The Other Side of Niceness: Lasso, Chalk Circle, Mockingbird

First things first, know that you can count me among the people disappointed with season two of Ted Lasso. There’s an old adage that comedy is fast and there was very little fast about this season. That too many jokes were full of air would not be so troublesome if the show had maximized its best feature, namely a willingness to look past the earnestness so many of its characters strive for. The episodes that did go in an entirely different direction, like Coach Beard’s bizarro, post-FA Cup semi-final odyssey, stick out a lot in that landscape, and for all their incongruity, I found myself wanting more of that surreal, form-breaking fun. Ultimately, it seemed like the show, which still had many good moments, was suffering from some growing pains, unsure how to balance its rom-com send-ups with its darker strains of melancomedy. Finding that balance could have done a lot for the theme the show did explore very well: the other side of niceness.

A lot has already been made about the Great Nate Debate, the discourse surrounding kitman-turned-assistant-coach Nate’s transformation from timid nice guy to self-absorbed prick. I won’t spend too much time on the debate here except to say that I found many of the moves heavy-handed (the hair, really?) and sometimes confusing, to the point that, despite all the ways Nate’s darker nature was exposed over the course of the season, his sudden outburst at Ted seemed to come out of the blue. I will say, though, that Nate’s arc is one example of how the show excavates what sometimes hides behind pleasant exteriors. The lesson of Nate’s story is that “niceness” does not always equate to goodness—that even those who seem harmless can harbor selfishness to the point of narcissism. This is not to discount the many ways Nate is belittled throughout the show, but rather to say that sometimes what the “nice guys” lack that the assholes don’t is the balls to do exactly what they want.

In addition to charting a seemingly new course for Nate, the show also lets some of the characters’ pleasant facades slip. We see, for example, that Ted’s relentless positivity is not impermeable; in fact, it is covering up a very serious problem with trauma that produces, among other things, an aversion to conflict. That he begins to untangle that with Dr. Sharon is appropriate, not just in that it shows her own “professional kindness” in the form of therapy is valuable, but in that Ted is able to help her, too. We discover, in Sharon’s private moments, that for all her grasp of human nature, she is lonely and therefore vulnerable to things going wrong. Here we have two people with an aptitude for making people feel good but who have not translated that same energy into personal fulfillment. Indeed, it suggests that sometimes niceness can be a barrier as much as a doorway. While some characters were enriched by arcs that revealed their fragility, other revelations were somewhat less surprising. My bullshit detector immediately started beeping when Edwin Akufo (all-star VEEP alum Sam Richardson), the billionaire Ghanaian heir apparently intent on dismantling his father’s empire, first arrived in his helicopter and started to woo sweet-natured Sam Obisanye with extravagant purchases and promises. (Never trust a billionaire who buys ambience and uses conspicuous consumption in service of an apparently decolonial project.) That he turned out to be vindictive and crude when denied what he wants puts him in a similar category to the slippery Rupert, another billionaire with charm to spare. Interestingly, Rupert, as we discover, is actually repelled by niceness; as Rebecca’s mother points out, putting on a smile proves that he cannot get under Rebecca’s skin. For him and Akufo, good manners are about mobilizing their power in the most effective and least obvious way; once they do not have the power, niceness no longer serves them.

(Speaking of billionaires and power, it’s here that I should return to my first writing on Ted Lasso and its role in the Americanization of the Beautiful Game. If season two got one thing very right about elite soccer, it is that money calls the shots, to the point of making the game a ball pit for billionaire playboys. If we can accept that there are sometimes darker—or at the very least, cynical and commercial—interests lurking behind hyper-lucrative organizations like the Premier League, we might have to accept that Ted Lasso is being positioned for the same purpose. The fact that the Premier League is going to allow the show to use official materials and highlight packages suggests they know a good marketing opportunity when they see it.)

