In the final episode of Seinfeld, the four principals are put on trial, ostensibly for failing to aid a carjacking victim but really for a collective adulthood spent in selfish disregard for everyone around them. Witness after witness — the Soup Nazi, the Virgin, the Low Talker, the lady Jerry mugged for her marble rye — come forward to testify against Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer, weaving a tapestry of callousness, self-absorption, and downright sociopathy. In that finale, the show about nothing was revealed to be about a very existential something, the Great Inward Turning of the American psyche that began with the “Me Decade” of the 1970s and coalesced in the present day, at least as expressed in sitcom form.
Gone are the touchy-feely sitcoms that were once the staple of primetime. The Cleavers, Bradys, Huxtables, and Keatons are relegated to the TV Land network and the wheezing rhetoric of conservative politicians. In their place are the Simpsons, the Bundys, and Malcolm’s family, all competing desires and internecine sabotage. Also vanished are the signifiers of the requisite unsympathetic characters, the buffoons — namely, ego, and narcissism.
Now the narcissists are heroes and, amazingly, they run in packs. The most popular sitcoms of the past few years have been all about incredibly self-absorbed people in their never-ending quest to get theirs. The funny sociopaths of Seinfeld, the interminable Ross-and-Rachel saga of Friends, the endless how-does-my-ass-look byplay of Will & Grace, the uptown egomaniac banter of Sex and the City.
And finally, Arrested Development, which, in the grand tradition of Fox, chronicles the lives of a family without a likeable soul in it. Unlike the rest of the TV spectrum, however, this show recognizes a bad thing when it presents it and, to paraphrase C. Montgomery Burns, wallows in its own crapulence. Wall to wall, the show is Bad Behavior writ large, and it is the most consistently funny half-hour to grace the Idiot Box in a long time.
As narrated by the soothing, folksy voice of Ron Howard, this is the story of the Bluth family, whose patriarch, real-estate developer George Bluth Sr. (the perpetually excellent Jeffrey Tambor), is sent to prison for fraud and embezzlement (a scenario for a post-Enron era; 20 years ago, Bluth would have been married to Linda Evans and free as a bird). Their assets frozen by the government, the rest of the family, most of whom have lived in flaky indolence their entire lives, find themselves suddenly penniless and adrift, and at the worst possible time.
Eldest brother George Oscar Bluth II (Will Arnett) — called by the acronym “Gob,” pronounced like the Biblical Job — has been blackballed from the stage magicians’ union. Sister Lindsey (Portia de Rossi) has moved her family back home after her psychiatrist husband Tobias (David Cross) loses his license and decides to become an actor despite his utter lack of talent. Youngest brother Buster (Tony Hale) is a professional grad student with no job skills and a battery of anxiety disorders. And Nancy Reaganesque mother Lucille (Jessica Walter) has no intention of giving up her society-matron lifestyle over as trifling a matter as having no cash to support it.
At the center is second son Michael (Jason Bateman), the only working member of the family, a widower who wants nothing more than to make a good life for his teenaged son George Michael (Michael Cera) and get the hell out of the nose-diving family business. Unfortunately, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is babysitter. Thus Arrested Development is the weekly saga of Michael’s Sisyphean labors to keep a pack of spendthrift hedonists from making their disastrous situation worse.
On a larger scale, the show does what Fox sitcoms do best. By showing us a thoroughly unlikeable family forced to overcome adversity of its own making, it reinforces the idea of family-unity-as-saving-grace in a way that Bill Cosby can only dream about. Aside from the running theme that one endures the worst of one’s family because they’re the only family one has (a point creator Mitchell Hurwitz brings up repeatedly in the DVD set’s behind-the-scenes features), there are numerous skewed scenarios where the Bluths redeem themselves even while acting badly.
Michael falls for Gob’s Spanish-language soap-opera-star girlfriend but doesn’t know that she reciprocates his feelings until after Michael and Gob have united in a quest to kick the shit out of this guy Hermano that she’s fallen in love with — by the time they realize that “hermano” means “brother,” the boys have lost the girl but bonded with each other. Buster’s girlfriend Lucille (Liza Minelli, playing Lucille Bluth’s best friend and Oedipal hayride for Buster) is sick from the medicine for her perpetual vertigo, so he tries to get George Michael to score some pot to help her. Clueless as to how one does that, the boy turns to Uncle Gob, who turns to Michael, who attempts one of the vividly terrifying (on the level of Grand Guignol) scared-straight ploys George Sr. used on them as children to keep George Michael off drugs. It ends with a shootout and a severed arm, and once again, the family comes together. Not to worry: the bonding moments slide off the Bluths like grease on Teflon.
Much has been made in the press of Bateman’s remarkable transition from teenaged pinup star of several bad ’80s family sitcoms to nuanced adult actor able to anchor a pitch-black comedy. But as good as Bateman is, the most consistently fascinating performance on the show is Will Arnett’s. If the rest of the family are Fitzgerald’s rich who are different from you and me, Gob is an animal from Flannery O’Connor by way of Hunter S. Thompson. Impatient, angry, and always plotting, he has an ever feral grin and glint in his eye. He rats out George Michael to his father about the dope, then procures it anyway and smokes up half of it. Determined to prove his skills as a magician, he has himself thrown into prison with his father, but finds he can’t eliminate the key he swallowed with somebody watching, so he attempts to go over the wall, taking several taser jolts and a shiv to the kidney.
The DVD set has a few of the usual bells-and-whistles, a “making of” featurette and a live interview with the cast at the Museum of Television and Radio which yields Jason Bateman’s glib summary of the show: “It’s The Royal Tenenbaums filmed like Cops.” The best feature is the audio commentary over selected episodes, not particularly revelatory, but featuring the entire cast, all sounding like they enjoy working with each other. What’s more, the commentaries were recorded after the show received seven Emmy nominations but before they won five, and all concerned laugh at the very idea that their little exercise in twisted humor might actually win. It’s a great moment, full of warmth and camaraderie. And completely free of ego.