If you don’t watch Arrested Development, you may want to skip this post and check out the Bob Loblaw law blog instead. He’s lobbing law bombs today.
If you do watch Arrested Development (AD), you may think that discussing the theology of the show is like analyzing a marriage through a five year old's drawing. It's too ridiculous to take seriously. But the story of the Bluths has a clear theological metanarrative:
The Arrested Development universe is what ours would look like if God said “I’ve made a huge mistake” and vanished.
God has Left the Painting
Arrested Development is not about a dysfunctional family. It is about a dysfunctional family in a dysfunctional world, one that God has suddenly abandoned like a father who guides his child’s bike and lets it go, only to watch the bike wobble for a few yards before it tumbles to the pavement. In the same way, the AD world implodes.
God's preservation of order is absent in the AD universe, which grows increasingly chaotic (my guess is that God abandoned it just prior to the pilot). Everything seems to be falling apart (relationships, acting careers, Bluth-built houses, etc.) and the fourth season ends with no answers or solutions. It simply ends in the middle of mayhem.
And characters constantly allude to a god-less universe:
1) Tobias says, “Universe, you’ve done it again” when informed that Carl Weathers charges exactly $1100 for acting classes (the joke is that he is being scammed and that the universe has orchestrated nothing).
2) When God is mentioned, it is George Sr. who comes to mind.
Lucille: “You ready to show me off before God and the whole world?” Buster: “Well it’s not my dad’s reaction I’m worried about.”
3) Lucille's selfish prayer that God take something from Buster to keep him from army is "answered" when Buster loses his hand to a loose seal with a bow tie. When Gob admits that it is his seal, Michael affirms that that makes more sense than God answering prayer.
4) When George Sr. tries to escape from the live rendition of Michelangelo's "Creation of Adam" painting, the crowd exclaims "Where is God?... There is no God!"
5) Gob promises to beat Jesus' death record by "two whole weeks!" Michael asks him why he's resurrecting that "mumbo jumbo."
In most shows (even satires) there is some sort of moral standard, but in AD nothing is right. The world is meaningless, and the characters know it. Even Michael, who is the moral fabric of the Bluths, shows the effect of God removing himself from the world. In the first three seasons, his failings (usually revolving around his well-intentioned scheming) result in apologies and realizations as to what matters most. But this is totally obliterated in season 4, where Michael becomes a needy manipulator willing to compete against his own son for a woman. Michael's family values no longer trump his lusts as they did at the beginning of the show's run.
Morality cannot exist without God, and any goodness within humans is a gift God has indiscriminately given. So goodness becomes increasingly repulsive to the AD characters (like the souls in C.S. Lewis' The Great Divorce) because God is no longer instilling it. It is hard to find a character that is not self-absorbed, unstable, and lying through their teeth, especially the Bluths, who don't come together out of love but simply because they need to.
The character arcs in Arrested Development depict human depravity perfectly - depravity is not as bad as it could be, but if God left it would be.
And what about God's justice? The judicial system in AD continually descends into anarchy. Only Captain Hook gets what he deserves, and that's in a school play. Plus, even mock trials are... a mockery (I was in trouble like three words into that sentence).
The Apostle Paul tells us that God sometimes removes his restraining power in people and gives them over to their desires (Rom. 1:24-32). The result is sexual immorality, envy, murder, strife, deceit, maliciousness, gossiping, slander, haughtiness, boasting, disobedience to parents - the list goes on. In the AD universe, God’s removal of restraint is global, and the world is ever maddening. There really is no future for Michael to save.
"The Amazing Jesus!” in Arrested Development
Some may think that Arrested Development has an anti-Christian agenda, but it is actually an accurate representation of what Christianity is like without Christ. AD Christians are a collection of mute-colored, sexually repressed, separatist, boring people who take the show-biz phrase "Marry me!" literally.
The archetype Christian is this girl:
Bland is a picketing, mayon-egg gulping, sexual time bomb. She devolves from the prude who withholds a second kiss from George Michael to the girl who gets deflowered by Gob, the antithesis of the man Christians want their daughters to marry.
Way to supplant, Ann.
Ann’s father, Terry Veal, is pastor of the Church of the Good Shepherd, which is a sort of quasi-Catholic fundamentalist congregation that observes pre-dawn mass and then mass (Ann has a lot of mass). Ann's mother, Mrs. Veal, is a sexually repressed hottie who throws herself on Michael and says, “Take me to your secular world... I want to please you secularly!” (She thinks that rubbing up on Michael's clothing is making love).
And Christianity is constantly featured in the AD story arc:
1) Gob is freaked out by Ann’s bedroom picture of Jesus and then says, “For a second I thought that was a real guy.” He also proclaims that what Jesus did was not a trick... it was an illusion.
2) Ann and Maeby (in a wheelchair as Surely Wolfbeak) compete in the “Inner-beauty pageant” at the Church and State Fair, where the Pope is one of the judges.
Pope: “How has God influenced your life?” Maeby: “About as much as Big Bird and the Keebler elves.” Pope: “Well, my faith would have been shaken if he had taken my legs too.” [applause]
3) George Sr. is required to speak in the church sponsored “Startled Straight” tent (which he thinks is the adjacent "Startled Straight" tent aimed at keeping young boys from prison).
4) There's the Christian TV show "And As It Is Such, So Also As Such Is It Unto You" about the spirit of inclusion surrounding the Scriptures, whose hosts are too nice to stop Gob's on-air blasphemy.
5) Ann pickets Nip/Tuck (because "God wants people to age naturally"), protests complexly erotic French cinema, burns secular CDs, and threatens damnation to others for skipping work.
6) The Christian Miracle Network produces shows like "Embryo Dan: It Would Have Been a Wonderful Life" and Father Marsala's light-hearted comedy "A Jew Came to Dinner."
Oh, and Skip Church’s Bistro is always packed on Sundays. A Christianity without Christ is undeniably empty and impotent. Only the sustaining presence of the real Jesus Christ - the God who died for the sins of the world on a wooden cross and resurrected from the dead - is what keeps every Christian from becoming one of the Christians found in the AD universe. An imposter Jesus produces boring, self-righteous hypocrites.
Let this be a lesson to us.
On the Next Season of Arrested Development...
Arrested Development is a hilarious tragedy, ending its fourth season in more chaos than the show began with (the pilot ends with the family laughing together over a game of Monopoly).
It's interesting that the first three seasons were constrained by network television, but in season four the restraints were off thanks to Netflix. The show became undeniably darker as a result, a behind the scenes symbol of God’s restraining power having been removed. If there is another season, or a movie, the AD universe will certainly be a bleaker one.
Was the show intended to depict a world without God? Maeby. But in an interview, Creator Mitch Hurwitz (who got a theology degree from Georgetown) clandestinely says, “I know whether God exists or not. That’s all I can say...”
In the AD universe, God certainly doesn’t anymore. And "he's not coming back."
Thankfully, in ours He has appeared in the man Jesus Christ and is presently active in the person of the Holy Spirit.
This is not an illusion, Michael.