No matter how dysfunctional your family is, you’d probably feel a little better after spending some time with the Bluths. Season five of Arrested Development recently premiered on Netflix, inviting us to reunite with the wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had to keep them all together.
Arrested Development originally aired in 2003 on Fox, home of shows cancelled too soon (I see you, Firefly). It ran two and a half seasons, never quite managing to earn the ratings its rabidly loyal fans felt it deserved. After cancellation, creator Mitch Hurwitz frequently teased ideas for more episodes and the cast always spoke fondly of the show, even as they went on to do bigger (but never better) things. So when Netflix revived the series for the first time in 2013, it seemed too good to be true.
(Narrator: “It was.”)
Season four was weird, in large part because the cast was so busy it proved impossible to get them all in the same place long enough to shoot a whole season of the show. Hurwitz got accolades for trying something different, but the experimental season was largely regarded as a failure. Season five, which debuted on Netflix last month, is set in 2015, immediately following the cliff-hanger events of season four. This time the whole cast is back together (except, apparently, Portia de Rossi, whose few scenes were obviously filmed separately). The result is eight episodes (so far) that largely feel like a return to form.
The Bluth family’s absurd dynamics have always been the heart of the show, lending credence to the title’s double entendre (the series begins with patriarch and real estate mogul George Sr., played by Jeffrey Tambor, being arrested by the FBI for “light treason”). As a result of their father’s arrest, the family is forced back together as adults: Gob (Will Arnett), the eldest son, who craves from everyone the approval he never got from his father; Lindsay (de Rossi), who is becoming her distant, critical mother even as she rebels at every turn; Buster (Tony Hale), the sheltered, walking Oedipal complex who embodies the term “mamma’s boy” in the worst possible way; and Michael (Jason Bateman), the well-adjusted middle child who can never quite bring himself to do the one thing that would make his life better—leave.
Beneath the densely layered jokes and celebrity cameos lies another reason we love to laugh at the Bluths: we recognize that family members can be our worst enemies. Nowhere is that more evident than in season five. At first, it appears that some of the Bluths are beginning to manage some personal growth. Matriarch Lucille (Jessica Walter) is in court-appointed therapy with her son-in-law, Tobias (David Cross), who is proving to be a much more competent therapist than he ever was an actor (or Blue Man understudy). Michael has found a great job at a tech firm. But soon the Bluths are dragged back together by the gravity of their dysfunction. And true to form, they bring out the worst in each other. Even Michael, the supposedly well-adjusted one, is exposed as a fraud. He returns to his family not out of filial obligation, but to feed his messiah complex. He thrives on being the savior; he needs his family to be in crisis to feel whole.
We love to laugh at the Bluths because we recognize that family members can be our worst enemies.
The Bluths are an illustration of what theologians call generational sin. This theological construct makes sense of the apparent contradiction between God’s promises in Exodus 20 and Ezekiel 18. In the second commandment, God swears, “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous god, punishing the children for the sin of their parents to the third and fourth generation of those who hate me…” The Israelites took this seriously, to the point that they passed on an adage that had become popular in the time of Ezekiel: “The parents eat sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge.” They had come to assume that sin was solely inherited. But then the prophet offers this: “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child.”
So which is it? Is sin passed from generation to generation, or are we each responsible for our own actions?
The answer is “both and,” a painful truth illustrated by Arrested Development. We are shaped by our families. Every family, from the Cleavers to the Bluths, is dysfunctional to some degree. We all inherit sinful ways of seeing the world, relating to each other, and understanding God.
This is why Jesus insists his Church is a spiritual family, one that even supersedes our biological families. This is good news for all of us. For those of us with families in the Church, we can heal together, becoming one even as we become one with Christ and his church. For those of us who relate more with George Michael (Michael Cera), the son who’s too nice to make it as a Bluth, this vision of the Church as family is one of hope. After meeting a family that represents the idyllic foil to the Bluth clan, George Michael observes, “They’re such a nice…well I don’t want to use the word ‘family’ because they all like each other. But they’re such a nice group of people.”
The Church should similarly be too good to be true, a living exemplar of the fruit of God’s kingdom that invites all those who are hungry for true relationship to sit with us, to taste, and see the goodness of our God.
Of course, the Church isn’t idyllic—and neither is the return of Arrested Development. It’s impossible to watch season five without the pall of the abuse allegations against Jeffrey Tambor. What’s more, the show feels undeniably different in the age of Donald Trump (the show weirdly predicted Trump’s border wall in season four). And a disastrous, recent New York Times interview with the cast illustrates that life often imitates art when it comes to dysfunction. Perhaps now more than ever, we need a vision of something too good to be called “family,” something so good it can only be the family of God.