While Ted Lasso revealed what lies beyond niceness, other texts, such as Bertolt Brecht’s play The Caucasian Chalk Circle (stay with me here), reveal the differences articulated between niceness and kindness. As my class and I studied Brecht’s text recently, I found myself thinking back on what professor and devised theatre expert Rich Brown once explained to me and others during a workshop session: that niceness is complimenting a friend’s terrible new haircut to keep up appearances and kindness is telling them the truth because you really care. In short, kindness prioritizes a person’s needs, even to the point of superseding manners and other mores of polite society. Kindness also comes with a certain cost, as Grusha, Brecht’s heroine, discovers when she rescues a noble child named Michael from the flames of a political insurrection. As Grusha flees through the Caucasian mountains to protect herself and the baby, she is constantly reminded, in typical Brechtian fashion, of the real, material costs of keeping this child as her own. It brings her under such scrutiny that she is forced to go into hiding, first as a noblewoman to get a room for the night, then from a lascivious corporal, then in the bonds of a loveless marriage. Eventually, once Michael’s rich, selfish mother comes calling for her son in order to secure her rights afforded to his heirship, Grusha is forced to defend her right to be Michael’s mother based on the care she has shown him. The women present their case to Azdak, a roguish judge who has spent the past few scenes robbing the rich to feed the poor. As in the biblical story of Solomon, Azdak devises a test: the child will be placed in the center of a chalk circle and the women will each pull on one end to see who is strong enough to extract him and claim him as her own. Kindhearted Grusha is unable to bear the thought of harming Michael and refuses to quickly relents. Azdak sees this and awards her custody, recognizing that her love forbids her from tearing at her son.

The conclusion of The Caucasian Chalk Circle alone speaks to the notion of kindness as something deeper than respectability and social conditioning. Michael’s birthmother is perfectly respectable, but it is Grusha who has demonstrated an investment in the child’s wellbeing. Even apart from the stark contrast between these two figures, Brecht’s play constantly points to the risks Grusha incurs to do what is right. From the other workers of the palace warning her to leave the baby in the first place to the sham marriage that puts her true love at risk, the real stakes of Grusha’s decision are never out of sight. This is important to recognize in Brecht’s work, which, in the Marxist tradition he practiced, always investigates the socioeconomic position the characters occupy. It does so partly by subject matter but also through Brecht’s staging and dramaturgy, which alienate the audience (verfremdungseffekt!) from the action in such a way as to invite critical engagement resulting in ethical judgments and real-world action. Understanding Grusha’s attachment to Michael, then, is not about embracing sentiment but about identifying the material wager Grusha makes by claiming Michael as her own, even if protecting him is the right thing to do. This is partly why productions such as the 2013 one by Classic Stage Company in New York use a very obvious baby doll in all its plastic glory to represent Michael: to disrupt the theatrical illusion and remind the audience that he is a costly object. Ideally, the move does not dehumanize Michael but instead humanizes Grusha by showing her willingness to break all the rules of proper society in order to protect this precious item.

If the second season of Ted Lasso is about showing what lies behind nice faces and The Caucasian Chalk Circle examines the cost of doing good, then Aaron Sorkin’s adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird (again, stay with me) shows the other side of people who take their goodness for granted. Based on Harper Lee’s classic 1960 novel, Sorkin’s Mockingbird, which I recently watched in the Shubert Theatre nosebleeds with my girlfriend, is written with a clear mission: to, as Sorkin says, converse with Lee’s novel and reshape it into something that responds to the moment. A lot of this is accomplished by expanding the role of Calpurnia, the Finch family’s Black domestic laborer, and playing up the degree to which Tom Robinson, the Black victim of racial injustice, is condemned by the tears of Mayella Ewell, the White woman Tom is falsely alleged to have raped. Calpurnia openly challenges Atticus Finch, the noble lawyer, when he tolerates his racist neighbors and accuses him of being sanctimonious after taking on Tom’s case. Mayella, meanwhile, is wound up to the point of hysterical rage at Tom, despite the fact that her father, as in the story, is undoubtedly her abuser. Calpurnia gives voice to Black pain by challenging Atticus’s assumptions and lamenting the death of Tom, who is shot seventeen times while trying to escape; Mayella encapsulates the privileges of whiteness, which allows her to construe her own pain into a rationale for condemning somebody else. Altogether, Sorkin’s efforts to bring To Kill a Mockingbird into today are obvious and, for the most part, successful in so far as they can bring this piece into the present. It may seem especially relevant in the ongoing racial reckonings that accelerated in 2020, but I would not characterize it as the play that best meets the moment. Still, by framing the action as a memory, as Sorkin does by casting the youths Scout, Jem, and Dill as character-narrators, the play does show how the past can bleed into the present. Though the conceit is manifested somewhat inconsistently, the effect is, at its best, moving and often thought provoking.

