‘The Godfather’ and ‘Arrested Development’: Switched at Birth?

Many people speak of comedy and drama as though they were polar opposites of a spectrum. In many cases, though, these mega-genres often resemble two sides of a single coin, with shared tones, themes, and character types. Two such works (revered as quintessential examples of their respective genres) are Francis Ford Coppola’s epic crime saga, The Godfather Trilogy (1972-1990) and Mitchell Hurwitz’s uproarious sitcom, Arrested Development (2003-2006).

Coincidentally, beginning with lavish celebrations (the wedding of daughter Connie (Talia Shire) in The Godfather and the retirement party of George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) in Arrested Development), both series focus on the unscrupulous family businesses begun by tycoons (real estate mogul George Sr. and organized crime boss Don Vito (Marlon Brando)), who are intent on disguising them as legitimate enterprises. With an army of loyal lackeys (including Luca Brasi (Lenny Montana), J. Walter Weatherman (Steve Ryan), and Gene Parmesan (Martin Mull)) willing to do their bidding, Vito and George expand their empires in both global footing (Cuba and Iraq) and in diversity of interests (casinos, importing, hazardous deep fryers, and banana stands).

The looming shadow of each patriarch’s legacy falls squarely on their affluent, damaged offspring (comprised of three boys and one girl). After each titan falls, their children must decide whether to claim the head role of their family’s dynasties (exacerbating preexisting sibling rivalries in the process) or disavow it completely (as is the case with their youngest sons, who opt to serve in the military).

In illuminating the vast parallels between The Godfather and Arrested Development (including the central interest in powerful and dysfunctional families with identically structured character tropes), one begins to see how permeable the line between comedy and drama is.

To delve more deeply, let’s take a look at the similarities between each pairing of children, beginning with . . .

Michael Bluth and Michael Corleone

Apart from sharing a given name, both Michaels (Jason Bateman and Al Pacino) are the protagonists of their respective stories and, early established as the most responsible and competent of their siblings, the only legitimate heirs of their family businesses (Bluth as President and CEO of the Real Estate Company, Corleone as Don of the crime empire). Despite being their fathers’ favorite sons, however, both inheritors initially meet their newfound positions with reluctance, both characterized by their desire to distance themselves from the often unscrupulous business practices of their predecessors.

Exhibiting deep familial obligation and allegiance, however, both men ultimately overcome their reservations by taking command of their respective thrones after their kingpin fathers become unexpectedly incapacitated (George Sr. is incarcerated for corporate fraud, while Don Vito recovers from an assassination attempt by rival mobster Sollozzo (Al Lettieri)).

Endeavoring to consolidate their businesses in order to reclaim their once great power, both Michaels rely on their strategic, logical minds to overcome the burdening legacies left to them by their fathers, including ongoing investigations by the federal government (the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission for Bluth, the Senate for Corleone) and attempted coups by rivals (the Sitwell Corporation for Bluth, the other members of the Five Families for Corleone). Due to the incompetence of their kin, these men largely act alone in their family’s defense, with their only assistance coming from trusted lawyers (sexual deviant Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler) for Bluth and consigliere Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) for Corleone), who consult them on both legal and illegal matters.

Desperate to buoy their threatened dynasties, both morally upright and self-sacrificing moguls are forced to compromise their personal moral codes (Bluth prostitutes his sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) to sleazy entrepreneur Uncle Jack (Martin Short), Corleone murders both allies and foes) in the hope of eventually elevating their business’ unethical dealings to legitimacy (Bluth mostly accomplishes this; Corleone is not so lucky).

In addition to their responsibilities as kingpins, both Michaels are tasked with managing the outlandish collection of egos that are their siblings, business partners, and children.  As “the one son who has no choice but to keep the family together,” Bluth and Corleone delight in exerting control over their loved ones, even to the detriment of their insecure sons, George Michael and Anthony. In addition, belying their facades of strength, both men have suffered significant tragedy in the deaths of their first wives (Tracey Bluth to ovarian cancer, Apollonia Corleone to a car bombing).

George Oscar “Gob” Bluth and Santino “Sonny” Corleone:

As the eldest sons of their respective families, Gob (Will Arnett) and Sonny (James Caan) would be the most likely successors to their fathers’ empires. Unfortunately, though, a series of fatal flaws prevents either from ever being considered viable candidates. When thrust into power, both have proven overwhelmingly incompetent. Gob, in his short time as company president, caused $45,000 in damages to his office and botched a publicity ribbon-cutting ceremony after demanding construction on a new model home be completed outside of a realistic timeline (“‘Two weeks! Let’s do it in two weeks!’ Hey!!!”). Sonny, on the other hand, nearly ignited an all-out war with the other members of the Five Families while serving as Don in his father’s absence. Incensed by the assassination attempt on Vito, Sonny eschewed an amicable olive branch by Sollozzo to meet peacefully, opting instead to simply “kill everybody” before being persuaded by his brother Michael and consigliere Tom.

Standing in both Gob and Sonny’s paths to power are their notoriously quick tempers, predilection for violence, and overall stupidity. One of the most iconic hotheads in film history, Sonny has a very memorable moment, when he viciously beats his brother-in-law, Carlo (Gianni Russo), for abusing his pregnant sister, Connie, on a city street in front of a crowd of spectators—an offense which compels Carlo to consort with rival gangsters. Later, after Michael’s murder of Sollozzo provokes a period of unrest in mob relations, Sonny is predictably lured out of the security of his parents’ estate upon hearing of a second report of abuse on Connie. Betrayed by his own brashness, Sonny drives directly into an ambush at a toll stop. In the end, Sonny’s reward for his impulsivity was a deathly shower of bullets.

