Good Enough Might Not Be Good Enough, and Other Musings

This is part of my (new) monthly series of musings, usually pertaining to what I am working on, worrying about, or looking forward to. Each one will have a “main story” and a few short musings. It’s mostly a reason to make this website earn its keep.

Good Enough Might Not Be Good Enough

Last semester, I completed an important milestone when I passed my qualifying exams and became a PhD candidate. This earned me a new, hopefully temporary acronym: ABD, “all but dissertation.” It’s a big accomplishment, especially when you factor in the state of disarray I was in over Christmas (for example, I spent all of Fall blissfully unaware that I was one member short of a full dissertation committee). Thankfully, despite expecting the worst, my conversation with the committee was lively and generative. Even the criticisms, all of them fair, were ones I saw coming and even agreed with.

While I was excited to earn my passage to the next level, I have found it hard to get going on the dissertation itself. Part of that is post-prospectus fatigue. The prospectus, a sort of dissertation proposal, is a lot of work in and of itself, so much so that it feels like I’ve got no energy left to actually write the dissertation I proposed. Part of it has to do with trying to figure out how one even dissertates at all. Where to begin? The introduction, I guess? No, they say you should write that part last. Maybe I should read more? You know what, I’ll just clean my room instead, that way I’m getting something done.

Anyway, if the actual process of prepping and writing a dissertation wasn’t tiring enough, I also have to face a troubling reality: a rapidly shrinking, already-very-small-to-begin-with job market. Even before the pandemic, stable jobs in my immediate field were scarce. After the pandemic, when hiring freezes spread all across the country, the pool shrank even more, and there is no guarantee it will refill anytime soon. That these jobs were thin on the ground is a fact I recognized early in the journey, and yet now it is really, truly hitting me that the path I have been on may lead me nowhere, or at least nowhere near the job I am being trained for. It sounds naive, I know, but I guess I just trusted myself to work hard enough and be nice enough to come good. That’s something we all get told at some point: work hard enough, play by the rules, and you will get ahead. Unfortunately, I failed to appreciate that there simply are not enough spots for all the people doing at least as much as I am – and in many cases much more, sometimes despite institutional barriers I don’t even have to deal with. In any case, now is the time to really internalize the truth: when it comes to actually landing a job in my field, being good enough might not be good enough.

Ironically, the idea that being good enough might not be good enough is nothing new. It has been ingrained in me by a life in the theatre, an arena in which rejection is a constant. At some level, whether they are submitting plays or auditioning for a part, every theatre artist has to accept that competition is fierce and a myriad of factors will influence whether or not they get the job, regardless of how qualified they may be on paper. When you’re on the job hunt, many of these factors can seem maddeningly intangible: timing, particular skillsets, “chemistry,” connections, “type,” etc. It’s not uncommon to be told that your work is good but that it’s “just not right” for whatever it is you want. Nevertheless, we are trained to accept that answer. In some ways, that’s healthy: whether or not we get the job, we can often take some solace in knowing we have inherent worth. And besides, sometimes the intangibles really do matter; sometimes what you bring to the table really isn’t right for the room. However, that same ethos can be used against artists to keep them hustling for their “breakthrough,” to the point that they can be taken advantage of or even flat-out abused (this is to say nothing of the discrimination many artists face, some of which masquerades as the same “intangibles” mentioned before). Unfortunately, being taken advantage of, or at the very least begrudgingly accepting low compensation and high risk just to get in the door, is often normalized, too. Sure, few people really go into theatre for the money, but they should go into a job hoping, if not expecting, to be treated fairly.

While academia is supposedly a fairer, more stable space, it has its own problems. The aforementioned scarcity of jobs is exacerbated by the fact that tight budgets often force departments to hand classes over en masse to adjuncts, many of whom have to cobble together a living by taking on an exorbitant load every semester, or to graduate students like myself, who are eager to please and cheaper than a new full-time hire. Like other “industries” that aren’t industries, modern academia is a numbers game run from the top down: the lower the overhead, the greater the revenue and the greater the competition for spots. This means it pays to have more people who work for less money but nevertheless churn out quality stuff for a slim chance of moving up. Publishing, committee work, conference presentations, outside productions – a lot of it is low-paying or unpaid, but it’s all expected to be on the resume, even if you’re a fresh graduate. This stuff is hard work, too, but in a field this crowded, even those who put in the hours may not get their due, not when the margins are so thin and there’s little even department leadership can do about it.

So what does this mean for my academic journey? For starters, it means taking these next two (hopefully!) years to build out my skillset for jobs outside of teaching. As much as I want to teach at the university level, I have to acknowledge that it may not happen, no matter how good my record is. To be fair, part of this has to do with how the field is changing (in some cases for the better) and with my own choices of expertise; other people will get jobs that they more than earned and are much better suited for than I am. Fortunately, I have experience doing other rewarding work at a university thanks to my time with the East Lubbock Promise Neighborhood grant. Maybe that’s a path worth retreading. Heck, maybe what’s best for me isn’t even on a campus at all. I came in with frustrations about the field already; maybe the answer is to look elsewhere for places to apply myself. To be clear, none of this means giving up. After all, I have a lot to be proud of and a lot to look forward to, and I still plan on working hard on this dissertation and the rest of my projects. I also have the opportunity to get wise about how academia works and figure out how I might apply what I have learned to create a more equitable spaces wherever I end up. In short, I don’t say all this to be defeatist, just pragmatic.

