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The Cult of the Bluths: Welcome to the Arrested Development fandom

Now the story of a girl who was depressed when her favorite show was cancelled, and the day it came back with fifteen episodes all at once.

It’s Hannah’s arrested development (NB: published after the day I spent holed away in my bedroom for ten+ hours).

***

Starting at 3:01 am Eastern Standard Time on Sunday May 26th, the fourth season of the ill-fated, yet miraculously revived Arrested Development was available to watch on the streaming website Netflix. By the time this article has been edited and posted, it will have been available for over 36 hours, and people will have watched and re-watched the fifteen episodes, possibly several times over. They will have felt simultaneously invigorated and exhausted, flabbergasted, enthralled, disappointed, excited, and exhausted again. In a culture of instant gratification—whether it be through the means of fast food, next-day delivery, or Internet Access that flies at an average of 7.4 Mbps[1]—has made it virtually impossible for viewers to avoid the temptation of watching all episodes in one sitting, especially as they were released all at once. I’ll admit that, while taking breaks for meals, or to check on my dog, or to use the facilities, I pretty much steamed through those episodes starting at 10 AM and finishing up by nightfall. By the end I was invigorated. Exhausted. Flabbergasted. Et. Cetera. Whereas the stress, joy, agony, and invigoration of election night comes once every four years (every two if you count Midterms), the chance to experience a new season of Arrested Development—well, who knows if or when I’ll get that chance again. So I took it for all it was worth and am spending this Memorial Day remembering the hours lost (or gained) while sitting in front of my computer screen for 8 hours.

Will Arnett and Jessica Walter. Wikimedia Commons, 2011.

Will Arnett and Jessica Walter. Wikimedia Commons, 2011.

For those of you who have read up to this point, but no little of the series, Arrested Development aired on Fox from 2003–2006, helmed by Ron Howard and Mitch Hurwitz. Starring Jason Bateman as Michael Bluth, the middle son attempting to keep his life, family business, and sanity intact,  the series covered the “riches to rags” story of a truly terrible family. The father (Jeffrey Tambor) is incarcerated for, as he puts it “light treason”. The mother (Jessica Walters) is a verbally abusive alcoholic who simultaneously smothers and rejects her youngest (31 years old) son (Tony Hale), who refuses to leave the nest except to date his mother’s best friend (Liza Minnelli). The eldest son (Will Arnett) is a magician looking to mooch off of whoever he needs to, while attempting to restart his career. And the daughter (Portia de Rossi) wants to live as extravagantly as possible while doing nothing; she is married to a therapist-turned-actor (David Cross) and their daughter uses every trick in the book to get her parents attention. She has also caught the eye of her cousin (Michael Cera). Got it?

So what is it about Arrested Development that has sneakily, subversively snuck its way into the culture of the populace, to the point where, through the motivation of cast, crew, and fans, it has been brought back from cancellation? Firefly achieved this only in movie form (though we hold out hope for further voyages on Serenity) and Veronica Mars may or may not rebound with a movie. But with Arrested Development, there’s something that escapes the constraints of Comic-Con and infiltrates into the public consciousness. There’s fan art dedicated to the series, as well as fan fiction. These are normal in the world of fandoms. But in a genius marketing move, Netflix set up key props around the world to allow fans to engage with the Arrested Development world in a lead-up to the new series: the Banana Stand arose in London, New York, and Los Angeles (amongst other places) as did the Bluth stair car. This past week, Katie Roiphe wrote for Slate about the pathos of Pottermania, and how tourist attractions related to the books have morphed into a pseudo-religious experience for fans. In her article, Roiphe explains, “There is some greater hunger that can’t really be explained away by general consumerism and the desire for fantasy brought to life in plastic things. They are in thrall to a deeper desire, a less material need.”[2] Roiphe goes on to comment that this magical world, created by Rowling, is so vivid that it seems just out of reach—which is precisely why fans wish to have tangible examples of it.

In many ways, Arrested Development is the same way, only having originated in a more underground way. Harry Potter was never on the brink of cancellation—only on the brink of never starting in the first place. Once it appeared in the public consciousness, it never looked back and became a key part of literary and cultural iconography in the post-millennial era. Furthermore, Harry Potter deals with the basic concepts of good and evil, the trajectory of a protagonist fulfilling his destiny despite feeling ill-equipped and under-prepared, but succeeding with the virtues as old as Adam: goodness, faith, hope, and love. The “religious” connection between Harry Potter and its fans is not so far off. The Bluths are much less nostalgic, dysfunctional in a way that attracts the deepest and most disturbing tendencies of human nature; the fans coming together to celebrate this are not searching out idealism, but a hyper-maladjusted reality.

If we are talking, as Roiphe does, in terms of mainstream religion, one should not ignore the fact that the fifteen episodes were released all at once in the wee hours of a Sunday morning; whereas twenty or thirty years ago, many would have spent a this time in church or at a place of worship, instead the mighty throng found themselves captivated by a different motivator or motivation. For me, this series isn’t a religion, and it doesn’t hold a philosophy to which I ascribe; yet, the prospect of unknown stories into which I can immerse myself was too much for me to avoid. When J.D. Salinger died, reports surfaced that there are manuscripts upon manuscripts of work concerning his Glass family; if these stories were published all at once, I would rush to my nearest bookstore and read as quickly as possible, and, upon finishing, start all over again from the beginning. The base human need for storytelling goes back to our origins. These characters, twisted, obnoxious, narcissistic as they are, tap into something that encourages us to learn more. However terrible they behave within the confines of this show, we care about their welfare. And thus we follow.

Right now, I’m re-watching episode 10, focusing on my favorite character, Lucille. I’ve read comments and articles urging viewers not to binge, but like most other fans, I can’t get enough of a family I’ve hoped to return for years. It’ll take a while to process, and most likely I’ll still be a little loopy for a few days after spending too much time in front of a computer screen. But the wait was worth it. It was worth it.


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