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Postmodernism in Arrested Development

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An exploration of postmodernism through textual analysis of Arrested Development.

This essay will consider the postmodernism within the television programme Arrested Development through postmodern theories, postmodernist techiniques and textual analysis. Through historical context, genre conventions, intertextuality and continuity; the essay will investigate the use of pastiche in modern satire. As popular situation comedies fulfil the generic conventions of using multiple cameras, linear narratives, stand alone catchphrases and aspirational ideologies, the essay will deliberate whether post modernism is legitimate in television comedy.
"As Hollywood agents worry about the demise of the town's lowing cash cow, the multi-camera, staged sitcom, here to save the day is Arrested Development, a farce of such blazing wit and originality, that it must surely usher in a new era in comedy."
—Alison Powell, The Guardian (UK), March 12, 2005
Television situation comedy has always appealed to mass market audiences. From ‘The Brady Bunch’(1969 – 1974), which centred on a blended family, perhaps the best-known domestic comedy in US television history to ‘Cheers’(1982 – 1993), the show set in a bar in Boston. Sitcoms usually consist of recurring characters in a common environment such as a home or workplace. Sitcoms provide the audience with iconic moments in television history. The longitivity of this genre of programming allows the audiences to build up relationships with the characters, therefore becoming an active audience by engaging with Blumer and Katz (1974) uses and gratifications theory, as the familiarity allows the audience diversion, social interaction and provides personal identity. The characters also evoke, in the audience, a sense of empathy unlike any other type of television comedy as the viewer experiences the highs and lows of the characters allowing an emotional attachment to the text.
Arrested Development is an Emmy awarding American television programme aired between 2003 and 2006. The show is centred on the Bluths, a formerly wealthy, dysfunctional family. The show is presented in a pseudo-documentary, verite format, incorporating hand-held camera work, extra-diegtic narration, archival still photos, and historical footage. The show focuses on the tension that arises from their financial limitations. Each show contains a wide variety of themes that subvert the conventions of the generic, multi camera, staged sitcom. Sibling rivalries, oedipal conflicts, personal identity crises, adolescent ordeals, lying, guilt, manipulation, mutilation, social status anxiety and incest are all reoccurring themes, this therefore through the macro narrative can assume a niche audience as the show also asks questions about contextual American politics such as domestic and foreign policies. Much like other dysfunctional-family comedies aired on FOX television network, such as ‘Malcolm in the Middle’ and ‘The Simpsons’, Arrested Development, although subversive in camera techniques and scripts, promotes the ideological message of a family unit.
The plot of Arrested Development revolves around the members of the Bluth family. The central character is Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), who strives to do the right thing and keep his family together. The audience is therefore allowed a point of entry through this character as the materialistic, manipulative nature of his relatives draws sympathy and even empathy. Structuralism and Discourse Theory would argue that a central character is a ‘textual device, constructed’ and therefore a ‘character cannot be understood as an individual existing in his or her own right’, but rather in reference to textual and intertextual relations. Fiske suggests that Realism proposes ‘a character represents a real person’ and that ‘we, the viewers, then call upon our life experience of understanding real fill out these characteristics in our imagination so that we make the character into a “real” person whom we “know” and who has a “life” outside the text. Furthermore, Mulvey’s Male Gaze is applicable to the text as it has been mediated by the producer to show a male viewpoint. This therefore is implicit with the Dominant Ideological Framework of Patriarchy and Heterosexuality as Michael dates various stereotypically beautiful women throughout the show. Mulvey would suggest, ‘one look involves the spectator ‘in direct scopophilic contact with the female form’, while another enables identification with male performers who are in control of the action and the woman.’ Michael begins to date lawyer Maggie Lizer, she is a blind character but then the characters and audience realise she is not actually blind, and although this is included for humourous effect, it could be argued that this is a negative representation of disability.