Speaking of, if anyone asks, I dusted off my LinkedIn profile and will happily respond to connections.

Other Musings

Wait Around All Day…: For all my worries about the market, I am fortunate to have some projects coming to fruition soon, namely three publications of varying lengths. Funnily enough, the (lovely) editors of all three sent me proofs and notes to consider within two days of each other, all with quick turnarounds. No blaming them: like me, they probably wrapped their semester and immediately got to work on all the other stuff they have to do. It’s one of those classic “wait around for a project to edit all day and then three show up at once” situations, and it makes me think about academic time. In one sense, academic time ebbs and flows with the rhythms of the semester. In another sense, it’s chopped and pulled in lots of different directions. All three of these projects operated on very different timelines, yet they will all converge with similar release dates. Something to bear in mind with the next projects: not everything ripens at the same rate.

Chidi (Not So) In Charge: I recently finished The Good Place, a show that had been on my list for a long time, and I loved it. Apart from enjoying the high concept shenanigans (which the team did a commendable job of refreshing every season), I really identified with the character of Chidi Anagonye, a philosopher and professor of ethics. Not just because he was an academic, mind you, but because he overthought everything, just like me. Seriously, even the most benign of decisions, like what kind of muffin to have, absolutely incapacitates this guy. What struck me deeply was how harmful that indecision could be toward others, especially those who depended on him for a certain emotional stability. It’s something for me to bear in mind going forward. Here’s to good academic representation in media – and to Sandra Oh in The Chair on Netflix!

In Their Own Words: Earlier this year, as I completed revisions on one of the projects mentioned above, I decided to arrange for some interviews with a few of the artists involved. I was able to chat with three out of the seven cast members of The Fall, a South African piece based on the #RhodesMustFall movement. All three were generous with their time and insights, sometimes confirming and sometimes expanding what I thought I knew about the play. These interviews happened around the same time I was dramaturging Waiting for Iggy Pop, a play by Julia Marks featured in the Magic in Rough Spaces workshop at Rorschach Theatre Company. The play was a fun challenge, not to mention a great opportunity to refresh my playlists with some punk and hip hop. More importantly, getting to talk with Julia and the team was refreshing, partly because being in a rehearsal room (even a Zoom one) is a rarity for me these days. Anyway, this is something I want to integrate more into my research: conversations with artists. There tends to be some suspicion over taking an artist at their own word when it comes to their own art, and I respect that. However, engaging with an artist, and even sharing my research with them, can be invigorating in a way that straightforward critical reading isn’t. It also strikes me as especially important to incorporate an artist’s perspective when they come from a lived experience very different from my own, as was very much the case with The Fall. That’s not to say the work, or the artists, cannot be critiqued; like a lot of good research, it’s about holding things in tension, not about forcing resolution.

Four Years On: An Ubu Retrospective

The cast and co-creators (and real heroes) of Ubu Roy: An American Tale. From left: Alec Gallardo, Allison Tindall, Tyler York, Sara Skar, Charlie Schwieterman, and Janie Curl.

Four years ago today, I closed the show that altered the fate of a nation. At least, that’s what I like to apologize for from time to time.

The show in question was Ubu Roy: An American Tale, an adaptation of Alfred Jarry’s proto-absurdist play about an egotistical maniac who overthrows the Polish government, only to lose his throne in a grotesque spectacle of ineptitude. In the version I created with the help of my cast – Tyler York, Sara Skar, Charlie Schwieterman, Allison Tindall, Alec Gallardo, and Janie Curl – Jarry’s Pere Ubu became Ubu Roy, who murders the Governator of Ticks-Ass and goes toe-to-toe with his widow, Harriet McClintock, for the Presi-dency, all while everyone from a lusty handyman to a gonzo version of Bernie Sanders threaten to play spoiler. Needless to say, it was not subtle. It was, however, one of many Ubu adaptations aimed squarely at the rise of Donald Trump, seemingly Pere Ubu in the flesh. To my knowledge, it is the only one commissioned by and staged at a community theatre in the conservative stronghold of West Texas, with the first and second weekends running either side of the election. It is also probably the only one to change endings following that fateful night, thanks to a promise made by its pretentious writer-director – on local television no less – that if Trump did win, the show would reflect that. At the time, it didn’t seem like much a risk: Clinton’s victory, which aligned perfectly with the original ending, in which Harriet McClintock defeats of Ubu Roy in a battle set to the theme from Mortal Kombat, was virtually assured. Now you see what I apologize for: flagrantly tempting fate.

I exaggerate the show’s influence, of course: barely a soul showed up to see Ubu Roy, seeing as how it ran at 9pm at the Community Theatre in Lubbock, Texas and everyone was already fed up with the election. It was always destined to be a blip on the radar. Still, like any show I pour my heart and soul into, it was The Most Important Show in the World. I would like to think my cast and co-creators felt the same way, because they certainly performed like it, even on the nights when they outnumbered the audience. And don’t get me wrong, it was fun. It’s hard not to have fun when there’s an overriding sense that you’re doing something deliciously naughty, in this case flipping the bird to the whole rotten, overblown system, and deep in the red heart of Texas, no less. Sure, we gave our Clinton stand-in the side-eye, too, but the target was always Trump. The mere idea of his ascension was too much, too ridiculous, too dangerous, too too. It was begging to be made fun of. And then, after Election Day, it wasn’t all that funny anymore. The new ending, in which the Ubus win the battle and the cast members remove their wigs while staring plaintively into an uncertain future, made that point crystal clear.

