Rewind: ‘Arrested Development’ – ‘Charity Drive’

Season 1, Episode 6: “Charity Drive”–November 30, 2003

Episode Rewind:

This is the one where…

Lindsay joins a group of activists dedicated to preserving the wetlands and kills a frog immediately upon her arrival.

Michael refuses to give GOB a free frozen banana, for which, his family criticizes him throughout the episode.

GOB demands “creative control, spin-off rights, and theme park approval for Mr. Banana Grabber, Baby Banana Grabber, and any other Banana Grabber family character that might emanate there from,” but regrets forfeiting animation rights to Michael when he sees Mr. Banana Grabber is a garish, whistling representation of himself.

Buster unwittingly bids $10,000 on “the wrong Lucille” at a bachelorette charity auction to his mother’s dismay, but to Lucille Austero’s great delight. “Buster! How grand! How terribly grand!”

Commentary:

“Charity Drive” is episode 6 of Arrested Development, but for reasons I cannot ascertain, Fox aired it before episode 5, “Visiting Ours.” (And this isn’t the only instance episode reversal happens on the show! Fox also aired the next two episodes out of order—“In God We Trust” and “My Mother, the Car”—and erroneously aired episode 16 “Missing Kitty” after the two-parter, “Alter Egos” and “Justice is Blind.”) Why does this matter? Because as Adrian Sobol discussed in the previous installment of Rewind: Arrested Development,” AD is unlike many other sitcoms in that it doesn’t employ single episode arcs; instead, “Arrested Development and its writers take advantage of television’s serial format.” By airing the episodes out of chronological order, Fox creates discontinuity in the series’ narrative arc.

The reversal of episodes 5 and 6 just doesn’t make sense. For one thing, the Bluths lose the stair car in “Charity Drive” after Tobias parks it at the airport. So when Fox first aired “Visiting Ours,” in which the Bluths still have the stair car, it appeared that the creators of the show made a mistake (but they didn’t, Fox did!).

Another incongruity is that “Visiting Ours” introduces us to George Bluth’s “fiercely loyal assistant” (and mistress) Kitty, played by Judy Greer. We learn that Kitty is privy to company information that Michael doesn’t even have access to, Kitty and George have been having an affair for eight years, and Kitty harbors a crush on GOB, who finds her repulsive. As “Charity Drive” contains no such introduction to Kitty, it seems odd that Fox would air it prior to “Visiting Ours.”

Disrupted narrative arcs aside, Mitch Hurwitz delivers another smart, hilarious episode with “Charity Drive.” In a particularly humorous plotline, Michael mistakes a stranger for his mother’s fill-in house-keeper Lupe (B.W. Gonzalez). He offers the stranger, a woman named Helen Maria Delgado (Mel Gorham), a ride home. Helen gladly accepts, apparently mistaking Michael for someone else as well. Due to a language barrier, neither realizes the mistake that was made. Helen, however, begins to suspect Michael wants to kill her when she sees bones from Buster’s archeological dig in the backseat along with a shovel and Lindsay’s splattered red nail polish which she mistakes for blood.

This plotline aptly exemplifies the racism and ignorance that occurs throughout the series. Michael confuses two Hispanic women, simply because they are both Hispanic. Helen, of course, makes the same mistake, confusing Michael with two other white men (when he picks her up, she clearly thinks he is someone else, and at the end of the episode, she can’t pick him out of a line-up).

In a glaring display of ignorance, Michael continues speaking English to Helen even though he knows she speaks Spanish. What’s more, he speaks a bit too loudly with a tone reminiscent of how an adult might speak to a child (which, talking down to children is a whole other problem. And note that Michael often uses such a belittling, adult-speaking-to-a-child tone with many of his family members).

To Helen’s credit, she quickly realizes attempting to communicate with Michael in Spanish is futile, so she draws on the little English she knows to tell him she’s scared. Michael’s own ignorance and pomposity render Helen’s attempt to communicate futile. Although Helen is clearly speaking English, Michael assumes she is still speaking Spanish. Vaguely remembering the word “izquierda,” he says, “Scared-o. I know that one. Left turn it is, Mrs.”

In the most blatant display of racism in the episode, Lucille, in reference to her housekeeper Lupe, tells Michael “they didn’t sneak into this country to be your friends.” The laughter this line elicited from me—not to mention the humorous depiction of Michael’s inadvertent, subtler racism, and even thinking back on previous episodes of Arrested Development, such as episode 3, “Bringing up Buster,” when GOB says “If I can’t find a horny immigrant by then, I don’t deserve to stay here”—begs the question, why is racism funny?

Doesn’t comedy, the best comedy, the kind that makes us laugh so hard we cry and our abdominal organs painfully spasm, always push the envelope? Do what we least expect? Assert, “I don’t give a shit about taboo, because, dammit, we all act like a bunch of horses’ asses and I’m going to make you laugh at yourself for it?”