Where Sorkin’s play makes its most provocative changes is in the characterization of the iconic Atticus. The mere mention of the name calls to mind Gregory Peck’s almost saintly turn in the 1964 film, which crystalized him as the paragon of White liberal heroism. Although Jeff Daniels, returning to the role for the initial post-lockdown Broadway run, may not have quite the same gravitas as Peck, he does skillfully balance Atticus’s quiet decency, quick wit, and rhetorical grace. What Sorkin’s version of the role also demands is a certain shortsightedness that fuels a cantankerous temper. In Sorkin’s hands, Atticus’s commitment to basic human decency is complicated by the degree to which he lets racism slide out of deference to his neighbors. Throughout the play, Calpurnia and the children pick at Atticus’s stubborn refusal to call the racists out for who they are, taking it to the point that his belief in decency and non-confrontation is making him blind to the truth. As we come to learn, however, this version of Atticus is not afraid to get his hands dirty if necessary, as he proves when disarming the angry Mr. Ewell during a confrontation and verbally belittling him with surgical precision. It is a shockingly, if somewhat satisfyingly, violent moment for someone who has otherwise maintained nothing but restraint. Ultimately, even though Atticus defends Tom with skill and vigor, the nature of his commitment to resisting the full extent of racism’s power is left unclear. What is clear is that this Atticus’s above-it-all approach is not without his flaws, while the man himself is not without a certain edge. In my view, this demystifies Atticus Finch without harming the character’s legacy. If anything, it shows that complex people can perform heroic, if ill-fated work, even if they are not the saints we want them to be.

While it may seem odd to hold these three pieces together, I think all are instructive in the way they contrast the veneer of niceness with a deeper truth, whether that be the real selves lurking behind happy faces, the heavy costs of doing right, or the fact that sometimes being nice just covers up too many sins. As someone who has always gotten by on being nice, it is genuinely convicting to sit with work that asks something more of its characters. To do that in a way that invites audiences to reflect requires a willingness to peel away layers while ratcheting up the stakes. Ted Lasso excels at peeling layers and may, eventually, clarify the stakes. The Caucasian Chalk Circle and To Kill a Mockingbird, meanwhile, have stakes to burn. For them, the difference between niceness and kindness can mean the difference between life and death. As I see it, we have to be ready to make similar choices in real life, too.

The Water, The Chair, The Conference: Three Short Musings

Teaching Water by the Spoonful Now

Last year, I approached my first Texts and Contexts in Western Theatre course with a contemporary play, Dominique Morisseau’s Pipeline, set up as a sort of workshop text. I’m doing the same thing this semester, this time with Water by the Spoonful by Quiara Alegría Hudes. “Contemporary” is a flexible term, but a play that is ten years old and written with enough current references tends to fit most definitions, at least at first blush. Interestingly, Water by the Spoonful is a play that feels very “now” and yet very “ten years old” at the same time. A lot of it takes place in a chatroom for recovering cocaine addicts – no named platform, just a chatroom – and on the one hand, that makes it strikingly appropriate for students who have spent the bulk of the past two years learning online. On the other hand, when a character references signing in from an internet café, it hits a little differently (my friend Tara taught this play last semester and clued me in to that time-capsule treat). It’s a reminder that a lot has changed since the proliferation of smartphones and conferencing technology; there’s less need to find a settled spot to plug in from, or a silly screen name to cloak your identity (unless you really want one). In short, the internet isn’t quite the same place it used to be. Interestingly, Hudes pushes against the actors typing or otherwise engaging with a “computer” onstage, allowing the actors simply to speak. That’s actually quite appropriate for the Zoom era. To what degree all of this changes how students approach the play remains to be seen.