For all its bittersweetness, I have special memories of Ubu Roy and the people who made it with me. I still hold a grudge against nobody in particular that it never got the audience it deserved, and I still cringe at the nights I spent lying down between the back two rows praying for laughs to come roaring out of our teeny tiny audiences. Thankfully, and somewhat appropriately, the play has enjoyed a peculiar longevity among a small number of fans. Just last week, an old friend interviewed me in preparation for a research project she’s doing on Ubu and its many adaptations. Periodically, total strangers will interest in the play – even an actor and instructor in New Zealand tried to stage it at one point. The cast and I have often joked about a follow-up, including a Christmas special variously called Ubu 2: The War on Christmas or Ubu Saves Christmas, something like that. Just to have these conversations is an honor, really, but I always find myself hesitant to revisit the piece because it is so 2016. Seriously, we went out of our way to reflect everything we could in Jarry’s funhouse mirror. Even Ken Bone makes an appearance. By the time we assembled the first half for a festival performance in February 2017, the references were already achingly dated.

Nevertheless, it’s hard not to look back now, four years and one (contested) election down, and wonder: what if it made a comeback? It’s a fun fantasy to indulge, but the problem is when I do look back, I see Ubu Roy as very much a history play, not just in that it presents a superficial snapshot of the times but in that it represents an outlook consigned to an uneasy past. It was always one of many Ubus in Trumpland, but now the whole concept almost seems too meager. The real Trump Administration, like Ubu’s Poland, really has been a kind of carnivorous circus, rolling through the unseemly, the absurd, and the appalling while devouring its own. The gap between that reality and Jarry’s brand of cynical tomfoolery has shrunk so much and the Trump Administration itself has become so repetitive that the notion of him calling foul and refusing after losing the popular vote by over 5 million is entirely predictable, almost shrug-worthy – and that is awful. What is even more insidious about this Administration is that it has not only normalized its own madness, it has made the old-fashioned politics it supplanted seem even more insidious, at least to the Trump adherents and their Republican enablers. For Trump and his ilk, the margin of his loss, the inadequacy of the his pandemic response, and the global resistance he has faced is evidence of nothing less than a multinational scheme to keep them down. It’s an astounding feat of cognitive dissonance, and yet it somehow has traction to the tune of over 72 million votes. That is the true success, if you can call it that, of the Trump Administration: that even in the midst of its own mess, it can still make itself a compelling alternative to the old status quo.

So, when I think back on Ubu Roy: An American Tale today and the prospect of revisiting it, I have to ask myself: how do you compete with this reality? What could a new production, even as a historical piece with the most modest of aims, expect to bring to the table? My fear is that it would inspire nothing more than fatigued exasperation. “Seriously?” I can hear someone muttering at Tyler in his oh-so-obvious Trump wig, while others sigh at Allison’s shadow-cast of the First Female President Who Never Was or scratch their heads and really wonder if we’re making a Ken Bone joke. There would probably be very little joy, even of the cynical and ironic variety, just a long slog through old jokes that portended a sad reality.

No, I think Ubu Roy: An American Tale as such has probably had its brief, provincial moment. Another version might come along someday as a sort of retrospective, less caught up in the duel of the election and more reminiscent of the President’s long wallow in narcissistic self-pity. After all, we always built the play to be agile, able to take on new material as necessary. Even then, maybe it’s best to wait, at least until the election results are well and truly settled this time. You know what? Maybe we just don’t hurry Ubu-as-Trump back to the stage anytime soon. As my research during the lead-up and follow-up showed, Pere Ubu has a habit of appearing in new guises all the time, almost always as an avatar of abuse and excess. The classics have a way of doing that: providing a deep well for inspiration while reshaping themselves to fit the vessel. Returning to that well with new productions, new translations, new adaptations keeps us in tune with the long history before us and sweetens our responsibility to wrestle with the present. The specifics will sort themselves out in the process. All we know is that Ubu will probably begin the play as he always has, exclaiming the same exclamation that has greeted every new low these past four years: “Shit!”

Editor’s Note: The author says all this but would change his mind tomorrow if the money was good. Also, kudos go to funder Herb Armstrong, techies Lo Gauna and Jessica Johnston-York, and the leadership of Lubbock Community Theatre for their support, endless patience, and generous laughter.

Trusting the Story (To a Degree)

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Pictured: My “Charlie Explains a Conspiracy Theory” Moment.

There will come a point when I will need to count up the pages I have generated while wrestling with my Labor of Love.  Include all my Microsoft Word “notes” and “scratch” documents and it has to be well over a thousand.  Dig through that and you will find at least four distinct drafts (maybe five), each with multiple versions.  Amazingly, despite all this empty productivity, there has been only one change in the cast and very little in the overarching conceit.  If I was a wise man, I would take that as a sign, but I’m not a wise man, so here I am blogging instead.

