Arrested Development (Fox, Sundays at 9:30 p.m.) is a quirky, clever and occasionally funny mockumentary-style sitcom which I haven’t quite managed to make myself feel enthusiastic about, though it’s obviously far brainier than most of what’s on TV. In a way, it reminds me of one of those satirical Gore Vidal novels like Duluth, which are laff riots so long as you enjoy studying people as if they were bugs under glass.
The story, in case you haven’t tuned in yet, concerns the Bluths, a rich, wacky and — surprise — dysfunctional Orange County clan whose father (the irrepressible Jeffrey Tambor), a corrupt and massively self-absorbed real-estate mogul, is in jail for Enron-style fraud. The acting CEO is now his wife, Lucille (Jessica Walter), an imperious and manipulative socialite with an ice cube for a heart, while the second-oldest son, Michael (Jason Bateman), who’s a widower, does all the work of keeping the family together as an emotional and economic unit. His older brother, GOB (pronounced “jobe”), a rage-filled, third-rate magician, is of no help; nor is his sister Lindsay, a blond clothes horse who occasionally takes up a fashionable cause like cleaning up the wetlands, until she realizes it can’t be done in high heels.
The above is enough to tell you that this isn’t the usual sitcom, but there’s more. Lindsay’s sexually ambiguous husband, a disbarred psychiatrist by the name of Dr. Tobias Funke, is pursuing a career as an actor — he pronounces it “ac-TOR” — and has a fetish about never taking off his shorts. A self-described “never-nude,” he hopes to elevate his predilection into a nationally recognized condition, like cross-dressing or being gay. Another sexually ambiguous character is Buster, the youngest of the three Bluth brothers, who’s still living with mother Lucille, though he does briefly date Lucille’s friend Lucille (played gamely by Liza Minnelli) who’s at least his equal in neurosis. Then there are the two children: Michael’s 14-year-old son, George Michael — always ponderously referred to as “George Michael” — and Lindsay’s daughter, Maeby, who’s around the same age. They’re both relatively normal, if puzzled, bystanders on the parental road of life.
We’re certainly supposed to laugh at these characters, but whether we should also like them, or grow fond of them, is another matter. My first instinct — one that hasn’t entirely disappeared — was to feel sorry for them and change the channel. As played by David Cross, Dr. Funke is at least as creepy as he is amusing, and occasionally suggests a borderline child molester, while Buster the effeminate mama’s boy (Tony Hale) looks as if he was molested and secretly wants to be again. In one episode, he lends Michael his car keys and then says, “Wait, I need my rape whistle back,” and takes it off the chain. After Michael leaves the room he blows on it tentatively and giggles.
There’s plenty of pain in Arrested Development, if you strip away the comedy. Michael is a dutiful son and model father, but otherwise the show is about parents who are either cold and distant or cold and manipulative — take your pick — and children who have grown used to being ignored. GOB, the hapless magician, is in a permanent fever of rage at his father’s lack of affection, while Maeby’s parents, Lindsay and Dr. Funke, are so caught up in their own lack of activity that they sometimes forget they have a daughter at all.
Where the show is at its best is in the superb acting and its sly, brilliantly detailed digs at upper-crust Southern California life. The silent Mexican maid, for example, wearing a sweatshirt that says “BOO!” Or the episode in which a publicist, hired to upgrade the Bluths’ public image, abruptly reverses course and tries to destroy them when Michael resists her advances. But for the most part, the satire feels like it’s taking place in a bubble. In part, this is a function of producer Ron Howard’s voice-over narration, which tells the story of this fractured, backstabbing 21st-century family in the dulcet tones of a man relating an Ozzie and Harriet fairy tale circa 1950. Because of this distancing device, Arrested Development can seem like a satire wrapped in a parody wrapped in a sitcom.
In the episode in which the publicist gives the Bluths a media makeover, the family gathers to listen to her in the living room. Joining them on the television screen by live video hookup is Tambor’s Bluth Sr., oblivious as ever, who’s conducting a Torah class in jail. Because his voice keeps breaking up over the phone line, nobody can understand what he’s saying, but then nobody’s listening to him anyway. The publicist, a conniving, junior-league femme fatale, tells the Bluths that they’re all (except for Michael) hopeless parasites and failures who need to get a life, or at least a job.
In the midst of all this we occasionally cut to Bluth Sr., pictured on the family television screen in a bright orange jailbird jump suit. “Sorry,” he breaks in at one point, “some of my students were arguing the significance of the shank bone on the Seder plate.” Then he interrupts himself to remonstrate with one of his “students” offscreen. “We do not, DO NOT, wag our genitals at one another to make a point!”
Whatever else it’s doing, Arrested Development is giving Americans some
novel things to consider while they sit on their couches.