'Arrested Development's' Gloriously Incorrect Politics

Bloomberg View columnists Ramesh Ponnuru and Margaret Carlson met online yesterday to chat about the first few episodes in the new season of the television show "Arrested Development." Below is a lightly edited transcript.

Margaret: I was shocked to find out you liked "Arrested Development," Ramesh, since I considered it too slapstick and broad for your more refined tastes. Expectedly in some ways -- does anything live up to the hype we put on it these days? -- I was disappointed in the return of the show.

For the uninitiated, "Arrested Development" chronicles the life of the once-wealthy Bluth family, which has hit the skids but keeps living like a wealthy family. It was on Fox from 2003 to 2006, and a whole new season -- 15 episodes --- has just been released on Netflix. You'd think the first new episode would reward loyal fans by referencing all its best long-running jokes: the chicken dance, visits to the Banana Stand, rides in the jetway stair that served as the family car once the private jet and cars disappeared. In fact, the first episode gave up humor for pathos.

I didn't want to see Michael Bluth (the good, responsible son of George Bluth) hurt by George-Michael Bluth (the good, responsible son of Michael Bluth). Portia de Rossi's Lindsay Bluth-Funke, the selfish daughter, is a huge disappointment. You wonder if her marriage to Ellen DeGeneres is hurting her acting. But Lucille Bluth, the mother, doesn't disappoint in her attitude toward the help. She once told Luz, the housekeeper, to be careful with her very expensive teal jacket because it cost more than her house. When Michael criticized her for being insensitive, his mother said, "Don't worry, that's how we joke: She doesn't even own a house." The family's latest scheme to get out of hock is to build a wall on some property they own on the Mexican border, which Lucille takes that as evidence of how right she is about Mexicans. The one thing that's consistent is that the show is totally, completely, politically incorrect.

Ramesh: The conventional wisdom on the new episodes is that they're not as good as the old ones. Having each episode structured around one of the main characters, instead of seeing them interact, is clearly coming at a price. But I'm giving the new episodes a chance. I'm only three episodes in, and maybe they'll hit their stride. Or maybe I will: I'm finding the plotlines a little hard to follow as they jump back and forth in time. And I suspect we're going to get a lot of new in-jokes. And new characters, too. Heartfire seems to have some potential, and I'd like to see some of the actors from "Outsourced" -- which turned out, against the odds, to be a pretty good show -- appear again. As for my allegedly refined taste, one of my favorite bits from the show was Tobias's business card, which attempted to combine "analyst" and "therapist" with unfortunate results.

Margaret: Mary Lynn Rajskub, Chloe from "24," makes a good Heartfire, and George's was the only one-character episode that worked. When he lectures the former corporate titans who've enrolled in his sweat lodge about how he recovered from his fall from grace, he dangles a glass of ice-cold lemonade which he no longer needs now that he's reached nirvana. One of the chief executives lunges for the glass as he pours it on the sand in 102 degrees, and he shouts, "Get ahold of yourself, man. You used to run Bear Stearns." The show's satire meter is set sometime in the mid 2000s. When Lindsay and Tobias go to buy a house with no jobs and no money down, the bank officer offers them bigger and bigger houses to buy with wine cellars they don't need just so he can package another mortgage.

Ramesh: It is a strangely Bush-era show, but there are some flash-forwards and backs. (No sideways worlds like "Lost" yet, thank goodness.) The barter restaurant gets us to 2009-10. How do you think the flashbacks are working? I rather like the young Lucille, George ("how about a no-liability company?"), and Barry Zuckerkorn, the family lawyer, who turns out to have planted the idea in George's head that a husband and wife can't be tried for the same crime.

Margaret: As long as Kristin Wiig ("Bridesmaids") is playing the young Lucille, I am all for flashbacks. And when the young Zuckerkorn sets up the whole corporation three miles out to sea, it gives meaning to all of those jokes about the Bluths only answering to maritime law (given that a no-liability company was impossible). In between new episodes, I watched a few from the first season to refresh my memory (all in the guise of doing my job), and it is enriching the current run. Only "30 Rock" has come close to its charms.

Ramesh: I'm doing the same thing, of course. I had forgotten a lot -- everything having to do with Steve Holt, for example. (Check out the changing yearbook captions for his three senior years.) I had also forgotten how much Ron Howard's deflating voiceovers make the show work -- and wonder how his actually being on the show now will work out. I don't know how far you are into the show, but I guess the bottom-line question is: Are you going to see it through? I know I am.

Margaret: My favorite part of Ron Howard in the flesh is capturing the mogul-specific perks. I'd never thought of asking for ceilings so high, people would have to hunch over in the office above. Yes, I'll see "Arrested Development" through, I'm afraid, probably the same way I watched "Homeland": in big gulps, sorry the next morning when I have to get up and do my real job.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

    To contact the authors on this story:
    Ramesh Ponnuru at rponnuru@bloomberg.net
    Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

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