No Hair for Oil, or A Manifesto for TV Blogging: ‘Arrested Development’ Rewind: ‘Whistler’s Mother’

There are several schools of thought when it comes to television recapping. There’s the trusted, albeit dry, beat by beat summary, which will remind readers of the basic plot points of their favorite show’s most recent episode. This method may have injected into it a little criticism, but it hardly ever digs beyond the superficial. That said, this method is perfectly legitimate. It’s like a post-coital précis, reminding you of the evening’s high notes, letting you relive the invigorating endeavor in your imagination. It’ll never be quite as good as the first go-around but a warm afterglow remains.

Then there’s the critical angle, where the author dismantles the episode, pulling at its themes, its mechanisms, to try to unveil a deeper meaning. Sometimes, this will attempt to discern the creators’ intent, despite the well-known fallacy. Often these recaps will evoke other cultural landmarks to explicate and provide thematic heft. They could use Shakespeare to illuminate technique. They could rip from the headlines to prove a show’s relevance.

All these attempt to add importance to a television program, one which—let’s be honest—may not stand the test of time. It’s impossible to say whether a show like Breaking Bad or Lost or even Arrested Development will be remembered in 400 years. Will High School Theaters put on productions of Mad Men in musty auditoriums? Will people flock to Central Park to see Jack and Locke open the hatch?

I raise these questions not to disregard my assignment—I’m here to talk about AD’s episode “Whistler’s Mother,” and I will do that, I promise—but in writing about this show for a few weeks it becomes more difficult to find a new angle to approach it. I could fall back on a simple summary, but to write that is not only boring but a waste of my readers’ time. Why read a recap of the action, of all the peaks and dénouements, when sitting down to watch an episode is far more fulfilling?

What’s more: why recap a show that’s been off the air for six years and won’t return for at least one more? Half the fun discussing an ongoing television show has to be the speculation. You ask yourself where the show will go next, how it will subvert expectations, and push its audience to new and strange places.

You can’t do that with Arrested Development. We have three seasons and pages and pages and pages of work already done on the subject. The little in-jokes, the clever callbacks—they’ve all been mapped out. Not to say one cannot build on this groundwork, but it sometimes feels like the only criticism left to make is the academic kind. Yes, we could examine the Bluth Company as Marxist Theorists; we could examine the Bluth Family dynamics as Queer Theorists. It could make for a fascinating read, but not here, not on the internet. The internet’s attention span, it leaves lots to be desired.

I feel a good television blogger should inform as well as recap. For instance, I could tell you the title of this episode, “Whistler’s Mother” is an allusion to the famous James McNeil Whistler painting entitled “Arrangement in Gray and Black No. 1.” I could tell you about it, but then we’d be in the realm of art history, and that’s not why you’re here.

To give you what you’re looking for, I could tell you that this episode is about Michael trying to make his company honest and transparent—an impossible act when he has to deal with a whistleblower on the board of directors who wants to be paid for his silence. He’s willing to go to the authorities with a laundry list of the Bluth Company’s malfeasances. That is unless they bend ethics even further and offer him a bribe.

The threat puts Michael in a bind. He needs to be honest. Trying to act like an independent businessman—one free of his father’s influence—he buys land from Oscar Bluth (George Sr.’s twin and an early occurrence of doubles in the show, of which there would be many, most notably Saddam Hussein’s). The land, it turns out, is worthless. The government has an easement on it, so no development can take place. The whole deal looks unethical. He’s guilty of nepotism, of doing business with his father from prison. The list goes on.

Reluctantly Michael must go to his mother to solve his problem. She’s been cleaning up Michael’s messes since he was a boy, and she does not hesitate to do so again. Though her motives, it should be noted, are less than honorable. She goes to Oscar to threaten/woo him to sell the land back. Oscar, who’s in love with her, acquiesces. With that money, she buys off Mr. Jordan, the whistleblower, and takes his place on the board, where she undermines him the only way a mother can: with embarrassing stories. Michael cannot get a break.

