Few shows are as sharp about stupidity as “Arrested Development.” A whip-smart cult favorite, “Arrested Development” is in equal parts a satire and a time capsule of the wealthy white elite of the 2000s. The series centers on the Bluths, an Orange County real estate dynasty freshly fallen from relative glory after its patriarch George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) is arrested for theft and fraud. Middle son Michael (Jason Bateman) serves as the straight man of the bombastic family, which, despite losing most of its assets, still insists on a lifestyle of opulence.
At face value, the show seems unrelatable at best and insidiously depressing at worst. “Arrested Development” revels in its protagonists’ flaws, especially their upper crust ignorance. The vast majority of these characters are unsympathetic and highly problematic; the Bluths were written as one-to-one caricatures of the Bushes, and more than a few fans have noticed uncanny parallels with more recent White House dwellers.
So what gave “Arrested Development” its critical success and left-leaning cult following? This is where the show’s humor — in turns loftily subtle and openly absurd — comes in. “Arrested Development” deals in cringe humor. The way it sketches out the Bluths’ elitism, from matriarch Lucille’s (Jessica Walter) blatant racism to Michael’s paternalistic savior complex, is extraordinarily true to life, even (and especially) now. Throw in Ron Howard’s sardonic voice-over narration, and you have gold-standard satire.
Some of the decade-old jokes barely coast — especially those dealing with race, sexuality, and gender expression — but they get by on the pure ridiculousness of their vehicles. We are so clearly meant to disdain the Bluths that the script never even comes close to condoning their behavior. It’s a canny tightrope-walk of humor, but one that was pulled off beautifully for three madcap seasons and merely competently for a tired fourth.
In some ways, a present so marred by corruption would be perfect for such a smart lampoon — what fans didn’t bank on was that the same ridiculousness that the show’s cast so perfectly affected would seep out into the actors’ real lives. And yet, in the time running up to the just-released fifth season, that’s exactly what happened.
A satire is cheapened by hypocrisy; it’s a lot harder to laugh at George Sr.’s serial philandering and casual sexism in light of recent sexual harassment allegations against Tambor that led to his dismissal from Amazon’s critically acclaimed “Transparent.” “Arrested Development” creator Mitch Hurwitz came to Tambor’s defense, however, saying that he and the cast of “Arrested Development” had no reason to similarly remove him; he even endorsed Tambor in an interview with Entertainment Weekly. Then The Hollywood Reporter put out a moderately sympathetic profile of Tambor, detailing his work on various shows, the allegations against him and his self-confessed anger issues. Things seemed more or less smoothed over.
Then came a ghastly cast interview with The New York Times last week. Tambor himself was present, along with Bateman, Walter, Tony Hale, Will Arnett, David Cross, and Alia Shawkat. The allegations against Tambor, of course, surfaced again, particularly his anger issues.
The interviewer brought up a specific outburst he had during the filming of “Arrested Development” that was directed toward Walter. The dynamic shifted uncomfortably; everyone was supportive, but the support was mostly offered to Tambor — even when Walter was in tears. Arnett deflected, saying the entire cast had abused each other in good nature (alluding to an instance in which he keyed Bateman’s car). Cross remarked that the outburst “didn’t just come out of the blue.” Hale reassured that “we’ve all had moments.”
Most egregiously, Bateman, after repeatedly asserting that he didn’t wish to belittle Walter’s experience, said that this kind of behavior comes up often in the high-tension environments of filming — even when she had emphasized that she had never before been verbally abused like that throughout her half-century career.
Not only did Bateman dismiss Walter’s own pain, but he even condescendingly described to her an industry she had been a part of since before he was born. Only Shawkat, the youngest cast member present by far and the only other woman, argued in Walter’s favor that regardless of precedent, Tambor’s behavior was unacceptable.
The moment in the interview then seemed to blow over — Walter, still in tears, assured Tambor that she would forgive him and put his outburst aside. Bateman issued a lengthy apology via Twitter soon after. The new season came out, and many are still willing to momentarily suspend their discomfort and binge it.
However, if there’s one thing “Arrested Development” has taught us, it’s to never sweep something under the rug regardless of how outlandish it seems. The dismissive attitudes of the male cast members at the New York Times interview were inappropriate and remarkably off-putting; their apologies don’t make the things they did and said normal or acceptable.
However humorous “Arrested Development” may be, the humor is founded on the fact that the cast is representing characters. When the behavior of the Bluths carries over into the actors’ personal lives, the show suffers. The response to Walter’s breakdown by the other men of “Arrested Development” is just another layer of absurdity; the only difference is that this one is real and not funny.
Sahana Rangarajan covers TV. Contact her at [email protected].