It’s easy to forget that the Fox (NWS) TV series Arrested Development, which ran from 2003 to 2006 and is about to be brought back to life by Netflix (NFLX), wasn’t initially sold as a dense, self-referential, manic, brilliant meta-comedy. (Thank heavens—no network would have bought that.) The show’s original premise was simple: Corrupt chief executive officer is sent off to prison, and the rest of the family is left to pick up the pieces. The character of George Bluth, that CEO, wasn’t even supposed to last past the pilot. Show creator Mitchell Hurwitz wrote him back in once he learned that actor Jeffrey Tambor was interested in the role.
Arrested Development was born in the wake of Enron and Tyco—Bluth bears more than a passing resemblance to Dennis Kozlowski. But in hindsight, it’s hard to ignore that the plot is basically a comedic version of the Madoff family scandal, which happened two years after the show went off the air. Either out of naiveté (his son Michael) or spoiled, dumb indifference (every other Bluth), no one in the family knows anything about George’s corporate malfeasance—except his wife, Lucille, who may actually be behind the whole thing. After years of coasting on trust funds and country club buffets, the Bluths are completely lost after George is taken away to prison. Oldest son GOB’s a comically inept magician; daughter Lindsay only knows how to attend charity benefits; Lucille has been drunk since the ’60s; and poor baby Buster is afraid of everything, from sheep to seals to Franklin the puppet.
Photograph by Graeme Mitchell for Bloomberg Businessweek
Thus the challenges of family business. George Bluth, like many megalomaniacal executives, never imagined a world of which he isn’t completely in control, so once he’s taken out of the picture, everything collapses. One of the series’ great, quiet jokes is that most of the time you can find the Bluths, none of whom can hold down a real job, lying aimlessly on the sofa. (“Is there a carbon monoxide leak in here?” Michael wonders.) No one is capable of taking over the business other than Michael, and the minute he tries, there’s George, from behind bars, attempting to pull the strings. Eventually, George escapes prison and lives in the family attic, which doesn’t help.
The best thing you can say about George is that he’s less treasonous than suspected; it turns out his model homes in Iraq, identical to the slowly sinking home the Bluths live in, were meant to spy on Saddam Hussein, not to shelter him. (Which doesn’t stop the family lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn, who has a habit of consulting Ask Jeeves on difficult legal questions, from believing a close-up shot of the testicles of Lindsay’s husband, Tobias, reveals the Bluths are hiding weapons of mass destruction.) The corporate culture George creates is one of fear and confusion, to the point that the job of most employees at Bluth Cos. appears to involve standing around and watching Bluth family members fight.
It’s arguable whether anything works better when George is there. It’s not like he has any special understanding of the business world or an eye for great investments. The major Bluth Cos. ventures are the Hussein homes, the series of “Boyfights” videos (with wacky side character Buster and his “Too Old to Breastfeed” and “I Don’t Want to Be on This Video” subplots), and the terrifying and dangerous Cornballer. George’s most successful side business, the Bluth’s Original Frozen Banana Stand, was stolen from Korean immigrants. It’s amazing that the Bluths compiled a fortune at all. Losing it is inevitable. Isn’t that the way it always goes? George stood in for the whole scam, and the rest of the clowns lined up behind him.
Michael’s curse—his major business failing, his blind spot—is that he doesn’t have the horse sense to get away from these people and go make money thousands of miles from the Bluth sinkhole. You can sort of see why he secretly admires George. He’s his father, after all, and George also has an undeniable sinister charm and is certainly savvier at manipulating people than he is at coming up with new products. He’s hard-nosed in a way we admire in our executives and amusingly Darwinian when it comes to matters of strength and masculinity. (He “doesn’t have much use” for Buster.) George works as a parody of big swinging dicks in boardrooms because he shares so many qualities with them.
And like Michael, George can’t escape his family’s business-ruining shenanigans. In the second episode of Arrested Development, “Top Banana,” Michael attempts to wrest control of Bluth Cos. from his father while also instilling a solid work ethic in his own son by employing him at the banana stand. Ultimately, Michael decides he’d rather burn down the profitable stand than be under his dad’s thumb. “The next time you want to have a little power struggle,” Michael tells George, “just remember that you’re playing with fire.” The joke, of course, is that George had lined the banana stand with $250,000 in cash. It goes up in flames because Michael—the one kid who even cared about the business in the first place—wanted to teach his daddy a lesson.
When the 15 new Arrested Development episodes are released on Netflix on May 26, I’m almost certain the Bluths will come up with more “business plans” that they’ll likely botch because of their unfortunate connections to each other. I can picture George as a CNBC host, following the Eliot Spitzer recovery plan. (I can also absolutely see him having an Anthony Weiner-esque Twitter incident.) You can never really extricate your family bonds from your family business, something the Madoffs learned, too. The difference is, thank God, it’s funny when the Bluths blunder through it. No touching! No touching!