His teenage son, George Michael (Michael Cera), has the same qualities as his father, but has a constant pressure to live up to his father's expectations. Michael's father George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) is the familial head. At times tyrannical, George Sr. goes to significant lengths to manipulate and control his family. This is again complicate with the Dominant Ideological Framework of Patriarchy however his wife, and Michael's mother, Lucille (Jessica Walter), is equally manipulative, materialistic, and hypercritical of every member of her family and a drunk. In particular, she has control over her youngest son Byron "Buster" Bluth (Tony Hale), who, as a result of his mother's dominance, is socially inept and prone to panic attacks. The character was seen by audiences as alienating which is referred to in the episode “Public Relations” where Buster is described by a character outside the family, which represents the viewer, as ‘odd and alienating.’ Michael's older brother is Gob (Will Arnett). His name is an acronym for George Oscar Bluth II, and although pronounced Jōb, as in the Biblical figure, it is often mispronounced as Gob by various characters throughout the show. Gob is an unsuccessful professional magician. He uses a Segway for transportation, and sometimes converses with others from it while stationary; this again connotes a religious element as if it were a pulpit. Gob is used by his father to undermine Michael; this creates the theme of sibling rivalry.
Michael's twin sister Lindsay Fünke (Portia de Rossi) is materialistic, desiring to be the centre of attention and attracted to various social causes. The audience can gather through the juxtaposition of her speech and behaviour that she enjoys being objectified, but also protests it. Feminists would argue her objectifications have led her to seek self esteem through objectification. She is married to Tobias Fünke (David Cross), a discredited psychiatrist, aspiring actor, and a "never-nude", which is actually what it sounds like, whose body language and speech has heavy connotations of homosexuality to which he seems oblivious and which are the centre of much of the comedy throughout the series, an example of this is when he successfully becomes the first analyst and therapist, the world’s first a-nalrapist. Their ignored daughter Mae "Maeby" Fünke (Alia Shawkat) is the complete opposite of her cousin George Michael. Maeby's chief motivation is to rebel this is conveyed to the audience though the media language of her incessant bad behaviour such as convincing the school she has a disabled twin called ‘Surely’ and allowing fundraising events.
Several other characters regularly appear in minor roles. George Sr.'s identical twin brother Oscar (Jeffrey Tambor) is an ex-hippie lusting after George's wife Lucille. The family's lawyer, Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler) is an incompetent sexual deviant, as he often states that he is going for ‘a scenic drive through the city of industry’, this contextual reference assumes the audience can anchor their own meaning about the connotations of such a trip. Carl Weathers plays a parodic version of himself as an unemployed, thrifty, stew-loving actor. A British mentally disabled female (Mr F) known only as Rita, Charlize Theron, makes appearances in the third season playing Michael's love interest, Michael and his family being completely unaware of her mental condition, which tells the audience much about the characters self obsession.
Despite the critical acclaim, Arrested Development never achieved commercial success in the ratings. Fox aired the final four episodes of the third season in a two-hour block series finale on February 10, 2006. According to the Nielson ratings, the second season averaged about six million viewers, while the third season averaged four million viewers. Frederic Jameson argues that postmodernism is a reaction to multi-national capitalism where we ‘have a culture of quotes – a blank parody’ meaning that everything can be parodied. Arrested Development is an example of this as it parodies its own commissioner FOX. For example to promote their re-commission of the animated series Family Guy, FOX announced that it would cut production of the second season at eighteen episodes – four episodes shorter than season one. Despite rumours of cancellation, FOX claimed that it was simply a procedural matter. The show's writers did, however, parody this in the episode "Sword of Destiny," which in the beginning of the episode, Michael is complaining because the Bluth Company's order to design and build 22 homes has been cut down to 18 homes, an obvious pastiche of FOX. Later in the episode, FOX is again parodied when a website, belonging to Magician Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller) is swamped with popup advertisement for Family Guy. Twentieth Century FOX as an institution is owned by NewsCorp, which in turn is owned by Rupert Murdoch. His other media outlets should therefore implore vertical integration however on the website [10th January 2009], a video of David Cross (Tobias) commenting on the shows commercial failings allude to poor marketing of the show by FOX on the second season DVD extras.