The thing that keeps me coming back to my Labor of Love is that its Aboutness keeps changing.  When I first started it, the play the was very much About a decent man discovering he was not all that he was.  This was soon after the killing of Michael Brown, which signaled the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement and brought with it the uncomfortable recognition for many well-meaning white folk that the world we thought we lived in wasn’t really there.  Then, there came the election of Donald Trump.  After that, the play was very much About an entire town of people who are compelled to look the other way.  Then, there was the #MeToo movement, and the feeling that there is something of that in the perverse John-Proctor-and-Abigail relationship in the play’s center.  Now, the pervasive darkness I recently installed in my little has the air of an environmental cataclysm, or even a virus.  On and on, this Labor of Love keeps changing shape to fit the prevailing problems of the day, and here I am just trying to catch up.

The problem, of course, is that it’s terribly easy to tell myself that I’m on the cusp of something great because my play just always seems to be About Something.  In fact, rather than consider the play’s ever-changing Aboutness a sign of quality, I am starting to think of it as a curse.  More specifically, I’m starting to think that I’m cursed, cursed with the idea that my play needs to be About something in the first place.  After all, it’s been almost six years: if worrying about the Aboutness was the right thing to do, this play would already be published.

Instead of worrying about my play’s Aboutness, I’m trying to engender a little more trust in the story.  The problem of my Labor of Love is far more fundamental than my efforts to fit the right metaphorical peg into the right social hole.  It’s really that I don’t know whose story to tell and exactly what events to include.  If you were to ask me “whose play is this?” – a question I have grown to see the value in, even if I still sort of hate it – chances are I can make a case for any of its eight characters, some more easily than others.  As for the events, well, the first half has changed here and there but who knows what’s going on with the second act?  That one has been squirming in its chair since day one.  With all that in mind, I’m wondering if it’s better to let the metaphors and images and allusions and easter eggs take a hike for a bit.  Let me just try to share a story, something with a beginning, middle, and end, some nice character arcs, maybe a couple of themes.  Should be easy enough.

It’s not, of course, but it does have its merits when done right.  If nothing else, it really takes care of the Aboutness by itself.  It’s funny, I found a good example of this in the most unusual place: a touring production of The King’s Speech, which I took in as part of my work with the Teens Behind the Scenes program at the National Theatre.  To be honest, I was unsure how to talk about the play going in because I was pretty sure it would be a stodgy drama a bit out of touch with my own interests, never mind those of the city kids I got to hang with.  Besides, I’m still pissed that the film beat The Social Network at the Oscars.  Anyway, I was pleasantly surprised to find that, apart from it being a generally excellent production, my poor memory had covered up a number of striking parallels to our present political situation, all of which made for great post-show talking points.  For starters, here we are in the 21st century and British royals are still abdicating with those pesky American women, Nazism is still making promises it can’t keep and dividing families in the process, discrimination against those with disabilities remains evergreen, and there’s the thorny issue of whether or not our leader is up to the task of properly handling himself with a highly populist media platform.  In short, I did not have to worry about making connections or parallels or finding something to talk About: it was all right in front of me.

Of course, The King’s Speech is based on history, which is something else from drama, but also not really.  History is often a story or series of stories, or a performance even, or maybe a process.  In any case, history needs making but the events it contains don’t always need to be smoothed, shaped, shoehorned, or shucked in order to be About Something.  That Something will show up of its own accord, as it did when I was reunited with The King’s Speech, and as it probably did (or did not) with everyone else in the audience.  This is not to say that works should be taken out of context or that anything can be made in a vacuum – far from it.  Rather, it’s to say that we don’t always have to go looking for that thing that will make it all make sense for us.  Sometimes it is already there and sometimes we bring it with us.

A friend and I talked recently about this whole coronavirus thing and how the history of this moment will be made.  My hope is that the histories will make the best effort to tell what happened as clearly and as fairly as possible, if only because it would be nice to get out of here with some perspective.  Right now, in the midst of the telling, it’s hard to know anything except that being told to sit still in the middle of a world historic even is very, very annoying.  One thing is for sure: many a play will be written in which the coronavirus will be About Something and/or Something will be About the coronavirus.  That’s all well and good and maybe some of the plays will be, too; certainly, some of them will be written by better craftsmen than me.  Then again, maybe there will be a good play that is just about the coronavirus and how people dealt with it.  Maybe that will be enough, at least until it gets restaged in 500 years to be About Something again.  In any case, the present gives me time to keep telling my Labor of Love in hopes that its Aboutness will settle down or just go away.

Trying to Teach it All: Lessons from “Latin History for Morons”

Leguizamo

Pictured: Me and John (Leguizamo) chatting with students from Young Playwrights’ Theater and the Southeast Tennis and Learning Center.  Credit: Young Playwrights’ Theatre.

