Bees and Birds and Bluths, Oh My...: 'Arrested Development' Season 4
Torn apart, but narratively stitched back together through the affection of its fans and creators, the Bluths and Arrested Development hang suspended in a moment of disrepair, the beating heart of their sorrow exposed, but yearning always to reconnect.
Sick B Colony
In 2006, freshly cancelled by the Fox television network, season three of Arrested Development ended on a note of dispersal. With the series-long unifying through-line of father George Bluth Sr.'s criminal trial for 'light' treason finally resolved, the revelation that daughter Lindsay was adopted, cousin Maeby no longer biologically related, and mother Lucille running from the feds by trying to sail a theme restaurant into international waters, son Michael Bluth finally decided to let his family take care of themselves for once, dislodging he and his son from the self-imposed burden of shepherding this narcissistic flock into order. The show seemingly let the ties that held this universe together go slack.
After three years of being bound together through mutual obligation, these final moments were about freedom; ironically, for a show overburdened with self-involved characters, it was about Michael allowing himself to be selfish for once, finally deciding to put his and his son's own happiness above everyone else's. (But since it was still Arrested Development – a show that always stirs the sour into the sweet – there was perhaps a bit of cowardly running away in the mix, too.) It literally ended (not counting the epilogue) with an image of the protagonist and his son riding into the sunset, limitless possibility ahead of them.
Over the intervening years, just as its name ironically implied, Arrested Development hung in a kind of suspended animation, waiting to be reborn as a new series on HBO or Showtime (both metatextually referenced in the Hail Mary 'Save Our Bluths' episode), or as a feature film (signalled in the series epilogue, in which Ron Howard, upon hearing the pitch for the show, observes that he cannot picture it on television, 'But maybe a movie...') Its writers, directors and actors – all highly sought after – moved on to other projects, and the dream became progressively less likely. Nonetheless, in a fervent, almost irrational passion worthy of the Bluth's themselves, the show's creators and their still-growing fan-base remained committed to the cause of bringing this family back together, continuing to keep hope alive.
And then, in May of this year, rising impossibly from the ashes like a phoenix (once again, self-referentially acknowledged in the title of its first new episode, 'Flight of the Phoenix'), Arrested Development did indeed finally return. Specifically developed for and screened upon the burgeoning content platform of Netflix as a simultaneous, 15 episode release, the once-thought-impossible fourth season began with Ron Howard's unnamed, omniscient narrator casually clearing his throat:
'It was May –'
'It was May 4th...'
It was a playful nod to the relative silence that he, these characters, and the audience that awaits them have had to endure for the several years, and it proved to be symbolic of the relative ease with which this communication between text and audience could be resumed – indeed, arguably enhanced – by the time apart.
Because rather than simply returning to pick up exactly where it last left off, Arrested Development chose to transform itself into something greater. For a show that was once justifiably beloved for never taking its viewers for granted – celebrated for constantly embedding layers of subtle call-backs, searing social satire, and deep foreshadowing amidst the all the frivolity; that had already proved it could mix Dadaesque absurdism into the collision of some identifiably human (if exaggerated) characters; that had consistently managed to deflate the saccharine with snark; flipped and back-flipped narrative convention and made it look effortless – Arrested Development once again proved its capacity to reshape the very fabric of comedy, to challenge what the television medium itself can ultimately achieve, and to offer what is perhaps the most transformative and culturally reflective work of literature for the 21st century.
When fans explored this resurgent new season, what awaited them proved to be one of the most audacious, revolutionary, and compoundingly hilarious evolutions in episodic storytelling ever conceived. Instead of the lightning-paced episodes that had defined its first three years, in which nine characters constantly vied for screen time, all circling Michael's ringleader straight-man, this season chose to respect the sense of familial drift with which the previous season had concluded, and concerned itself with following each of these figures individually, every episode tracking one character through a personal journey as they try (and most often fail) to satisfy some longing within themself.
