Family Matters (Not): ‘Arrested Development’ Rewind: ‘Staff Infection’

The decision to start a family is not one to be taken lightly. You should marry for love, and you should only marry when you and your partner are ready. And for God’s sake, don’t have children until you can handle them. It’s like, really easy not to get pregnant. That said, nothing about love is rational, and people do crazy stuff, so confession time: nothing makes me want to start a family more than Christmas (for obvious reasons) and sitcoms. The Cosby Show is the worst of the worst. Watching Cliff and Clair expertly navigate the complexities of parenting while still making time for each other makes me ovulate. Not to mention how damned adorable Rudy is. But that’s the thing about sitcoms: any problems can be resolved in twenty minutes. You can teach your son how to budget using Monopoly money.

Unlike the Huxtables, the Bluths are completely dysfunctional. In the previous episode, Michael said to Lindsay: “That’s ridiculous. [George Michael]’s got you. He’s got our mother. You’d think that’d turn him off to the whole idea [of wanting a mother].” Despite this, Michael is determined to hold the family together, and he deeply cares about his son. In fact, it’s one of the strangest aspects of Arrested Development: despite being the CEO of a major real estate company in southern California, Michael Bluth is a decent person who cares about his family. It’s weird, I know, but he wants to go on bike rides with his son or take him to the beach, not simply ship him off to ten-hour shifts at the banana stand until he’s ready to take over the family business (AD racism alert: Annyong, Lucille’s adopted Korean son, has an “unbelievable” work ethic). In fact, given the family he grew up with, the only plausible explanation for Michael’s personality is that a television show needs a straight man.

Fundamental decency aside, though, he’s proven himself time and again to be a pretty incompetent parent. He never listens to his son and frequently gives him bad advice. “Staff Infection” begins with Michael driving the stair car alongside George Michael, who is riding his bike. This is supposed to be a surrogate father-son bike ride—Michael has taken to working Saturdays to finish up a new subdivision. It almost works, since the stair car doesn’t go any faster than George Michael’s bike, but of course it’s not the same:

George Michael: “You know Dad, you don’t have to drive so slow, I can ride my bike by myself.” Michael, eating an orange: “This actually doesn’t go any faster.” George Michael: “I mean, I know you have a lot of work, you know?” Michael, phone ringing: “That still doesn’t mean I can’t hang out with my . . . hang on one second . . . (answers phone).”

The issue that George Michael is trying to express here is that parenting (and, by extension, all relationships) isn’t an action item list. You can’t just have a bunch of projects to complete and boom! you’re a good father. It works both ways, too—this Sunday is Father’s Day, and buying a novelty tie and a beer cozy Saturday night doesn’t make you a good child.

Slate has been running a series of letters from readers about who have decided to remain childless. One that stuck out to me was a 29-year-old woman who enjoys taking baths with her husband too much to have a baby. Of course, that’s not the reason, it’s just the most striking image: having a child “might mean that we don’t take another bath again together for 18 years. Or if we do, that it’s a forced one . . . a sour, vitiated, soulless experience, something more akin to taking out the trash than actual passion.” [link mine] That’s how I couldn’t help but feel watching Michael and George Michael drive/bike together and then desperately try to find each other in this week’s comedy of errors (Michael leaves work because Lindsay says they don’t need him; George Michael leaves the banana stand because Maeby says they don’t need him; neither can find each other and are pissed; George Michael finds Michael’s folder of GM keepsakes, which is promptly confiscated by the feds).

Yes, this is a bit extreme, and there are examples of the other side. I live in Chicago, and my brother’s twenty minutes away in Evanston, but our parents live in Murfreesboro, TN. We’re all fortunate enough to get to see each other pretty frequently—my father’s job basically requires a laptop, internet, and cell phone, and it pays him enough to buy some plane tickets every now and again. Unfortunately, our time together is usually budgeted and short. We have to say things like, “We are having a family dinner, the four of us, tonight, damnit.” But that’s not how I was raised. If I wanted to play basketball with Dad but he got called into work, fine, we’d play tomorrow. If Mom and I wanted to walk the dog together but I had homework, fine, we’d do it another day.

Most of the Bluths, though, seem to be acting out of obligation. Lindsay and Tobias are only together for the sake of Maeby, who just wishes they would get divorced. Lucille doesn’t think she has “the milk of mother’s kindness in [her] anymore.” The whole show consistently points to how much better off Michael would be if he abandoned his family like an expensive bar tab. Instead, he spends episode after episode bailing his mother out financially, trying to get his treasonous father out of jail,  supporting his pitiless brothers, and encouraging his sister to stay with an unemployed loser whose acting coach is Carl Weathers. It’s a magical obligation, family. But is it worth it to consistently find yourself working Saturdays, driving a stair car alongside your unathletic son’s bicycle?

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