Last year, I had the pleasure of meeting John Leguizamo as part of my work with the (newly-renamed) Teens Behind the Scenes Program at the National Theatre here in Washington, D.C.  It was after a performance of Latin History for Morons, the latest in a string of celebrated one-man shows stretching back to the early 90s.  In addition to putting together a study packet for students, I was also responsible for hosting a talkback with the man himself.  I escaped the encounter having mostly kept my cool and only brought up Moulin Rouge! and John Wick once.  I also left reflecting on one of the key messages of the play: that representation matters not just in terms of who gets on stage, but what stories get told and ho.  My packet featured a whole section on this very thing:

“[R]epresentation is not just about who gets to be onstage, it’s also about the decisions that get made regarding what to include in the story and how to tell it.  In the process of recovering lost histories and sharing them with the audience, Leguizamo is creating a representation of what he feels is valuable to our understanding of the periods and people he is looking at.  Obviously, representing other people on stage is nothing new to an actor, but this project puts him in another role, that of a historian.  All histories are a representation – ideally a truthful one – of people, places, events, and even things from the past, and though they may be thorough, they are never truly complete.  Even the skilled experts who write – or perform – histories professionally have to make decisions about what gets included and what gets left out.”

One of the great things about Latin History for Morons is that Leguizamo is pretty open about this process.  Throughout the play, he walks us through his own journey of personal and political discovery, a journey prompted by the racist bullying visited upon his young son.  In uncovering the oft-hidden and troublesome history of the Americas, Leguizamo name-checks major works of revisionist history, unpacks his own misconceptions and prejudices, and diagnoses the oppressive measures still levied at Latinx people in the United States today.  He does it all in his own distinctive voice, mixing together wit, caricature, sexually- and racially-charged humor, and even a healthy dose of dancing (a real highlight).  Needless to say, there’s a lot to talk about in an educational packet.

Thanks to Netflix, I was able to watch the show ahead of time in preparation.  Nevertheless, I still went into the project with reservations.  Beyond the matter of thoughtfully discussing a piece that so clearly hails from an experience very different from mine (and writing the summary for a one-man show, which is surprisingly hard), I really hemmed and hawed about what to include in the packet regarding certain content.  For starters, there’s plenty of cusses, some sexual humor (Leguizamo leaves little to the imagination when teaching his son how not to be a dick, pussy, or asshole), and some racial epithets.  Most of the epithets are used humorously, like when Leguizamo informs his son that he, being Colombian-American and Jewish, has a number of colorful slurs that can be hung on him, but there is also one point where, in a brief appearance as his younger self, Leguizamo makes reference to “this n***a Colombo” when discussing Christopher Columbus.  Considering I was sitting amongst mostly black students and chaperones, the use of that particular term stuck out.  Really, the language is just an entree into what is Leguizamo’s most provocative trait: his caricatures.  Latinx men and women of various stripes, Spanish conquistadors, white Southerners, Indians (of the South Asian variety), flamboyantly gay men: they all show up at some point, all of them channeled through Leguizamo himself.  For all the laughs in the audience – and there were plenty – there were a few uncomfortable groans to boot.

In preparing the packet, I wondered whether or not these matters should be addressed.  In the end, I decided to ignore them.  I worried that doing more would seem like coddling.  These are high school students, after all: they’ve seen worse.  But I think it was wrong to let it go completely undiscussed.  Should it have come as a sort of “trigger warning?”  Maybe not, although I think there is plenty to discuss about employing caricatures, especially when the performer doesn’t personally identify with what is being caricatured.  I wouldn’t put a moratorium on such portrayals entirely, nor would I say they are all created equal, either in terms of skill or the power dynamics at play.  I will say that framing matters, and Leguizamo’s framing is not always clear to me.  What does an Indian caricature, for example, lend to the play other than playing up the difference between Indians and Native Americans, or further accentuating Leguizamo’s knack for mimicry?  What is the point of making the deceitful and cowardly Moctezuma II a pink-face caricature, if not to draw a line between these traits?  At least in the case of the epithets, we understand that Leguizamo is a) riffing on racist labeling and b) speaking with a youthful vocabulary he might not employ anymore.  Naturally, I did not consider it my place to touch on these matters with Leguizamo himself, but perhaps working a few tough questions into my section on representation would have gone some way to preparing the students for what he is doing, or attempting to do, with these particular representations.  If anything, it would have enabled the students to critically engage with this play as much as Leguizamo himself critically engages with American history.

Ultimately, this project has me thinking about a topic that has come up in several of my PhD seminars: what to include on our syllabi and why.  This tends to come up in regards to choices of text, particularly when it comes to problematic, outdated, or flawed parts of the Canon(s).  How do we responsibly teach texts (broadly conceived) that may have been critical to the field at some point but betray the troublesome politics of their time?  The answer appears to be this: a) cut it out or b) teach the text with the controversy.  Obviously, cutting it out is the easy way and there are times when it is the right way, but there are other times when confronting the difficult stuff is unavoidable.  Teaching texts with the controversy is hard, but it helps students (and educators and audiences) understand why those texts mattered then, why they matter now, and what the time in between has illuminated for us.  Of course, covering controversy presents its own challenges.  There is no way to teach it all, but as Latin History for Morons shows, there is a way to expand on and critique what has come before.

An Appreciation of “Arrested Development” Season(s) Four, in the Style of Ron Howard’s Voiceover

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Photos courtesy of a Something Images search.