Creator Mitch Hurwitz clearly knows racism, in a certain context and played off just right, entertains audiences who would vehemently protest if anyone called them racist. Further, he recognizes that it’s precisely those things that aren’t politically correct that elicit the most laughter. In “Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz’s guide to getting a sitcom cancelled,” Hurwitz cites many of the very un-PC reasons that made the show perhaps unpopular with mass audiences but nonetheless a success among critics and fans, including, “Make easy jokes about minority groups.”

Although Hurwitz displays a level of self-deprecation in the article, it’s clear that AD’s “easy jokes about minority groups” are actually Hurwitz’s attempt to subvert racism. For the most part, Hurtwitz portrays the Bluths in a negative light, so every time someone makes a racist remark, Hurwitz is actually criticizing the character that makes it.

As Michael Madden so aptly explains in “Zach Galifianakis and the Death of the Leading Man,” great comedians are ahead of their time, “for they are the most direct and uninhibited observers of modern culture. They have the special ability of somehow finding ways into the hearts of their subjects.” This is precisely what Hurwitz does throughout Arrested Development. As an uninhibited observer of modern culture, Hurtwitz uses AD to illustrate the racism and ignorance that still largely saturate our society. He draws attention to the fact that we are hardly diverse, and that possibly, we often don’t know what to do with ourselves when presented with diversity and subsequently act like ignoramuses (i.e. Michael speaking down to Helen).

The root of the problem lies not in the values of individuals, but in the very system of which we are all products. AD reflects that “whiteness,” as well as racial stereotypes, dominate mainstream culture. “White” is the default, the norm. Think of the rash of angry tweets over the fact that a black actress (Amandla Stenberg) was cast as Rue in The Hunger Games (2012)—the frenzy of racist tweets stemmed from that fact that these tweeters, when reading Suzanne Collins’ The Hunger Games (2008), automatically assumed Rue is white. We’re so inundated with images that reinforce “whiteness” as the norm that even when reading a description of someone who is undoubtedly black, if that person is not blatantly called black or African-American, we will gloss over such descriptions as “bright, dark eyes and satiny brown skin” and still imagine white characters.

Hurwitz recognizes that our society lacks diversity, or rather, that it lacks integrated diversity. So when we see characters on AD who aren’t white, (and the fact that there is an extant dichotomy of white and non-white further showcases the problem), Hurwitz demonstrates that even when there is diversity, there is still segregation, because human beings don’t know how to interact with each other—especially if there is a cultural barrier on top of a racial barrier. When Lucille sees Lupe, she doesn’t see a fellow woman whom she can befriend or to whom she can even relate, she sees someone who is different from her, someone who is wholly “other” and who will always be “other.” Similarly, when Michael is with Helen, though his intentions are perhaps better than Lucille’s, he doesn’t speak to Helen as a fellow human being, but, instead, viewing her race and ethnicity as a barrier, speaks to her as a child. And, considering that Michael is in part is trying to prove to himself that he is not the selfish, uncharitable human being Lindsay accuses him of being (which is why he offers Helen a ride in the first place), he views Helen as a charitable cause. The implication—minority groups are charitable causes.

Hurtwitz succeeds in highlighting a very real problem to which we are often oblivious. As discussed in “Rewind: Arrested Development—‘Visiting Ours,’” the show holds a “mirror up to the world—our world—and we grimaced to see ourselves staring back in the reflection. Could it be that we all are just as cruel, crude, self-involved, and emotionally stunted as these characters?” Definitely. Hurwitz shows us how poorly we often handle race and diversity. And yes, many of us grimace. But many of us laugh. We laugh not because racism is funny, but because seeing the reflection of the cruel, crude, self-involved, emotionally stunted aspects of ourselves, the reflection of our own stupidity, is funny.

Best Quotes:

“That’s what you said about posing for the ladies of literacy calendar. The one with the pictures of all the thirty-year-old women in lingerie with their nipples covered by copies of Oliver Twist. Yeah, that made a big difference for the young ones,” Michael, to Lindsay after she tells him she’s participating in a bachelorette auction because it’s for charity.

“Oh, please. They didn’t sneak into this country to be your friends,” Lucille, after Michael chides her for lecturing her Hispanic maid.

This exchange between Maeby and George Michael after they’ve broken into the permit office—Maeby, sticking gum to a filing cabinet: “I’m leaving my calling card.” George Michael: “I thought we didn’t want anyone to know we were here.” Maeby: “It’s a little late for that. Our fingerprints are everywhere.” George Michael: “You said they weren’t gonna check for fingerprints!” Maeby: “No. I said don’t wear your mittens. I didn’t want you to look stupid on the security cameras.” George Michael: “There are security cameras!?”

“Save yourself. I’ll take the hit. My record’s clean. Well, I got my bike seat stolen once but I don’t think it counts on your record if you’re the victim,” George Michael to Maeby, when they’re about the get apprehended at the permit office.

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  1. Pingback: ‘Arrested Development’ Rewind: “My Mother, the Car” | Cultural Transmogrifier Magazine

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