Open Table Call: On Race and Arrested Development

By Arturo R. García

The cast of “Arrested Development.” Image via jta.org

Like a lot of people this holiday weekend, I powered through all 15 episodes of the fourth season of Arrested Development. (Apparently I’m one of just 10 percent of viewers who finished the whole run by sundown. I don’t know if this is an honorific or a red flag.)

And as it turns out, there’s quite a bit to go through as regards the series’ treatment of people who aren’t the Bluths. But I want to try something a little different from our open threads — I’d like to crowd-source some reactions to some of the various depictions we saw this year. Spoilers and general guidelines under the cut.

So throughout the course of the season we saw:

  • A group of Asian and Asian-American characters, who ranged from George-Michael’s roommate “P-Hound” being presented as being as “normal” as the average Bluth — remember, in this show’s universe, just about everybody is an Awful Person — to China Garden and the three “Real Housewives” veering closer to stereotypes. And then there’s the Mongols.
  • Terry Crews playing a barely-disguised take on Herman Cain, while Garcelle Beauvais played his estranged wife, who briefly hooked up with Buster.
  • India, as a country and culture, acted as a vehicle through which to chide Lindsay and Tobias’ respective delusions (as well as Eat, Pray, Love), and as a work stop for Maeby. Interesting to note that the characters the Funkes encounter on their journeys are primarily played by former members of the cast of Outsourced.
  • U.S. foreign policy was the subject of a brief gag involving Buster’s foray into becoming a drone pilot (“Take that, Taliban wedding!”).
  • There were various references to “The Mexicans,” as both the target of Lucille’s well-established racism and the focal point of her latest machinations with George Sr., who buys land he thinks is close enough to the border to put up a wall to “keep them out,” only to discover that the land is actually in Mexico, thus forcing the unhappy couple to try to scuttle the project. While still getting paid, of course. But we never actually see any Mexicans opposing the plan. The “blowback” to Lucille’s “Cinco de Cuatro” celebration, blamed on Mexicans, actually comes from the aforementioned Mongols.
  • This isn’t race-specific, but: while the original series spent a large amount of time poking fun at Tobias’ gender presentation, Season 4 seemed to veer away from that (explicitly calling it a “running gag” within the family) in favor of showing his tendency toward exploiting someone. The tell-tale line in his story, for me, came when he told DeBrie, “I believe you can do anything I tell you to.” Yet at the same time, we saw GOB experience something depicted as actual emotions toward Tony Wonder, culminating (off-camera) in a sexual encounter. Now, how this story was presented is certainly up for discussion, Will Arnett played the final shot of GOB realizing Wonder had taken a “forget me now” after their night together with an undeniable sadness.
  • Meanwhile, George Sr. found himself feeling “more sensitive,” leading to him grabbing Lindsay’s discarded red wig and declaring, “This feels right” after donning it.
  • Now, rather than the usual Open Thread, I’d like to collect reactions from members of these various communities to lay out in a Roundtable format a week from today. If you’d like to contribute, just reach me at arturo@racialicious.com. Anonymous comments, or comments using an alias, are also in play here.

 

 

 

  • Juan

    Did everyone miss the “you wouldn’t tip a black man” gag?

  • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

    Finally finished it, and my biggest problem was that it ended on many cliffhangers…

  • http://clownetowne.tumblr.com/ Helena

    The presentation of Asian characters definitely made me more uncomfortable than any of the other race-related stuff in the new AD – Lucille’s prejudice against the Hispanic community has been a theme since the first series that they’ve been fairly cutting on in the past, and I felt like the “the Mexicans” arc mostly acted to show how completely detached and oblivious the Bluths are, but I definitely get the feeling that the writers view Asians as an acceptable target. The Triad and Mongol stuff was just kind of excruciating to watch, and while P-Hound was significantly closer to a real person, he still definitely fit the “Asian College Nerd” stereotype.