By tackling this multiform narrative, choosing to recount the period of time between this family's disbandment and the eventful night of Cinco de Cuatro through multiple viewpoints, the show devised a form of asynchronous, organically overlapping storytelling heretofore unseen in television. Evoking the experimental narrative shifts in Woolf's Mrs Dalloway, the contextual point-of-view revisionism of Faulkner's As I Lay Dying, and the tonal and referential density of Joyce's Ulysses, Arrested Development utilised its nine characters and 15 episodes to remake the conventional form of storytelling, tying this dislocation and cultural diffusion into the very fabric of its theme and narrative.
The show thus developed even more elaborate interlocking plotlines, with each of these character's apparently individual storylines proving to feed directly into one other, their actions impacting upon each other's experiences in myriad, imperceptible ways. With each return to an already viewed scene, the show expanded the ramifications of these events with new context, the comedy compounding exponentially, the narrative becoming endlessly more than the sum of its composite parts.
And alongside these larger, intricately woven plot threads, the new season also employed several adaptive metaphors that likewise operate across multiple character arcs. This poetic colour acts as more subconscious imagistic connective tissue, dynamically refracting from episode to episode when placed into the wider context that only the organising principle of the narrator – and eventually the viewing audience – can offer, able to reason out the implications of these bonds.
Perhaps the most expansive systemic analogy utilised this season is triggered in the episodes 'Double Crossers' and 'Colony Collapse', in which Lucille goes to 'Plan B', ordering son GOB to meet his father in the desert to help with their border wall project. Instead of providing assistance, however, 'gentleman honey farmer' GOB accidentally unleashes his newly invigorated colony of sick bees, consequentially tanking his father's Sweat and Squeeze fundraising scam in a flurry of stings and screaming.
Soon it becomes clear why the letter B is so ubiquitous throughout this season. From George Sr. becoming a phony guru called 'Father B', to Michael calling himself 'Michael B' while assembling his 'B-Team' movie production staff. From Baby B. Buster, to GOB awakening after his new excursion into B-level Hollywood celebrity to find a message on his mirror that reads, 'Hey Joe Withabee'; and most revealingly, Lucille becoming known by the prison moniker 'The B Word', or 'Queen B'.
They are Bees – literal Bs – and with their Queen B out of action, and their communal bond dissipated, the Bluths do indeed fall apart. And so, as George Sr. stands amidst the chaos of 'Plan B' wearing a beekeepers hat and blouse, hearing GOB describe the symptoms of CCD, it is clear that this is a diagnosis that the Bluth family itself shares. George Sr.'s wall-building scheme swiftly falls apart and must be bribed undone; GOB's marriage into the Veals and revenge scheme on Tony Wonder each go spectacularly awry; Buster tries to replace his mother with a terrifying home-made mannequin and a stint in the armed forces that proves he can make even a desk job personally hazardous; Michael's career as a movie producer dissolves into a flurry of judgemental tantrums, petulantly tearing up the releases that he requires and kicking everyone else off the project; Tobias' continued attempt to pursue his delusion of stardom leads him to cling to a piece of discarded Hollywood debris – a woman actually called DeBris – who he eventually leaves collapsed in a pile of garbage, while his theatrical copyright infringement proves to be chum in the water for circling lawyers; Lindsay's attempt to reconnect with her inner, protesting liberal ends with her becoming a waspy conservative career politician; and Maeby's search for validation from her parents leaves her adrift in a cycle of perpetual non-graduation, her natural talents of producing directed toward spruiking a product that ultimately does not exist.
Having spent three seasons growing closer together in a kind of dysfunctional but loving interdependence, the past several years are revealed to have splintered them apart again, a theme played out in the very structure of this season and its isolated character vignettes. Gone their separate ways, often only unknowingly intruding upon each other's lives, they are a family without cohesion and purpose – drifting, no longer able to validate themselves or each other as they journey on alone. Just like GOB's sickly hive, the Bluth Bs suffer their own Colony Collapse Disorder, their cross-pollinating storylines ironically failing to germinate anything productive.