It was May of 2013, and Jared Strange was on his way to Prague for the second year in a row, a fact he would bring up at every opportunity for the rest of his life.  Jared had spent the days prior to his trip engaging in a hip, new trend called “binge-watching,” where an otherwise functional human being shuts down their entire life to slavishly watch every single second of a TV show back-to-back.  His show of choice: Arrested Development, the hilarious, ground-breaking, and impeccably-narrated sitcom that was prematurely nixed by Fox, the leading canceller of fine television programming.  In what would become a hip, new (and dubious) trend, the show had been revived by Netflix, the leading peddler of binge.  It seemed an ideal match: Arrested Development was renowned for its density, packed as it was with jokes, foreshadowing, references, and a narrative structure more flexible than GOB’s sexuality (more on that later), basically the ideal show for multiple viewings.  As its creator, Mitch Hurwitz, and star, Jason Bateman, have said, Arrested Development’s ratings were never great, but its TiVo and DVR numbers were off the charts.  Unfortunately, since most of the executives at Fox had no idea how to work either, the show got the boot.

But back to Jared.  Like most fans, he approached this new season on a new platform with equal parts excitement and trepidation.  And like most fans, his binge-watching left him feeling like he had been binge-eating: frustrated, confused, and a little embarrassed, with nary a forget-me-now in sight.  There was no beating around the bush: the new season was just all wrong.  It had eschewed the tried and true premise of the show – the members of a rich, totally narcissistic family (played by one of the best comedy ensembles ever to grace the small screen) scheme, lie, and betray their kin for their own advancement in a series of escalating and interconnected set piece conflicts – for a new premise that is exactly the same as the old one only without one key ingredient: the ensemble.  Season Four picks up where Season Three left off – with the police closing in on Lucille, the family matriarch, and Michael finally taking to the sea with his son – and then runs through five years-worth of misadventures with each individual character, charting their solo courses with occasional appearances from other family members.  Only in the final episodes, when their plots get too tangled together for them to resist their familial pull, do they end up having to battle it out face to face.  It made a certain degree of sense: after all, these people mostly hated each other and only the grim hand of Fate seemed to keep them in their little dysfunctional bundle.  And really, there’s a lot that can happen in five years.  But really really, who wants to follow a bunch of emotionally stunted nutcases one at a time when you can at least get them all together and watch them play off each other?

This lament, along with fair criticisms about the quality of some of the gags (they were very unfair to Ron Howard, I thought), tainted Jared’s experience of Season Four and made him doubt whether a Season Five would materialize – or if he would even care.  Then came news out of the blue: creator Mitch Hurwitz, apparently with nothing better to do, announced that he would be releasing a remix of Season Four, entitled “Fateful Consequences.”  In an open letter to his fans, Hurwitz effectively apologized for experimenting with a Rashomon-style story-telling conceit (TM Akira Kurosawa), whereby audiences would get to watch events unfold from a variety of perspectives and, if they so chose, could hop from episode to episode to keep track of the individual strands.  Perhaps embarrassed by the poor reception the season had received (or by the fact that he really thought Netflix subscribers would care enough about a show to binge it backwards), Hurwitz promised to fit this season into the kind of 22-episode arc with which viewers were familiar.  Oh, and he tacked on an official announcement for Season Five.

And so, like Michael cutting himself free from his family, Jared quickly returned to the buffet for another binge.  Correction: a double binge.  Excited by Hurwitz’s innovation-cum-mea-culpa, Jared decided to re-binge the “old” Season Four before binging the “new” Season Four, imagining it would give him greater insight into just how far Hurwitz had strayed during his first try.  Unfortunately, while the remix was enjoyable, Jared discovered something rather troubling: he actually enjoyed the first draft, too.  In some ways, he even preferred it.

Now, it’s important to note that Jared is a devoted fan of the show (search “jared strange arrested development” on Facebook and you’ll find well over a dozen posts made by Jared and several more made by others on his behalf), but he does not suffer from flaw-blindness.  If he’s being honest, characters like DeBrie Bardeaux and Marky Bark were annoying, George Michael’s obsession with getting into Julliard based on his block skills seems out of sync with his character, GOB’s sex with Tony-Wonder-as-GOB as Tony Wonder is over-the-top even for this show, some of the characters’ travails seemed grim even by CSI standards, and really, they did lean on an inside-Hollywood arc featuring Ron Howard too much (then again, Andy Griffith was a leaner, too).  Add to this the sprawling schedules of the main cast and all the time Hurwitz had to account for, and you end up with a problem that was always going to be difficult to solve: how to make the show zip along with a fine-tuned comedy orchestra in tow.  And, of course, no amount of quality will make it better than the original.  Jared is only human, and so is nostalgia bias.

Despite all this, there is plenty to praise about Hurwitz’s revision of his work, and the “problematic” season that inspired it.  For one thing, they’re both innovative in their own right.  Season Four Mach One was one of the first (semi-)original programs on Netflix, now an original programming juggernaut, and it was also one of the first shows to be revived on a separate platform, a poisoned chalice that has claimed the legacy of several fine programs, plus Full House.  Fateful Consequences may yet establish a trend of its own; surely others would take a chance to recut a whole season of their finest work (I won’t name names so as to protect the identity of Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s creator).

Of course, because a key component of Arrested Development is not just the story but how it’s told, Hurwitz’s work is more than just a recut, it’s a re-vision.  Ditching the separate strands that wind together for a (relatively) more traditional chronology means prescribing a very different viewing experience for your audience, especially in this show, where what people know and when they know it is so important.

