement as much to the fans as to the characters that keep missing its implications.
‘Love’ in the Arrested Development universe is bizarre. It can be competitive, blind, asexual, occasionally incestuous and frequently borderline polygamous, but it is deep, and it is messy, and it is real. For all of their fleeting fancies and fruitless passions, the Bluths do care for each other, and profoundly need each other; and over the span of these four seasons and across all of the madness of the past few years, when the Bluths could barely take care of themselves let alone nurture this bond of family, the show has been a series long meditation upon what exactly it does take to unite television’s most anarchic family.
Arrested Development began as a series about a group of marvellously oddball characters who (although oblivious to this truth) required each other to stay grounded. As such, the primary organising factor for their past adventures at first appeared to be Michael, ‘The one son who had no choice but to keep them all together.’ But in this season he too is clearly adrift – feeling alienated by his son and so desperate to reclaim the sense of control he has lost that he spends his subplot play-acting being a Hollywood producer and trying to gather the permission to remake a film fantasy about his past. At times it may have seemed to be Lucille, through whom the money and influence was ultimately said to be funnelled. She could certainly scheme and manipulate her loved ones into servitude, but as a consequence eventually pushed them all away.
From a more abstract viewpoint, as the show went on it revealed that the unnamed, faceless, but ever-so-earnest narrator was something of a tenth character amongst the bunch. The shaping of the narrative offered by Ron Howard’s detached voice – all-knowing, omnipresent, something of a proxy for writer/creator Hurwitz himself – was not just a structural crutch, he was actively trying to follow these now (seemingly) disparate plotlines and wrangle them into order, frequently undercutting and commenting upon the absurdity of these characters behaviour with a dry sincerity. He was essentially the text itself, an amalgam of the writers, directors and their fictional universe, looking in on this strange little family and trying to puzzle it out.
But as the show has progressed, his objectivity too has gradually been brought into question – from his irritability when faced with lesser examples of television narration (he declares the Scandalmakers guy’s work, ‘Real shoddy narrating. Just pure crap’), to his reluctance to attend Maeby’s sixteenth birthday after being invited (‘And a lot of us didn’t want to drive to Orange County’), to his spruiking the show for desperately needed ratings (‘Now that’s a clear situation with the promise of comedy. Tell your friends about this show.’) And now that Howard himself appears this season as a character within the narrative, a man with his own agenda and allegiances, the narrator seems compromised even further – from the way he proudly commends Rebel (apparently Howard’s illegitimate daughter) for knowing that the Wright brothers had a bicycle shop, to the way he lingers a little long on the Opie statue, noting that it must be an honour to have such an award named after you…
Instead the show is now saying that this family was held together by more than just these compromised individuals and their peculiar loves, bound in fact by something outside of the text itself. With this fourth season, there is suddenly a new, profoundly necessary character in the mix: we the audience. In its new viewing format Arrested Development literally requires the viewer to participate in connecting the pieces together, asking that we have the devotion and trust, throughout these unfolding episodes to make connections, to see patterns, to draw this family together – often even in spite of themselves – winding each story back into the whole that they have naively abandoned.
And so, in splintering this family apart, following their dissolve and lonely explorations of self, Hurwitz wrote a broad, interlocking, demented love note to the fans of the show, and the faith they showed in believing and hoping and begging for it to be granted more time. By blowing open the way in which this show is now consumed, by adapting the very narrative itself so that the viewer literally has control over how this asynchronous story is absorbed, Arrested Development reveals that it was ultimately the fans, the viewers, those who dared to believe that this family could be brought back from oblivion, who kept the love for this show alive, even when its prospects looked most bleak – even, it seems, when the characters themselves had given up hope.
Where last season the show concluded on a state of freedom and abandon, this season ends with a desperate yearning for reconnection. Torn apart, but narratively stitched back together through the affection of its fans and creators, the Bluths, and Arrested Development itself, hang suspended in a moment of disrepair, the beating heart of their sorrow exposed, but yearning always to reconnect. As the strains of Lucy Schwartz’ track, ‘Boomerang’ assert over the closing credits,
Heartbroken and frustrated
Hard to get around without your love.
It is a fitting note on which to end, a summation of the emotion fans felt when the show was first cancelled, and a resonant message for the characters within this narcissistic little menagerie, who will now have to shake off their self-involvement (at least temporarily) to gather back the unity they have lost.
To love each other – so that perhaps they can finally learn to love themselves.