In addition to facing the internet of yesteryear, there’s also the small matter of war. In Water by the Spoonful, Eliot, one of the main characters, has returned from a tour of duty in Iraq and brought with him the ghost of an Iraqi citizen. Throughout the play, the Ghost begs Eliot to return his passport, eventually pleading so intensely that it forces a physical confrontation. We also learn that Eliot suffers from an addiction to painkillers, the after-effects of an injury sustained in the line of duty. With the United States pulling (chaotically) out of Afghanistan, it seems like the ideal time to redirect attention toward the country’s Middle East escapades and their traumatic results. I say “redirect” because, up until very recently, America’s wars in the Middle East had faded into the background for so many of us during this time of domestic upheaval. Like internet cafes, they almost seem to call from another era, even if, in the case of Afghanistan, they have been going on this whole time. So while the play still feels very “now” in redirecting our attention to the trauma brought home by soldiers and the harm inflicted on Afghanis, it also feels strangely distant. My hope is that we’ll get to explore more of that dissonance as we work further back into the canon, asking ourselves what still resonates, what doesn’t resonate, and what we can get out of holding those two things in tension with another. Lord knows there will be plenty more dissonance when Antigone comes around.

Sitting with The Chair (and Spoilers!)

Sandra Oh has been a favorite of mine ever since the early, halcyon days Grey’s Anatomy, so it’s immensely gratifying not only to live in the age of Killing Eve but to get a show like The Chair. Oh is the perfect person to lead a series that shifts from satirical to heartfelt to prescient, all while skewering many of academia’s ailments, among them the slights suffered by women, and women of color in particular. There is so much I love about The Chair – and so much that has already been written about it, including this excellent review from real-life Chair Dr. Karen Tongson – that it seems almost churlish to bring up two criticisms that I think limit it somewhat. Before I begin, it’s worth mentioning here that the whole discourse (as the kids are calling it) around verisimilitude in The Chair has been quite a merry-go-round, so much so that it has come in for some criticism of its own. As Dr. Koritha Mitchell points out in her op-ed for CNN, Oh’s Dr. Ji-Yoon Kim is a character, not a real person, and the encounters she has are designed to explicate who she is the protagonist in this story, not to present a documentary account. She also argues that an inability or unwillingness to accept Ji-Yoon as the protagonist is tied to the marginalization of women of color and other historically excluded groups. In other words, it is not enough to praise diversity in storytelling without being willing to acknowledge protagonists who don’t fit the hegemonic mold. While this is a crucial insight, I worry that, on a structural level, The Chair itself doesn’t always live up to Ji-Yoon’s status as protagonist. For a show about the lack of opportunities and the flush of additional labor put on women of color in academia, The Chair spends an awful lot of time asking Ji-Yoon, and the audience, to pick up after Dr. Bill Dobson, her messy White male colleague. Make no mistake, I largely enjoy Bill’s story and appreciate what the show does to undermine the cocksure, “inspirational” tropes he is meant to embody, and the fact that he becomes such a problem child is part of the point. But we spend a lot of time with Bill and his problems (some of them admittedly serious), so much so that he is essentially a second lead, even if his time onscreen is often unremarkable and repetitive (we only need so many wandering misadventures, cute bonding scenes with Ji-Yoon’s daughter, or hurried, illicit meetings with undergraduates before we get the point). So while I appreciated Bill’s story arc, I wonder if the show risks perpetuating the same problems it meant to combat by constantly centering him beyond the purpose of explicating the challenge he poses. It’s worth remembering that assessing what a show values sometimes comes down to just counting how much screen time it gives to each of its characters.