And this is where it gets interesting for Jared.  It was towards the end of Fateful Consequences and during a brief period of the day when Netflix is more than background noise at work, that it hit him: both Seasons Four provide the most thorough examination yet of the Bluth Family, a family full of individuals so self-absorbed that their moral centers are decaying around them, yet so inextricably bound to one another that their continued association can only be described as the force of Fate itself.  The result is (a) season(s) that not only highlights the helplessness and depravity of this family, but is (are) acutely tuned in to American public life, such that this troubled chapter of the show seems even more prescient now than ever.

Allow me to explain.  The OG Season Four was a departure from the formula that made Arrested Development a cult classic, yes, and Hurwitz may not have done himself any favors by committing to catching up his audience on the last five years of the Bluth’s lives in the first place.  But by emphasizing each character’s struggle to find sustenance and meaning after the dissolution of the family, Hurwitz highlights just how lost each of them is – and, more importantly, how oblivious they are to their own problems and those of their family members.  GOB is perhaps the best example of self-deception.  Throughout Season(s) Four, he tries to take his relationship with Egg (sorry, Anne) to the next level, then uses their impending nuptials as the platform for a great trick to show up his old rival Tony Wonder, then falls in with a crowd of young Hollywood stars in an effort to rediscover his youth (only to become the getaway driver and main mocking target), then tries to get back at Tony for what he believes was sabotage by pretending to be gay in order to break his heart, only to discover that he does have some feelings for Tony, who in turn is working with Sally Sitwell, heiress to the Sitwell family company, to discredit the Bluths – whew.  Anyway.  The point is, GOB debases himself pretty regularly, first by settling for Anne, then by failing at his trick, then by dive into a life of debauchery with these young stars, then by “pretending” to be gay – oh, and roping in his son Steve Holt and nephew George Michael to move this along – and then having would-be illicit sex with a man.  Throughout this downward spiral, GOB not only refuses to be accountable as a father, brother, nephew, friend, and closeted homosexual/bisexual/definitely bicurious man, he even throws himself into a “roofie circle” in an effort to forget his shame (remember, if you can, the forget-me-now).  In “Fateful Consequences,” GOB’s advanced self-deception becomes a running theme, but in the original cut, it’s a more of a slog, and while that does make for strange and uncomfortable viewing in relation to what has come before, it does reward the viewer in a different way by taking us deeper with the character.  The same can be said for Michael, who is blissfully unaware that his son wants him out of the dorm at UC Irvine until his own plan for voting out the other roommate backfires spectacularly, and Tobias, who not only continues to chase his foolhardy dream of becoming an actor, but also “falls in love” with a damaged blonde woman he is intent on “fixing.”  Even Maeby, typically the craftiest and most self-aware of the Bluths, finds herself trapped in high school while waiting for her parents to notice her and freak out.  Leaving the family may have given each of its members independence, but that independence comes with a price: without other egos to compete against, the Bluths and Funkes find themselves stuck in their own ruts with only their own neuroses to comfort them.  This is clearest when you get to spend one-on-one time with them, like a good father/son.

Of course, they can’t stay apart for long, and this is where Season Four Original Recipe really starts to shine.  As you follow along with each thread, you start to notice that they are winding around each other, like when Lucille ends up in a rehab center where Tobias is working and immediately becomes the ideal villain for his knock-off Fantastic Four musical, or when Maeby finds herself in the right place and the right time to pimp out her own mother (literally).  In fact, you soon figure out that their stories have been intertwined from the very beginning.  Each shared encounter, when viewed from a different character’s perspective, brings with it new realizations, i.e. that the little yelp Michael and GOB here when they enter the model home together is not a vulture, but rather Maeby, now a squatter.  By this point, you’ve already heard that yelp several times because you’ve already seen Michael and Gob’s entrance several times.  This is where Fate comes in – grim Fate, at that.  As much as the Bluths have been cut loose to hoe their own rows, they’ve effectively been hoeing around in the same stretch of California desert down by the border.  The family that they all seem to hate so much is ubiquitous, inescapable, perhaps even mystical.  It’s no wonder Christian imagery and Indian spirituality (generously commodified for Western consumption) are so prevalent: there really does seem to be a higher power at work here, one that delights in keeping this most wretched of clans together.  Perhaps Hurwitz is digging into something mystical here, but then again, he could be a subscriber to Jean-Paul Sartre’s cheery motto “Hell is other people.”  Perhaps what the Bluths are feeling is not the almighty pull of a benevolent power but the grips of overwhelming existential fear and dread.  Their lives are meaningless and vacuous on their own, and the only purpose they can find is in the shared embraced of other meaningless and vacuous people.  Of course, you could also read it as somewhat redemptive; after all, despite all their conflicts, none of these characters really wants to be alone.  This might be a good time to remind you that Arrested Development is a comedy, but also to remind that there’s always been more to it than layers and layers of joke.  Underneath all that is the beating heart of despair, longing, thwarted ambition, and fragility, it’s just that Season Four Round One brings it all a little closer to the surface.