    On the other hand, Herbert’s wife and Perfecto were both perfectly plausible, fleshed-out characters, and the bit about Buster as a drone pilot was the high point of the series – it was sharp, witty and uncomfortable political satire on a level I expected from the series and I’d been waiting for the previous 13 episodes.

    I’m really glad that the storyline didn’t go far enough to go any deeper into the “George Sr’s Gender Identity” arc, though, because that was straight-up gross and uncomfortable. I do not look forward to them playing trans* identity in the movie as a light gag the way the Rita storyline used learning disability, but I have no doubt that they will.

  • Ms. A

    It feels like a mixed bag to me. I agree with Ruthie O.’s comment that it feels like this show, unlike many others set in California, at least reflects the fact that non-White people exist and that of course our White protagonists would interact with them regularly. It also showed people of color across the socioeconomic spectrum, with Herbert Love as a wealthy, corrupt politician (although there was some ick to the hypersexualized Black man stereotype there) and Lupe as the Bluth’s long-suffering housekeeper. Sometimes, it felt like the racism was the butt of the joke, but other times, it just felt like a racist sentiment followed by giggles. Like a very racist person could watch that and think “Exactly!” or an antiracist activist could watch it and think “Finally, they’re making fun of this aspect of racism!” The ambiguous nature of this type of comedy always makes me a little uncomfortable and very aware of who I’m watching the show with. But, what’s interesting is that compared to say, Mad Men, which is actually trying to say something just and profound about race and often fails painfully, Arrested Development on the whole seems to have a clear stance that just occasionally falters.

    • J M

      Your comment reminds me very much of popular reactions to All In the Family (showing my age here). Some fans saw Archie’s regressive attitudes as the butt of the joke, while others loved him because he said the bigoted things they were actually thinking. I think it’s a difficult line for any comedy to tread, because no matter how over the top you think you’re making your characters, it’s a guarantee that someone will take it at face value and agree with what they’re saying.

      • aboynamedart

        But, again, one key to the writing of that show was providing Archie with constant vocal opposition.

        • J M

          Very true. I think there’s an assumption these days that audiences are sophisticated enough to “get it” without someone like Michael as a foil for the characters who voice these beliefs. But I’m not sure that assumption is accurate.

      • Tamara Padgett

        Archies racist attitudes were clearly the butt of the joke, as he was always made to look like an idiot. Only Carroll O’Connor could pull off making a bigot likable…and I found myself as a black woman often rooting for him against his liberal white son-in-law who was just as racist in some ways but of course being the liberal that he was, he was completely oblivious of this fact.

    • Tusconian

      I agree. On the one hand, I like the show, and I think the point is definitely to poke fun at racism (Lucille is not supposed to be the hero, for example). And a lot of characters are nonwhite without people making a huge freaking deal about it, or the characters being overly stereotypical. Lupe not some illiterate piece of furniture like many nonwhite maids are, and her family is shown to be generally average, middle class people who happen to be Latino. George Michael’s friend and ex girlfriend are Indian (I think) and no one says “OMG George Michael is dating a NON WHITE CHICK!” or has to make it a heavy handed lesson on love not seeing color (probably only to cut her at the end of the episode). No one questions Herbert Love being a black, Republican birther who is kind of racist himself. The only indirect mention of his race is Buster’s description of how he had sex with a black woman, Love’s wife, to his Latina, um……girlfriend? Buster actually gets romantically involved with nonwhite woman pretty much exclusively and no one makes jokes about him having “jungle fever” or questions why he hates white women. The interactions are incredibly realistic, from my point of view, but like you said, it’s really ambiguous, and I think they intended that too. If they were very clear with the fact that half of what Lucille does is actively racist, and that is bad, the producers/writers know they’d alienate the unfortunately sizable portion of their audience who’d take to the internet and moan on about how voluntarily watching this completely optional form of entertainment is shoving political correctness down their throats.

