Arrested Development has never been a show that is easy to take seriously. Its absurdist portrayal of an upper-middle-class family’s delusion dysfunction has been cult viewing since its 2003 debut.
Yet in light of recent allegations of sexual harassment against Jeffrey Tambor, who as it happens plays the show’s odious philandering patriarch, the show is under more than critical scrutiny. Tambor’s assistant on Transparent told the Hollywood Reporter that he had groped her, and actress Trace Lysette said that Mr. Tambor had once thrust his pelvis against her hip while on set, kissed her on the lips several times and repeatedly made sexually suggestive remarks to her.
These allegations came in the late stages of production of the fifth series of Arrested Development, perhaps explaining why showrunner Mitch Hurwitz was keen to emphasise that Tambor is ‘difficult’ and a ‘grump’ but ultimately did not believe the allegations; Netflix announced Tambor’s character would still appear in the show. The shadow this casts over the new series is remarkable: in the recap of the first episode, Ron Howard’s voiceover refers to Michael and his son George Michael’s respective sexual encounters with the same woman in photo booths as ‘acting like a movie-producer’.
This is not to say that the new series is without laughs. The oedipal dynamic between Michael and George Michael, and especially the former’s constant threats to leave, are a painfully amusing portrayal of dysfunction and the frustration it involves – and Michael Cera continues to make lots of faces. Maebe’s new scams, posing as a pensioner and a grey-haired campaign manager alternately, mirror her father’s miserable attempts at staying in the Bluth family by playing the ‘missing’ Buster and wearing a wig as Michael. These have often been the show’s strengths, though perhaps key to the new series is Lindsay’s campaign for Congress. Maebe confusedly states to George Michael that she is having her mother say increasingly offensive things, yet it only seems to be making the campaign more successful. To be fair to Arrested Development, the show predicted Trump’s call to build a wall between America and Mexico in 2012, so its credentials to continue political commentary are strong. But the result is tame; the same level of fairly useless parody and satire that has been appearing in Hollywood comedy since Trump’s Presidential campaign began. What one gleans from the first five episodes is an extremely elaborate plot, a sometimes-funny portrayal of a dysfunctional family: but nothing new, and certainly nothing that justifies continuing a show that has already played its best cards over the last 15 years.
Coming back to Tambor, he recently admitted to berating Jessica Walter, who plays the show’s matriarch Lucille, on the set, but it is co-star Jason Bateman’s comments on this that interest me:
this is a family and families, you know, have love, laughter, arguments — again, not to belittle it, but a lot of stuff happens in 15 years. I know nothing about Transparent but I do know a lot about Arrested Development. And I can say that no matter what anybody in this room has ever done — and we’ve all done a lot, with each other, for each other, against each other — I wouldn’t trade it for the world and I have zero complaints.’
What Bateman indicates here, unknowingly, is that abusive behaviour is seen as par-for-the-course in professional entertainment settings. In this world of lightning-quick PR, David Cross and Jason Bateman have both now publicly apologised for failing to support Walter in the context of this New York Times interview. That is not to say that these apologies are not genuine, but they are also a necessary part of ensuring the roll-out of this latest series goes ahead. While it is tempting to say innocent until proven guilty, these concerns about abusive dynamics and mistreatment of people who are workers and have rights to good treatment must be central. What Bateman’s remarks about the family on the show being a real-life family reveal is that this is not Hollywood’s problem. We must all question these dynamics wherever we see them, and reject patriarchal conditioning both in our families and our friendships, our relationships, and our workplaces. Previously Arrested Development was a hilariously petty and frivolous show, and it still is, but it is indelibly marked with Tambor’s abuse now. And it begs the question, when do we refuse to consume art? What damage would it have done me not to watch this series? With the empowerment of victims of sexual and other kinds of abuse, these kind of questions are central to cultural criticism in our times.
While I am hesitant about the possibilities of individuals not watching a show or listening to an album, or figuratively ‘cancelling’ a person, these actions are a start. But it is worth questioning why Arrested Development exists: despite potential question marks about the actions of one of its cast members, the new series will go ahead and many people will make lots of money. We must put survivors of abuse before profit, but doing so goes against the basis of our society. The movement against this violence must take on an anti-capitalist spirit, or its impact will only be skin-deep.