'I'll Put Up A Wall'
Just as the Bluth family were originally symbolic of the dissatisfaction lurking at the heart of the American dream – a family of entitlement, rocked by flagrant corporate embezzlement, forced to renegotiate their hollow narcissism and excess (although almost never successfully) – in this latest season they continue to reflect contemporary culture. Consequentially, the narrative is loaded with references to the modern political and social climate, offering the most comprehensive and dense satire of the early twenty first century yet conceived.
Since the Bluths disappeared from television screens the subprime mortgage crisis has erupted, almost collapsing western civilisation into a new depression, the casual application of drone warfare and the revelations that spooled out of WikiLeaks have darkened US international relations, political discourse has degraded into partisan hysteria and fear-mongering sound bites, celebrity culture and the rise of social media have mutated our conceptions of privacy, and systematised social inequity has given rise to rallying cries like the Occupy movement. If anything, familial and social bonds have become only more diffuse and contradictory in the intervening years, and Arrested Development loads these issues into the framework of its tale, allowing each of its characters to exhibit aspects of this social dissemination.
Buster becomes a drone pilot for the Army, mistaking the brutality he is inflicting for the detachment of a videogame. Tobias and Lindsay purchase a palatial estate on the cusp of the housing industry's collapse, literally losing one another amongst its needless, empty square-footage. We see members of Anonymous lurking in the shadows, trying to threaten George Michael (Mr. Maharis) away from his goal of creating the world's best wood block musical app. A right-wing Herman Cain substitute (Herbert Love), like his real-life counterpart, runs on a family values platform while secretly engaging in an extramarital affair, and spouts endless, hackneyed Tea Party slogans, demonising government corruption while negotiating his own lobbyist bribes. And in a culture where demonising illegal immigration through the language of 'invasion' and 'otherness' runs rife, the hot-button issue of building a wall on the Mexican border threads through all of their tales, utilising this impulse for isolationist 'protection' as emblematic of the culture at large.
And in one of the most revelatory cross-purpose conversations ever orchestrated, when Tobias' is eliciting Lucille to join his doomed Fantastic Four knock-off, he leads her to the realisation that she feels like an 'invisible woman', creating 'force field' walls to protect herself from harm. Indeed, it is in her audition for the part of Lucia – singing a song she wrote herself – that Lucille exposes this fear and desire for withdrawal most acutely:
'My children despise me, my husband defies me,
It doesn't surprise me, to hell with them all.
I'll put up a wall.
You think I'm a villain, a villain I'll be
My heart is in pain, I just want to flee,
This is a family that has been emotionally broken, and while the anarchic exploits that spool from this sense of loss and abandon are hilarious, there is a sombre truth to hearing 'The Sound of Silence' play as GOB loses himself down a bout of self-loathing reverie, or watching Buster stammer through juice-stained lips as he realises that the security blanket of his mother is being torn from him. And there is most certainly a shockingly revelatory bite to hearing Lucille, the family's matriarchal centre, their Queen B, who has famously ignored self-assessment throughout her life ('If that's a veiled criticism about me, I won't hear it and I won't respond to it') finally exposing her self-loathing, and a desire to wall herself away from sorrow.
The great irony of these attempts to isolate themselves, however, is that despite their boasts for autonomy, this family proves incapable of escaping each other’s influence, their storylines bouncing off each other unknowingly as a product of their inexorable gravitational pull. Glitter-bombs are stymied, bags are switched, dead doves turn up in freezers, cheques and beehive-shaped caves and red wigs and the brotherhood of Andy Richter, all float between these tales, repeatedly thwarting their plans – literally breaking down walls – as the tale unfolds. Although they appear to be alone, although they seek to isolate themselves utterly, as the season progressively reiterates, the one thing that can break down these fearful barriers is family.