While his many offenses were never murder-worthy, Gob’s hotheaded persona similarly leaves him as a constant antagonistic force, as he unwittingly incites the ire of Mexican locals for his offensive depiction of chickens, punches his brother Buster in the guise of motivation, and ruins a planned partnership with rival Stan Sitwell (Ed Begley Jr.) due to his trademark eloquence (“Fuck you”). Like Sonny, Gob’s greatest weakness lies in his inability to separate business from personal.

On a personal level, both characters are notorious for their promiscuity. Motivated by lust, Gob dates both his nephew’s and brother’s ex-girlfriends, and impregnates multiple women during high school (including the mother of Steve Holt (Justin Grant Wade), his son). Sonny, not to be outdone, ravishes a hideous bridesmaid at his sister’s wedding.

Racist (Gob: “Me quick, want slow. Wait, that’s Indian.”), crass (Sonny: “I don’t want him coming out of that toilet stall with just his dick in his hand.”), and moronic, the eldest brothers lack the traits required to be decent human beings, let alone leaders of their family businesses. They inspire confidence in no one, including their fathers (Vito: “I thought Santino was a bad Don, rest in peace.”).

Reports have recently surfaced that Mario Puzo’s last book was a prequel to The Godfather, following Sonny’s failure to become a professional magician.

Lindsay Fünke and Constanzia “Connie” Corleone

The only daughters of their respective families, both Connie and Lindsay are characterized chiefly by their poor choice in husbands. Connie, in marrying her non-Sicilian beau Carlo, deeply upset her father, Vito, who only begrudgingly gave them his blessing. George Sr. holds similar animosity towards Lindsay’s dimwitted husband, Tobias (David Cross), but moreso because of his perceived sexual preference (“Dad . . . do you remember a Nellie?” “Just the one who married Lindsay.”). In addition to their fathers, Connie and Lindsay’s brothers exhibit discontent towards their brother-in-laws (Tobias due to imbecility, Carlo for his history of spousal abuse), often resulting in them extending attitudes of mere tolerance.

With ambitions for prestige (Carlo for mafia affiliation, and Tobias for stardom as an actor), these husbands frequently stray from their entitled and vacuous wives, leading both women to lose interest in their duties as mothers. Lindsay’s daughter, Maeby (Alia Shawkat), is able to land a job as a movie executive and raise money as a disabled girl without notice from her egotistical mother, who gallivants around the OC trying to bed actors like Thomas Jane (who’s played by himself) and leading charity drives for non-existent diseases.

Connie, after Carlo’s death, changes drastically from her previously pliable persona. Drinking to excess, traveling around the globe with a bevy of men, and ostentatiously exhibiting her wealth (hallmarks of Lindsay), Connie opens The Godfather Part II being berated by Michael for neglecting her children.

In both cases, Connie and Lindsay share the strongest relationships of any of the siblings with their patriarchal brothers. Connie eventually becomes Michael’s sole trusted confidant, while Lindsay and Michael share a deep bond having spent their lives as twins.

Byron “Buster” Bluth and Frederico “Fredo” Corleone

Black sheep of their respective families, Buster (Tony Hale) and Fredo (John Cazale) stand in stark contrast to their cunning, professional businessmen fathers. Comedic and bumbling, both unreliable men are characterized most significantly by their juvenility and allergy to violence. As the youngest Bluth child, Buster, often bearing the moniker Baby Buster from his father’s Boyfights videos, lives in a state of arrested adolescence under the nurturing care of his coddling mother (even donning boyish costumes for the Motherboy mother/son dances he participates in).

Prone to outbursts of anxiety, helpless without his glasses, unskilled at athletics (“You were just a turd out there”) and fond of the word “goody,” Buster would never be mistaken for a “tough guy.” Despite joining the Army, Buster is unable to perform even the simplest tasks like climbing a wall without assistance, and crumbles at the thought of being punched in the face by his brothers.

Suffering from a debilitating lack of maturity and courage, Fredo is a carbon copy of Buster, but without the compulsion to touch his ears with outstretched fingers whenever he gets nervous. Bashful, quiet, and insecure, Fredo’s first real moment to prove his personal worth occurs when he alone witnesses his father being gunned down in the street by an assassin. Stricken with fear, Fredo fumbles while trying to brandish his gun, resulting in its falling harmlessly to the ground. Like a traumatized toddler, Fredo cries in the gutter instead of calling for help.

Despite being the second oldest Corleone child, Fredo is overlooked by his father to become the head of the family after Sonny’s death. Vito ultimately chooses Michael as successor. Like Buster, Fredo is never even a remote contestant for the throne, due to lack of leadership qualities (“Fredo has a good heart, but he’s weak and he’s stupid”). Instead, both he and Buster are relegated to minor roles in the family business (Fredo learns the casino trade, while Buster becomes the Bluth Company copy machine assistant).

Resentful of being perpetually undermined, Fredo unwittingly provides information to rival mobster Hyman Roth (Lee Strasberg). This information is used later in the film as the basis for an attempt to kill Michael. Vaguely promised a position of authority and power, Fredo performs an enduring act of familial treachery that redefines his role in the series.

Buster, in a similar moment of anger, attempts to betray his family by giving testimony to the Prosecutor Maggie Lizer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) that would be used against his father, with a grilled cheese sandwich serving as his immediate reward. Unfortunately for the prosecution, Buster quickly proves to know nothing of his father’s questionable dealings overseas (“What about business associates?” “I have none.”).

“I know it was you, Buster. You broke my heart.”

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