2011 was a momentous years for fans of Arrested Development, an American TV comedy series with a small but devoted following. First, the series, which was cancelled by Rupert Murdoch’s Fox empire in 2006, was resurrected by Netflix, the DVD rental and online media streaming company that is now expanding into original programming (the triumph of new media!). New “Arrested Development” episodes are in the works, along with the long-rumored movie. Second, the year saw the “end” of the Iraq War, a conflict that provided fodder for some of Arrested Development’s sharpest satire.
A couple of explanations before I proceed. Yes, I know this is already the February issue of Kindle, and that the magazine already published a 2011 retrospective. But this is the first column I am actually writing in 2012, and it seems as good a time as any to look back at the past year through the absurdist lens of one of my favorite TV shows.
“A chief inspiration for the show was the Enron scandal, one of the biggest cases of U.S. corporate corruption to date. Throughout its three seasons, the show skewers corporate greed, the materialistic lifestyle it supports and the collusion of big business in the wars waged by neo-liberal states.”
Also, yes, I have devoted this column to Indian pop culture, so the celebration of an American series is a bit off-topic. But I’ve just returned from a trip home to the United States, and a high dosage of Arrested Development has become a standard part of my Christmas-time, reverse- culture-shock therapy. Plus, the themes of the show – the epic corruption of real estate developers, the quirks and feuds of an extended family living together – should not be so foreign to Indian viewers (although mismanaged military campaigns seem to be a particular specialty of the US). And if I can introduce this intricately layered, endlessly rewarding comic farce to new viewers, I will consider my mission as pop culture raconteur accomplished. Ahem. With that throat-clearing aside, I can turn my attention to the show itself. (SPOILER ALERT: some significant plot details follow, though I’ve tried my best to circumvent them.) Arrested Development follows the (mis)fortunes of the Bluth family, whose real estate development company is in big trouble for embezzlement, fraud, and – possibly – “light treason.” Critical commentary on the show often focuses on its dense web of references, with jokes building on tag-lines from previous episodes, and multiple allusions to other shows and Hollywood culture. But all this post-modern intertextuality is used in the service of a much older genre, political satire. A chief inspiration for the show was the Enron scandal, one of the biggest cases of U.S. corporate corruption to date. Throughout its three seasons, the show skewers corporate greed, the materialistic lifestyle it supports and the collusion of big business in the wars waged by neo-liberal states.
One of the funniest running jokes in a show filled with running jokes is the flimsiness and fakeness of the model home in which the Bluth family lives. The mini-mansion is supposed to be a marketing gimmick, encouraging buyers to purchase similar houses, and is not intended for actual use. The Bluths, though, have made it into their real home as they try to rebuild their family and their company. Wall hangings crash to the ground if there is the slightest disturbance; refrigerators fall into holes in the wall; windows break with little provocation; and – in the later episodes – the living room develops a sink hole. The home is filled with fake furniture and products made by the company, Homefill, which apparently specialized in model home paraphernalia like fake fruit. As the show unfolds, it becomes clear that the Bluth home is a metaphor for the criminal negligence and crony capitalism that underlay the reconstruction efforts in Iraq. The Bluth family, like the Bush administration, creates photo ops with gloating, overly-optimistic banners to create the façade of success and disguise the crumbling situation off stage. Making the connection even more direct, it is eventually revealed that George Bluth, the patriarch of the family, (spoiler!) had built mini-mansions in Iraq on the same design as the model home. It also turns out the Homefill has made fake weapons of mass destruction, although their political purpose is not exactly what you think it might be.
In the second-to-last episode of the series, G.O.B., Buster and Michael Bluth (all sons of patriarch George) end up in Iraq. While the Bluth boys are traveling around the country, their American taxi driver tells them that “the Cheney Expressway was backed up all the way to Halliburton Drive,” a reference to the then-Vice President Dick Cheney, whose former company, Halliburton had been given lucrative contracts in Iraq. “Expressway” is a bit of irony; all the roads shown in the episode are unpaved, dusty messes. The boys visit one of the homes their father has built, and find it filled with Saddam Hussein impersonators; the theme of doubles and switched identities only adds to the sense that the war – like the Bluth company – is built on a web of deception. The name of the episode is “Exit Strategy,” a reference to the attempts by the architects of the war to cut their losses, put a good face on the debacle, and get out while they still can. Surely the writers of Arrested Development would have some pointed commentary about the recent “end” of the Iraq War, as U.S. troops at last withdrew from the country; perhaps we can look forward to this in the upcoming episodes and movie. Of course, U.S. involvement in Iraq (including corporate involvement) is far from over. Obama, of course, knows enough to avoid arrogant Bush- style photo ops (and to be fair, he was left to deal with a war he opposed in the first place), but the symbolic end of the war serves to create only the appearance of finality (and to remove Iraq even further from the American public consciousness). Image overtakes reality – how Bluth-like! As I head back to Delhi – no stranger to morally dubious real estate developers and corruption scandals, and, as the recent FDI decision shows, still enthralled by neo-liberal notions of development – I can’t help thinking that Arrested Development is an apt name for the state of the city.