Why do so many TV watchers love Arrested Development (whose latest season was released on Netflix last night)? Is it just another sit-com in the cringe-inducing comedy genre, like The Office and Curb Your Enthusiasm? I think there’s another factor: the show accurately illustrates some common maladaptive life paths of people who grow up in wealthy families.
Every class life experience socializes children to have distinct strengths and limitations, including growing up owning-class life. I’ve talked with many, many people who grew up in wealthy families, knowing they would never have to work for a living, and the issues they struggle with are reflected with surprising accuracy, (though exaggerated grotesquely) in the Arrested Development Bluth family characters:
- Michael Bluth, the ostensibly sane brother, in fact has the most common owning-class character flaw: he speaks with great confidence even when he doesn’t know what he’s talking about; his urgency about the family’s crises leads him to think he’s always right. He is forever hatching overblown grand schemes to re-make the family business and his life with his son.
- Buster Bluth, the addle-pated youngest brother, remains a permanent child, because he never has to grow up. He flits from one course of study to another and remains his mother’s companion.
- The oldest brother, Gob Bluth, is a bottomless pit of need for validation of his worth. Like many people whose wealth was built by an earlier generation of entrepreneurs or talented achievers, he compares himself to them and wonders if he’ll ever measure up. Instead of working for his own accomplishments, he flails about with pointless acts of ego.
- Lost in her own narcissistic world of consumer goods is Lindsey Bluth Fünke, Michael’s supposed twin. At first, as a progressive activist myself, I was mortified by the mocking portrayal of her as a clueless liberal championing one ridiculous cause after another. But soon I recognized the syndrome of progressives who can volunteer at will: flitting around, doing the exciting or glamorous parts of activism, not buckling down to the hard work of making social change.
- Lucille Bluth, the matriarch, is recognizable as the archetype of rich women who are expected not to work, but only to consume wealth as a perpetual dependent. Like millions of housewives, her personality and will are too big for her life, so she wields control over petty things.
- These last four characters’ lack of practical knowledge about how the world works poses a challenge for the younger generation, teenage cousins George Michael and Maeby, who have to figure out the ropes with no help from their parents. Throwing another banana in the trash whenever she embezzles another dollar from the banana stand makes Maeby the ultimate in this hilarious ignorance. But when she accidentally becomes a movie producer, Maebye also exemplifies the ways that success “just happens” to ultra-privileged people through their social capital.
- George Bluth, the patriarch, has the ruling-class delusion that “The rules don’t apply to me.” He strikes watchers as bizarre because he doesn’t fear what most people fear, such as prison.
Where else on television or on film can we see such a variety of rich people’s archetypical personality flaws blown up into comedy?
Of course, belittling foolish rich people has been a staple of American popular culture at least since Groucho Marx used stodgy upper-class ladies as his foils, and villains have tended to be wealthy at least since Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life. But these portrayals stay on the superficial level of formality and greed. The super-rich celebrities famous for nothing but their wealth and foolishness, from Paris Hilton to certain Kardashians, are a cultural staple that adds the component of dysfunctional behavior to the television image of the rich: greedy, clueless and messed up. Needless to say, such extremes are atypical of most actual wealthy people. I would argue that the Arrested Development characters’ quirks, while obviously exaggerated, fall much closer to the actual pitfalls of owning-class life.
In less extreme forms, these personality problems and information gaps show up in many actual wealthy families. Most owning-class people I know are progressive activists and artists driven by dedication to their values, so they struggle mightily not to fall into these pitfalls. But in the absence of the necessities that keep the rest of us tethered to a budget and a daily routine, learning common sense from having to keep our noses to the grindstone, it’s not easy to teach oneself these lessons of working life.
Like all of us, owning-class people find it a challenge to overcome the limitations of our class backgrounds. It’s easy to scoff at the rich, “I’d like to have their problems!” But honestly, I wouldn’t want to face the task of finding my way without needing to work for a living. I hope seeing bigger-than-life comedy about their cultural limitations helps some owning-class people laugh their way to change.