Meanwhile, Lindsay’s disgusted with the military after she discovers her stylist is shipping out to Iraq. She must protest. Sure, she’s out of touch. Her priorities are completely out of whack—remember, she initially went to her stylist to get an affair-ready do. Still, her passion’s real, despite coming from self-interest.

When Lindsay goes to protest, she and the other objectors are put into a chain link cage. As oblivious as she is, she still realizes this “free speech zone” is a sham. Naturally, there’s no media to cover their protest —they’ve been caged in the “free press zone” miles away. A mockery of free speech so outlandish it could only be the stuff of nonfiction. In 2002 when President George W. Bush visited Pittsburgh, a free speech zone was erected a third of a mile away from where he’d be speaking, effectively making the protests invisible. To make matters worse, Bush supporters were allowed to bring their banners right up to where the President would see them.

Lindsay’s compatriots in the cage appear to be the lot you would expect at a protest: they’re unshaven, they’re ragged, they’re huddled. They are, ostensibly, better informed than Lindsay. They are veteran protesters. And with their experience comes the knowledge of how much actual difference they can make in that cage. So when they get hosed down, it’s no surprise they flee. They have nothing to gain from staying.

But Lindsay, actually passionate for once, doubles down, cage dances against the war. If more protests were made in this fashion, would the public be more likely to join the cause? To answer my own rhetorical question: no, they wouldn’t, as those topless Occupy protesters demonstrated. Her dance does not liberate Iraq. It does not end an occupation. What it does is provide Lindsay with her self-esteem, which is why she went to get her hair styled to begin with.

Now, while the war had been alluded to and danced around throughout the season, this is the first episode to show us the military firsthand. They march through Oscar’s lemon grove, where they buy his lemonade and shell his land.

Arrested Development isn’t so much critiquing the military here as much as citizen complacency. The Bluths don’t even register the war’s existence until they are personally affected. Lindsay losing her stylist, Oscar’s worthless land, Gob’s wife enlisting in the military, these events bring the war into their lives. Without these, they would be completely ignorant of current events. It’s a potent assessment of our inability as a country to be incensed by the realities of war.

Which brings me back to television blogging. Given recent tragedies (at home and abroad), it feels frivolous to discuss the minutia of fictional characters, to entertain their whims, to examine their psychology. To take to the internet and complain that Sookie’s behavior annoyed you or that True Blood’s latest twist made the show doubly implausible, it turns your theorizing into unsubstantive white noise.

Now I’m not condemning anything here. Sometimes the best way to overcome the heavy heart after an unimaginable act is to find solace in the inane. That’s what television should allow us to do. It should provide us a respite from the common and uncommon hardships we face.

But if television programming is our exaltation, our entertainment, then recapping television performs a greater service. It should push us to consider what we watch. These television shows, the ones worth recapping, present us with ideas and questions. Arrested Development turned itself into a parody of the ineptitude and farce surrounding the Bush administration and the Iraq War. It would be a shame to simply ignore the questions it poses by simply summarizing a plot from beginning to end.

There’s another school of television recapping to which, for better or worse, I’ve ascribed. It’s not writing about a show, it’s writing around a show. And in this piece, I even went as far as to write about not being able to write about a show. I’ve failed to recap an episode, but in its stead I hope I’ve tugged at ideas, at theories, at questions.

I cannot purport to answer any questions I’ve raised. I can’t even say with any certainty that my ponderous caprice is valuable—like most television blogging I assume it’s as frivolous as even the worst TV summary. That said, it seems to me that the internet is a forum to discuss ideas. Yes, this internet. The woeful, disparaging, inhumane internet should be a space where we can all become philosophers, discussing theories about the human condition vis-à-vis fictional families and their comical undoing. As naïve and idealistic as that sounds, I believe we can do better than what’s being written by most bloggers every week. We can build a dialogue. We need not settle for an afterglow.

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