Arrested Development subverts the generic conventions of American live-action sitcoms. With very few exceptions, Arrested Development begins immediately with the title credits, rather than a cold open (which is more common for modern sitcoms such as Friends). Over a series of slides introducing the characters using archive photos, Ron Howard provides a narrative summary of the show's premise, "Now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together, it's Arrested Development." accompanied by the theme tune. The credits serve to immediately introduce the new viewer to many of the unique elements of the show: the documentary-style use of archive photos and footage, the importance of the soundtrack, and the presence of the narrator.
Much like a documentary, it often uses swipe shots that cut away abruptly from scenes in order to supplement the non-linear narrative with material such as security camera footage, Bluth family photographs, website screenshots, and archive films. The show does not implement a laughter track, this was a conscious decision by the shows creator Mitchell Hurwitz to allow for uninterrupted dialogue and permitting more time for plot development and jokes as a half hour slot translates into 22 minutes programming. An omniscient third-person narrator (producer Ron Howard) ties together the multiple plot lines running through each episode, and provides sarcastic commentary. Wordplay is abundant; many of the characters may misinterpret an ambiguous phrase with embarrassing or disastrous results, this compliments the Todorov narrative structure as misinterpretation creates the disequilibrium. Further postmodern television techiniques such as flashbacks are extensively used to show the Bluth family’s past therefore allowing the audience to relate to the characters. Butsch and Richard state that, ‘Domestic comedies remain a staple of series television, but, as with most television genres in an advanced evolutionary phase, the category has been expanded upon and complicated by its fusion with other generic elements.’ (1992:) The episode "S.O.B.s" is an ideal example of this as it makes numerous references to Arrested Development's attempts to remain on air as it includes intertextuality of a website created by fans of the show, George Sr, suggests a fundraising dinner party to raise the profile of the family, ‘a kind of save our Bluths type thing,’ the camera then freezes whilst the web address is present on screen. The episode also parodies typical television ratings ploys and hinted at the attempts of other networks to purchase the series from Fox, with reference to HBO network ‘Home Building Organisation’ and the dinner begins with the phrase ‘Showtime’ which is another reference to an American network. The episode also addresses the reasons for the show's failure in the ratings, such as complex non-linear storylines that can be hard to follow, characters were not sympathetic or relatable and obscure references that may not register with viewers. This can be seen through forums on International Movie Database, one such entry states, ‘I will start it off: in the third season episode (Notapusy)...a couple times in the episode a green "X" shows up over like 3 of the is clearly meant as a punchline, but I don't really know if its a pop culture reference or what...’ * austinswngr3 [30th January 2009]
The show is highly intertextual and reflexive, features commonly associated with postmodernism. Strinati argues that,
"Postmodernism tries to come to terms with and understand a media-saturated society. The mass media, for example, were once thought of as holding up a mirror to, and thereby reflecting, a wider social reality. Now that reality is only definable in terms of surface reflection of the mirror". (1992:)
Furthermore, the show subverts The Frankfurt School of thought as there is no distinction between high and low culture. For example, Arrested Development often alludes to the past work of its cast and crew through the restaging of familiar scenarios, such as Tony Hale's bit part in a Volkswagen commercial, and by casting elite persons, this is a postmodern technique as it celebrates deconstruction and boundary crossing. Guest stars appear from other critical acclaimed television comedies such as The Daily Show, Seinfeld, Scrubs, The Office, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Upright Citizens Brigade, The Simpsons and Saturday Night Live. The show's reflexiveness can be literal or subtle. In the episode "For British Eyes Only," Michael tells George Sr., who he believes is trying to convince him of a lie, "You're a regular Brad Garrett." This is in reference to the Emmy Awards that directly preceded the episode's original airing, where Garrett beat Jeffrey Tambor (George Sr.) for "Best Supporting Actor." The series has acknowledged its competition (Desperate Housewives), its struggle to go after an "idiot demographic" and commercial sponsor, there is a scene referring to Burger King and product placement: Tobias: "It's a wonderful restaurant!"Narrator: "It sure is!"
