An Emmys Mystery: Why Nominate the Worst Part of Arrested Development?

Jason Bateman did the best he could, but Michael Bluth was a weak link in Netflix's strange, semi-genius season. Better to recognize 'Feral Jesus,' no?
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Netflix

This year's Emmys nominations are historic, as a lot of headlines on the matter will tell you, because they signal that Internet TV has "arrived." Two Netflix original series, House of Cards and Arrested Development, received major nods from voters, with Cards getting nine nominations and Arrested getting three.

This is a good thing. You may have your quarrels with these two shows--I do, especially with the ponderous yet somehow captivating Cards--but it's hard to argue that they're not in the same quality bracket as many of the long-feted shows on networks and cable. It's right for the Emmys to recognize this.

But otherwise, the Emmys remain old-school. They fetishize recognizable stars, like Game of Thrones' award-winner Peter Dinklage, who was nominated in a season where he had relatively little to do while Charles Dance owned every scene he was in and Nikolaj Coster-Waldau pulled off an astonishing character transformation. And they latch on to particular shows for years on end: Modern Family, as always, dominates the comedy categories.

This holds for the Netflix nominations. Cards' already-famous leads Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright are up for acting awards; the sensitive, hilarious, heartbreaking work by supporting actor Corey Stoll, who plays Congressman Peter Russo, remains unrecognized.

More frustrating is the case of Arrested Development. Its fourth season, the first for Netflix, was bizarre, sprawling, and inconsistent, yet often uproarious. As The Atlantic's Chris Orr wrote, it's "something that doesn't really have a name, or a meaningful precedent: not a series, or a movie, or even a mini-series, but rather a single, eight-hour work of dada televisual art." So it makes some sense that it's not up for Best Comedy.

But why is its sole nomination in a non-technical category for a role that a lot of people thought was among the weaker points of the new season--Jason Bateman as Michael Bluth?

Bateman is an excellent actor, and his character is the ostensible protagonist of Arrested Development. Since the start of the series, he's played the straight man to his kooky relatives, the guy impressed by how normal he is compared with his hook-having, Magicians' Alliance-betraying family members. One of the show's many ironies, of course, is that Michael really isn't that different, that he shares his kin's congenital self-centeredness. But in the original Fox seasons, a sense decency and love of family--especially love of son--kept him relatable.

In Season Four, he's even more central to the show. Famously, showrunner Mitchell Hurwitz struggled to reassemble the old cast for this new run of episodes, and schedules conflicted so much that he ended up having to use green screens and write-around techniques to bring the old ensemble together. Each installment therefore revolves around one particular character in the Bluth family. But Michael always makes an appearance, usually as part of his quest for signatures to obtain the rights to make a movie based on his family's life.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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