Arrested Development's Homophobia, Racism, and Church-Bashing: Too Far?

Eleanor: Yes, the non-response was odd. The Christians on the show are in general weirdly gullible and passive. Like, when Ann and GOB get engaged, no one asks any questions... the parents don't point out that it's strange for their daughter to marry a guy she hasn't been dating, not to mention a guy who's the uncle of her ex-boyfriend. Of course that wouldn't happen in real life. But that's not all that different from how the show treats other groups—the gay guys on the Queen Mary and the various activists, both liberal and conservative, that Lindsay encounters are also very willing to be manipulated by the Bluths.

In general, I've found myself more unhappy with the little moments—not the over-the-top wedding scene, but the cheap, one-liner shots at Christians. Probably because they're so close to the kinds of things that pop up in less absurdist shows. The exchange between Tony Wonder and GOB in the most recent episode I watched, where they were talking about how he's a Christian celebrity magician, that felt like a more real thing: let's all laugh at Christians and their weird celebrities. Or, as I said before, the Veals' reaction to the Ann engagement.

Spencer: I could see being annoyed as a Christian at the way he gets engaged to Ann.

Eleanor: YES

gob evangelicals 650.png

Spencer: Like, that's a joke on the stereotype of evangelicals marrying young, etc.

Eleanor: And all the family members-coming out of the woodwork: haha huge families and their credulousness.

Spencer: Yeah, that's definitely spot-the-stereotype humor.

And also, of course Ann will sleep with him the minute she turns 18? And then get married? So lol hypocrisy?

Eleanor: Right, and then the later reveal that she had sex with Tony Wonder. (re that... I was confused that five years had passed.)

Spencer: Yeah that whole plotline is hazy to me still. But ok, yes, AD obviously relies on gross stereotypes for some of its humor.

Eleanor: Right

Spencer: And that includes homosexuality. A la the dudes on the boat in the very first episode. But I'm almost never actually offended because this is such a cartoon world.

The only thing that's really made me queasy this season is the China Garden character, who fits a certain kind of unpleasant racist depiction of Chinese people. I'd like to think that I missed some joke that absolves the show on that count. But the more interesting thing, either way, is that the arguably problematic stuff is rarely what's actually hilarious in an episode.

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Eleanor: Yes. They're just eye-roll moments.

Spencer: Though it's funny to see these horrible characters be blithely racist or homophobic or whatever.

Eleanor: But then the joke is on the racist or homophobe. Like when George doesn't tip black guys, it's like, George is an idiot... not black people don't need tips. Same with Lucille when she scapegoats "the homosexuals" for her problems.

Spencer: Yeah of course. One of my favorite eventual reveals in this season is in the final episode. There was this one element that had had me worrying this whole time that the show was racist, but it turns out, nope, just the characters are. You haven't finished yet, right?

Eleanor: No.

Spencer: OK well go home and watch then. There's a whole horde of other things to talk about.

Eleanor: So, in the end, how are we supposed to react to the show's outlandish homophobia, racism, and religion-bashing? Is it really ok for this all to be about the Bluths' narcissism?

Spencer: Well, I love this show, so I'm inclined to say yes, it's ok. The things that bother me are few and far between. And the idea of that the Bluths' wrongheaded, sick views on the world extend from selfishness is actually a really great, useful satirical point. It's not just equating racism, etc. with bad people (which Ta-Nehisi has pointed out many times is a racist fallacy in itself). It's equating racism, etc. with self-interest and a lack of empathy. Which feels right on.

Eleanor: I hear that. I've always been a bit more skeptical of the show than you've been—it's felt too much like one of those dark, mean-spirited, everyone-is-bad comedies like Seinfeld, which I really don't like. For the first three seasons, I could get over the moments of mean-spiritedness because, yes, the show is hilarious and generally does a decent job of sending up the institutions it's skewering. The Christian "inner beauty" pageant in Season Three was funny, and made a point that I could take to heart: that Christians (and other do-gooder types) can be so eager to show the world they're good that they'll crown a girl who's pretending to be paralyzed as queen of the pageant.

But the cynicism seems more dominant this season, and (unsurprisingly) I feel that the most when it's directed at a group I'm a part of. I keep watching... but with more and more ambivalence.

Presented by

Eleanor Barkhorn & Spencer Kornhaber

Eleanor Barkhorn and Spencer Kornhaber are senior associate editors at The Atlantic.

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