In another example Charlize Theron's character Rita is shown prior to her plastic surgery, which is a still photograph of her in her Oscar-winning Monster role (2003). In addition, narrator Ron Howard has made several references to his previous work on The Andy Griffith Show and Happy Days. A further postmodern technique can be seen as a 3D element is used in season 3, as this is boundary crossing it complies with postmodernism as it shows style over substance.
Arrested Development often plays with the continuity as the plot regularly features call-backs to previous episodes, for example; the character of Gob repeatedly use of the phrases "Come on!" and "I've made a huge mistake", his "chicken dance" is referenced in various episodes and other families also engage with this dance, and an infomercial for George Sr.'s infamous invention ‘The Cornballer’. The first season episode "Pier Pressure" has several flashbacks to George Sr. hiring J. Walter Weatherman, a man with a prosthetic arm, to teach his children “lessons” by staging elaborate scenes in which the man’s arm is pulled or cut off as a result of the children's misbehaviour. Arrested Development will often employ further post modern techniques in terms of "call-forwards", wherein plots or events will be foreshadowed in subtle ways. For example, many references are made to the loss of limbs, foreshadowing the loss of Buster's hand in the second season to a loose seal, which again is wordplay to his mothers name ‘Lucille’ and also connotes to the audience the complex issues surrounding their dysfunctional relationship. Before losing his hand, Buster retrieves his hand-shaped chair, which his mother had given to her maid Lupe. He then says, "I never thought I could miss a hand so much."
Arrested Development plays with controversial social and political issues. Writers have turned references to the Abu Ghraib prison scandal, the U.S. Army's recruiting crisis, inadequate supplies for US troops, the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, and George W. Bush's "Mission Accomplished" photo-op into jokes. Also George Sr. has been a parody of Saddam Hussein as George Michael discovers him living in a hole then inspects his grandfather using the same techniques used to examine Saddam Hussein. Furthermore, George Sr. appears in a photograph shaking Saddam Hussein’s hand, and George Sr shouts, ‘a photo like that can ruin your career’, Michael then states ‘not in every case,’ a photograph of then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld shaking hands in the same position as the Bluth photograph with Saddam Hussein in December 1983, during the Iran–Iraq War. In later years, this image was downplayed by Rumsfeld and highlighted by his opponents as relations with Hussein's regime deteriorated. There are also occasional references made to the USA Patriot Act introduced under the Bush administration in 2001, chiefly as an excuse for the prosecutors against the Bluths to act in underhanded and illegal ways. Arrested Development allows a pastiche of the Bush administration (2001-2008) and is therefore very contextual.
Marxism can be applied to Arrested Development as the text often satirises the decadence of American white collar criminals, as the family themselves are involved in illegal monetary activities, the iconography of an orange jumpsuit worn by George Sr. allows the audience to relate through contextual reference, for example Guantanamo Bay. Furthermore, a reference to a character imprisoned subverts conventions of a family friendly sitcom however the show portrays prison as a humourous and pleasant place for George Sr. The various criminal acts are often thwarted by the more relatable characters morals codes, using the passive hypodermic syringe model and in relation to Marxism, Ideological State Apparatus, audiences can be seen as being injecting with the ideological and hegemonic message of reward and punishment. This could also then apply to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (1954) as the show provides Safety needs as the security of morality is upheld by the shows producers.
