On ‘Arrested Development’ and Family

I could sure use a Forget-Me-Now, though I suppose that might be the easy way around this.

Arrested Development’s latest (half) season is due to roll out on Netflix tomorrow. The cast has done the usual promoting – including Jeffrey Tambor – but it all came to a screeching halt with a fateful sitdown with The New York Times. Such articles are meant to be the high point of a media’s promotion tour. Instead, it was a Shakespearean (or rather, Bluth-ian) fall of disastrous proportions. Try as hard as they might, Netflix found out the hard way that there is no escaping the elephant in the room. 

The Bluths, as the show is wont to remind you, are a family, often bearing the moniker “dysfunctional.” I would argue that all families are. The Bluths lie, embezzle, scheme, steal from one another, launch a coup, forsake, and forgive – perhaps all too easily. It was Jeffrey Tambor himself who brought up an episode of misconduct, where he lashed out at Jessica Walter in a way that, in her 60+ years in the business, she had never experienced before. (“Which we’ve all done, by the way,” Bateman interjected. “You’ve never yelled at me like that,” Walter said.)

Aside from Walter and Alia Shawkat, the other cast members were ready to forgive and support Tambor. Because that’s what families do, aside from screaming at each other, belittling one’s experiences, excusing the inexcusable, etc. When you’re the sole person in the room who hasn’t forgiven, suddenly you’re being withholding. You’re the stingy one, the one who can’t let go. The abuser’s actions are no longer in question but the victim’s and her apparent unwillingness to move on. None of this boded well for anyone in that room. 

There are plenty of PR lessons to be learned from that NYT interview (next time bring your publicist) but what’s interesting was how this was meant to be the victory lap of Tambor’s rehabilitation parade. His profile in The Hollywood Reporter kickstarted this quiet apology tour in which he copped to personal failings, denied others, otherwise an attempt to manage his fallout from Transparent. Netflix chose to stand behind Tambor’s continued presence in Arrested Development, saying nothing else except that they “stood behind him.” They created their own ticking time bomb by detaching themselves from the allegations against Tambor, allowing him to go on press for the show, even submitting him for Emmy consideration just as Amazon withdrew him.

Netflix, in many ways, set the precedent for no longer tolerating inappropriate workplace behavior, firing Kevin Spacey two episodes into House of Cards and retooling the upcoming season to have his character written off. Amazon, by comparison, launched an investigation into the harassment allegations against Tambor and found enough to warrant his removal. Netflix’s meager statement and show of support stands in direct contrast to Amazon’s decision to fire him. Which is why the blowback isn’t surprising, nor is Netflix’s decision to cancel Arrested Development’s UK tour. They tried to avoid all of this by pretending it could be business as usual. (Narrator: it wasn’t.)

We know the accusations surrounding Jeffrey Tambor as much as we are well aware of the saga that unfolded after that NYT interview. (Which went down a lot like an unfunny episode, performative apologies and all.) So what do we make of that “dysfunction” moniker now? We’ve seen this family scream at each other for outrageous comedic effect. What happens when we know those lines have blurred? The show’s power of illusion having been shattered, made real, or sur-real, how do we go on pretending let alone caring about whether Arrested Development can simply be a great show again?

“What have we always said is the most important thing?” Jason Bateman’s character asks his son in the pilot. “Family,” he iterates again and again all the way through the show’s Netflix revival. What used to be a running joke on Michael’s arrested development is used in pointed defense of Tambor’s lashing out. The thing about family is that it’s a backdoor excuse for both the morally onerous and the reprehensible. It’s the handy response for what is perceived as “business as usual” or “how we run things.” That’s what’s so shocking about Bateman’s answer, how ordinary it seems. Invoking the family clause is an everyday justification, an excuse for the abuser and a plea for those who suffered to get their act together, which sounds a lot like gaslighting.

“Family” is the way we avoid conversations about harassment, sexual assault, and systemic abuse. It’s especially how we let inappropriate workplace conduct slide: the managers who feel it’s in their power to scream at their subordinates, haze their employees, have you in tears to produce your “best work.” Family is the pass we give, an enduring loyalty owed by looking the other way. We let shit happen, but the crux of the Me Too movement is that we don’t anymore.

If family really is the most important thing then why don’t we fight to make the workplace a safe environment? Shouldn’t family be the rule, not the exception? What Jason Bateman, David Cross, and Tony Hale said was disappointing, but I’m confident they’ll learn to stop making excuses for abusive behavior. (Family means holding each other accountable.) Self-awareness is key in rooting out toxic beliefs, as is the willingness to change. At least now we’re no longer ignoring the issues that most of us wanted to shove aside all so we can meekly enjoy a fiction. These are beliefs that need confronting in a discussion that requires nuance, which, hopefully, highlights the way we move forward from here.

One could easily look at this whole saga and say that they’re done with the show and good riddance. That to me seems like the easy way out too, a continued deflection of the things that need addressing – ideas of family, etiquette in the workplace, creating a safe space for all. This is the personal reckoning we have to contend with as the actors and the shows we worship reveal the very behavior we seek to call out and uproot. Arrested Development is the latest in a long line of entertainment media that will grow even longer if we choose to confront this later. How do we move forward with a show we love? How do I watch in support of Jessica Walter, but in condemnation of Jeffrey Tambor’s behavior? Rather than avoid the hard questions, let’s sort this shit out. The one thing the NYT interview successfully pointed out: there is no way around this conversation.

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