Speaking of Bill’s story, the other facet that left me a bit cold was, unfortunately, the ending. (Spoilers Ahead) Early on, Bill becomes embroiled in a “cancel culture” situation when an ironic fascist salute in his modernism class is captured on camera and turned into a meme. Some students quickly latch onto it as evidence that Bill may be harboring Nazi sympathies or, at the very least, is completely oblivious to how his actions might resonate. Bill stages an ill-fated town hall with the students that devolves into an argument, triggers further protests, and leaves most of the faculty scrambling. Throughout the remainder of the show, Ji-Yoon is forced to chart the best path forward, which may include terminating Bill if he is unwilling to apologize unreservedly, which he is not. In the end, she chooses not to vote for his removal and instead argues in front of the disciplinary committee that getting rid of Bill is unfair to the students; not only will they see right through their face-saving maneuver, they’ll be left without proper instruction on how to handle complex situations like this one. The problem with this move is that the students have largely been marginalized up to this point. Apart from a handful of (somewhat underwritten) characters, most students pushing for Bill to be punished are faces in the crowd, many of them barely more than “woke” mouthpieces with axes to grind. To be fair, the show demonstrates a certain wry insight by focusing on academic politics rather than what is good for the students, and the constant fear the professors have of appearing to be doing something inappropriate, even in fairly innocuous situations, speaks to how much universities are governed by concerns over liability, something Tongson discusses in her piece. Yet that only makes the sudden about-face to a sincere, inspirational plea all the harder to take. As Alessa Dominguez’s piece in Buzzfeed argues, the show may not be quite the satire it aims to be (it’s worth arguing here that many of the criticisms Mitchell confronts are brought up by Dominguez). While that could be blamed on a certain conservatism within the structures of universities, it could also be the result of trying to balance too many tones at once. In any case, while The Chair makes the right move in re-centering students, it only does so after giving those students relatively short shrift, sacrificing the very nuance it claims to argue for. It’s an ending that could be good, but I’m not sure the show earns it.

You may notice that I’ve equivocated a bit on my criticisms of The Chair. That’s partly because 1) it’s a TV show that I thoroughly enjoyed, 2) I don’t want to be one of the people trying to read it like a documentary, and 3) they’re fine points that I hope to look at closely in a second viewing. More importantly, I believe in the value of multiple perspectives, and many of the features I critique might look different when viewed from another lens. That’s something the show does quite well, actually; even the crusty old White men clinging to their relevance get their moment. And heck, if scholars the caliber of Mitchell and others are seeing what The Chair wants to show them, then what do I know?

After ATHE 2021

Last month, I chaired and presented on a panel at the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) conference, one of our field’s biggest annual gatherings. Apart from enjoying a successful discussion on performance, power, and activism in contemporary sport, featuring the brilliant trio of Sean Bartley, Noe Montez, and Leticia Ridley, I got to attend several insightful sessions that not only got me excited for the school year but also helped me tweak my approach for future conferences. With all sessions recorded for later viewing, I decided to only attend those sessions where I might have something worth asking during the Q&A. In addition to actually engaging in some conversation, my question would be recorded for posterity (for better or for worse). This was initially meant to be an online-only tactic, but I realized it’s a great way to approach conferences in general. When faced with a long menu of sessions, why not select those that might offer you an opportunity to participate? It’s certainly a lot better than hearing a raft of papers on a topic you thought might be interesting but soon realize is anything but. It also allows me to pull some of what I’m learning back to the classroom. In the “re: PERFORMATIVE” session, for example, I asked the panelists and other attendees, many of us involved in the #PerformativeX special section of the Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism, how we can teach students about the many flexible powers of performance and “performativity.” It was a tall order, to be sure, but it also made for a great talk that will help me develop my own plans to teach performance more effectively.

Speaking of online conferences, it seems like keeping conferences virtual or at least hybrid is a no-brainer going forward. Yes, there are practical considerations to bear in mind, including contracts, and there is always something special about being there, at least for me. But keeping hybrid and virtual options on the table goes some way to expanding accessibility, and I’m hardly the first one to point this out. Not only does it open the conference up to people who may be unable to travel for a variety of reasons, it makes a number of tools – closed captioning, slides and documents, chat functions, etc. – available at the touch of a button. Assuming recording is set up, it also ensures that some amount of the work is housed for later use like a Netflix for real theatre nerds. Granted, Zoom fatigue is always a factor to consider (I certainly did not attend all the sessions I planned to) and there is no real substitute for the impromptu conversation or hastily arranged coffee chat after a panel. But for all their social benefits, conferences should ultimately be about sharing knowledge, and there’s no reason to limit that capacity by refusing to make online engagement available to attendees. Over to you, American Society for Theatre Research and other organizations looking to the future..

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


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.