Other social and political issues addressed in Arrested Development are religious protest campaigns, the Terri Schiavo case, controversy over public display of the Ten Commandments, and the restriction of protesters to "free speech zones". Other references to pop culture include "Girls with Low Self-Esteem" (a parody of Girls Gone Wild), "Boyfights" (a parody of Bumfights), Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11, fad diets and the internet phenomenon "Star Wars Kid". However the use of these contextual topics would be criticised by the Post-Structuralist Adorno. He argued,
‘There is a naive Lukacsian optimism involved in the belief that mass media is reflecting, expressing and articulating social reality.’ (1991:)
However, another Post-Structuralist, Radway provides an auto-critique of her own research as she suggests that the media is reflecting social reality,
‘our habitual practice of conducting bounded, regionalised investigations of singular text-audience circuits may be preventing us from investigating...the very articulations between discourses and practices we deem important.’ (1988:)
Texts such as Arrested Development, which include textual topics, are legitimate as the text provides social commentary on the political and social climate of modern day America. Arrested Development also implements various aspects of postmodernism for comic effect. The programmes use of pastiche and satire allow the audience an insight into the inner workings of American television and shows a new side to the dysfunctional family as the Bluths are subversive to the genre’s conventions. Therefore Arrested Development can have postmodernism applied to it as even theories that counteract postmodernists such as Structuralism and the Frankfurt School have acknowledged its existence. So it is through textual analysis and postmodern techiniques that Arrested Development succeeds in legitimising postmodernism in modern situation comedies.
"As oddball as Arrested is, it's also humane. A flawless cast — from Will Arnett's breathy, bombastic Gob to Jessica Walter's boozy Lucille — grounds it, aided by Ron Howard's affable narration. Of course, the center of sensibility is good son Michael (Jason Bateman) and his even better son, George Michael (Michael Cera). Bateman and Cera give the best reacts around — the former all weary exasperation, the latter adorably bunny-stunned. Together, they're the sweetest, awkwardest straight men on the smartest, most shockingly funny series on TV...which is likely cancelled, despite six Emmy wins. It's a perversion not even the Bluths deserve."
—Gillian Flynn, Entertainment Weekly, Best of 2005 Issue naming Arrested Development the best TV show of 2005
Word count 3375

Article in book
Adorno, Theodor. (1991) ‘The Culture Industry.’ Routledge, London.
Butsch, Richard. (December 1992) "Class and Gender in Four Decades of Television Situation Comedy: Plus ca Change...." in Critical Studies in Mass Communication (Virginia).
Fiske, John. (1987) ‘Television Culture: popular pleasures and politics.’ Routledge, London.
Jameson, Fredric. (1991) ‘Postmodernism, or, The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism.’ Duke University Press, USA.
Maslow, Abraham et al. (1954) ‘Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs’ in Toward a Psychology of Being, 3rd Edition. John Wiley and Sons, Canada.
Morley, David. (1992) ‘Television, Audiences and Cultural Studies.’ Routledge, London.
Mulvey, Laura. (1975) “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema”, Screen.
Strinati, Dominic and Wagg, Stephen. (3rd December 1992) “Postmodernism” in Come on Down: Popular Media Culture in Post-war Britain. Routledge, London.

Article in magazine
Flynn, Gillian. (2005) ‘Best of 2005 Issue’, Entertainment Weekly. |
Article in newspaper
Powell, Alison. (Saturday 12th March 2005) ‘A family affair’, The Guardian, Culture section.
Arrested Development (2003-2006) Hurwitz, Mitchell, FOX television network
25 Jan 04 Public Relations Season 1
19 Dec 04 Afternoon Delight Season 2
13 Mar 05 Motherboy XXX Season 2
27 Mar 05 The Sword of Destiny Season 2
26 Sep 05 For British Eyes Only Season 3
2 Jan 06 S.O.B.s Season 3

Forum. austinswngr3 (2006) ‘Intricate jokes that need to be explained...’ (accessed 30th January 2009)
Poniewozik, James (2007) TIME,28804,1651341_1659188_1652056,00.html (accessed 18th January 2009)
Rispo, Vito (2006) The Fall of Arrested Development: Fox’s Ultimate Marketing Failure (accessed 10th January 2009)

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