      Also, their depiction of Asian women is kind of uncomfortable and silly, given how realistically they depict black and Latino characters. Not the worst I’ve ever seen, but while the black and Latino characters are diverse and the racism directed at them is the butt of the joke, the Asian women themselves seem to be the butt of the joke.

      • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

        Hm… When did Buster get involved with a non white woman?

  • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

    It really does tread the line a lot of the time. – the whole show is about ridiculous people, and it’s tough to differentiate between mockery based on race and mockery based on the character. I find the bisexual erasure troubling.

    I can’t participate more because I’m only halfway through!

  • Angus Harrison

    I thought the new series largely did a fantastic job of playing on the Bluth’s (particularly Lucilles) racial ignorance. Any joke the typified race seemed to come from the right place? There were some questionable gags – Maeby’s Indian accent? But overall the any stereotyping seemed so ridiculously over the top it avoided any modicum of sincerity – Lucille being threatened with the noodles in prison for example. Interested to see what other people think. It is possible I am overlooking things as I love the show so much.

    • aboynamedart

      I think the argument can be made, though, that there’s a difference between a joke showing how awful a person is and having somebody there to openly call them on it. That stuck out in particular, for me, regarding the issue of “The Mexicans.” I don’t believe we even saw much vocal opposition from Lucille 2, and she was campaigning against the wall. So what can end up happening is, your characters look less like villains and more like anti-heroes, because — especially in Lucille B.’s case — they get away with having these attitudes.

      • http://twitter.com/a_n_g_u_s Angus Harrison

        Yes but as with much of the humour in AD I feel that the audience play the part of calling them up on it by laughing. As a show it has always centred on a group of distinctly unlikable characters who go through life outdoing each other in awfulness – with only Michael there to wince or call them up on it. Perhaps what has broken this trend in season 4 is that even Michael seemed to be sinking to Bluthian lows.

        • aboynamedart

          That might be part of the intent, but it’s also a bit of a leap to assume that the entire audience of the show disagrees with the Bluths’ feelings or actions; Lucille, in particular, seems like the kind of person who would justify her statements by saying they’re “what everybody else is really thinking.” Especially since, as Alyssa Rosenberg at Think Progress points out, the Bluths never truly get their comeuppance.

          • Angus Harrison

            Yeah very true. I would also support your point with the fact that Michael was quite unlikeable in this new season upsetting the balance. We need him to grimace and recognise the depravity.

  • http://profiles.google.com/ruthieoo Ruthie O

    When watching Season 4, I noticed the sheer number of characters of color. In Seasons 1-3, the only people of color I can remember are T-Bone, Marta, and Lupe– and that was mostly in the first season. In Season 4, almost every new character was a person of color (with the exception of professional silver fox, John Slattery, and the activist/Paul Rudd’s doppelganger). Was Mitchell Hurwitz consciously trying to rectify the overwhelming whiteness of the earlier seasons? Or was he unconsciously motivated to cast so many people of color because TV has become more diverse in the past eight years? However, the question I’m more interested in is this: quantity or quality? Is it an accomplishment to simply cast that many actors of color? Or do the stereotypical representations counteract any positivity garnered by diverse casting? (And, considering the satirical nature of the show, which stereotypes are being critiqued and which stereotypes are being propelled?)

    I have more questions than answers, and I can’t wait to read what everyone has to say!

    • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

      There was also Ice, the bounty hunter/caterer, and of course, Annyong.

      • thomasawful

        and carl weathers

      • http://profiles.google.com/ruthieoo Ruthie O

        Ah yes! I stand corrected. I clearly need to re-watch Seasons 2 and 3. This is not a bad thing. :)

        • Fifty Shades Of Erin Gray

          The thing is, though, that it kind of makes sense because this is a very sheltered white family whose primary contact with POCs is in subservient roles.

          That said, there were more POCs in minor roles than, say, Girls.

          OTOH, there’s… Franklin.

          BTW, i totally thought that was Paul Rudd, too, then maybe Joseph Gordon Leavitt. It was actually Chris Diamantopolous, and i thought he was pretty funny.