Of course, it’s hard to pick up on everything in a first viewing.  Arrested Development, like a lot of great art, rewards repeat visits – in fact, it demands repeat visits by its very design.  Jared wouldn’t admit it so I’ll do it for him: he was so disappointed with his first viewing of Premiere Season Four that he only just now got around to that repeat viewing.  Some fan, right?  But the benefit of viewing it again and then watching Fateful Consequences right on its heels is that it takes full of advantage of what Fateful Consequences really does best: explain Season Four.  It’s damning with faint praise, I know, but despite looking and sounding more or less like the Arrested Development of yore, Fateful Consequences has so much untangling to do that the real star of the show – if he wasn’t already – is Ron Howard, who not only showed up to do brand-new voiceovers, but also has to make good old-fashioned chronological sense out of a season that was already stretching an already dense and complex narrative formula.  Don’t get me wrong, Jared did figure out some things via Fateful Consequences that he might not have picked up on even a third viewing of Season Four the First, but it seemed at times that Fateful Consequences played more as an apology, less of a real season, and even less as a fun experiment.

What Fateful Consequences does bring into sharp perspective, though, is the collective decay of this family and the society it represents.  The Bluths were never the most upstanding people – after all, their show starts with the family patriarch going to prison – but they really do reach new lows this time around.  George makes a play to commit light treason yet again by buying otherwise worthless land on the Mexican-American border and then selling it to the government, while also transforming his twin brother Oscar’s pseudo-spiritual getaway (getaway) into a money-making scheme.  Tobias’s way of speaking, which had otherwise mostly thrown up question marks about his sexuality, ends up getting him on a Catch a Predator­-style show and convicted as a sex offender, something he treats as more of an inconvenience than a true condemnation.  To be fair, it is an inconvenience to him, and so, too is it an inconvenience to the many sex offenders who move into Suddenly Valley once GOB plays to that market, but for them, it’s an inconvenience they deserve.  For the family, it’s a way to make money.  So, too, is the political conniving that has Republican politician and loudmouth Herbert Love flip-flopping over whether or not to build a wall to keep the Mexicans out.  I mentioned the part where Maeby literally pimps out her mother, right?  Oh, and there’s still plenty of incesty stuff, not just between George Michael and Maeby, or between Buster and his mother/mother figures, but between GOB and George Michael and Steve Holt (for revenge against Tony Wonder purposes), and sort of between George Michael and Michael, who both end up dating the same woman.  Plus, Maeby accidentally commits statutory rape.  And again, GOB and Tony Wonder are both pretending to be gay to seduce each other yet they both discover they have actual feelings for each other and neither seems to give a damn about the gay community anyway.  And there’s a sprinkling of Lucille’s patented racism in there, too – and George gets in on that, too, with his refusal to tip African-Americans one of the very first gags of both first episodes.  In short, the Bluths really upped the ante, and when you see it all unfold together, as a collective, the idea of their codependence being God-ordained starts to sound a little silly.

But watching it all unfold now, in 2018, actually makes it all seem a little spooky.  Back in 2013, President Obama was just a few months into his second term as president, and the outspoken and duplicitous Herbert Love was a heavy nod to Herman Cain, one of the many, many Republicans who lost out to Mitt Romney (him?) for the 2012 nomination.  Now, though, it’s hard not to see the lecherous and hot-tempered Love, with his secret prostitutes and his plans for a big wall, as a President Trump-like figure (even if Love isn’t trying to get Mexico to pay for the wall).  It’s surely a coincidence – after all, even a master cartographer of human absurdity like Mitch Hurwitz couldn’t predict what would go down in the Oval Office – but keen observers of human nature can spot a trend.  It’s a credit to this season of Arrested Development that its take on racism, cultural appropriation (Cinco de Quatro is surely a highlight of the practice), sexual indiscretion, out-of-touch liberal and conservative elites, and a Hollywood-Washington axis that is simultaneously in conflicted and subsisting on the same attention-based economy, feels fresh today.  The ridiculous place that we find ourselves in as a nation wasn’t arrived at in the space of one year or even one election cycle: it was a long, slow slide that began years earlier.  Perhaps, then, there are other reasons to reintroduce Season Four other than to serve as the harbinger of Season Five (cue Indian-like spiritual music).

So what do we make of Season(s) Four of Arrested Development?  One way to look at it is that it’s one big J. Walter Weatherman weathermen: “and that’s why you don’t change the formula.”   Another way to look at it may be as the Cornballer of TV seasons: a great idea that had key flaws – and was maybe too hot to handle – and got repurposed as a lesson on the power of rhythm.  Yet another way to look at is like the George and Oscar Bluth of seasons, two seasons that look the same and act the same but have very different, um, internal…I don’t know where I was going with that.  The point is, they’re both worth watching, because they’re two bold takes on a very bold family in a very bold show.  Neither does the previous three seasons justice, but how could they?  A lot changed in five years, and a lot has changed in the past five years, so maybe bear that in mind for season five and don’t get your panties in a knot.  Sorry.  However Season 5 turns out, you can bet Hurwitz and Co. will be fighting to stay on the bleeding edge, as they have done since 2002.  The only question now is how deep they’ll be able to cut – and how many complaints they’ll get back.

On the next installment…

Jared confirms that deep, dark secret you’ve always wondered about, and then goes for a cookie milkshake from Sonic.