Under the Influence: ‘Arrested Development’ Rewind: ‘Let Them Eat Cake’

There are times when I get contemplative. My mind, with or without the aids of cannibinoids, will often reel into the hyperbolic or the hypothetical, or the hyperbolically hypothetical. It’s in this state I wonder what future generations will think of us and our legacy. Will they think of us in a positive light, or will the twenty-first century appear to them a dark age?

What’s more, what in our culture will stand the test of time? What will crumble? I look to Homer and his Iliad and Odyssey. These epics were composed circa 1194-1184 BCE but are still around today. If you deign to read them (and please do! Read them and read them again), they still have something to teach you about determination, heroism, strife, love and its kissing cousin, adultery. I will say, the one thing Homer’s epics lack—or what they seem to lack—is humor. Which is not to say these books are humorless. It’s simply that what’s funny and topical for Homer and his contemporaries is simply inaccessible now. Same goes for Jesus.

I bring up Homeric humor because Arrested Development’s first season finale hinges on a reference that becomes more and more obscure as years pass. The reference? The Atkins diet. If you don’t recall the specifics, here’s a quick overview: Atkins is a low-carbohydrate diet, which in actual practice isn’t all that restrictive. But the world at large is resistant to nuance, so Atkins was quickly lampooned into an all meat, all the time meal plan. After Dr. Atkins died—rumored to be killed by a diet-related heart attack—the craze all but went with him.

You can’t go five minutes in this episode without some reference to the diet. Michael realizes he can’t eat popcorn as a snack, so he says he’ll “fry up some bacon.” Gob keeps coming to terms with how limiting the diet is. George Sr.’s apparent heart attack is first considered as a consequence of the high protein, high fat diet.

When the episode aired, the Atkins diet was all the rage. In 2003, you couldn’t eat a sandwich without considering the consequences of two slices of bread gangbanging your roast beef. The jokes about frying bacon and whether or not it was okay to eat macaroni—let me finish—salad, these all resonated at the time. Now, almost a decade later, are jokes about Atkins all that funny?

Honestly, this is one of the few times I’m conflicted over AD. Did they put too much stock into a gag with a life span of five years, at most? My answer is mostly no. The Atkins jokes lose their efficacy, but that doesn’t make the set pieces surrounding the jokes less effective. More obscure, maybe, but not less effective. (Of course George Sr. would fake a heart attack on this diet. Plot-wise, it’s perfect.)

Moreover, this is a series that became increasingly overt in its send up of the Iraq War. While it was hinted throughout the first season, the Iraq connection first bubbles over in the finale, when we learn the Bluth Company has been building its shoddy McMansions for Saddam Hussein. If Atkins is too rooted in the early 2000s to be that funny now, then so must the references to the Iraq War (or McMansions, for that matter).

Yet, I feel less inclined to be critical of satirical references to the war. I tend to believe these jokes will resonate far longer than the diet craze. Atkins was a flash in the pan (sorry). Iraq lasted eight years. The dishonesty, the ignorance, the sheer brashness of the U.S. government at that time is hard to forget, let alone live down. Just look at our current presidential race: No one wants to be associated with the Bush administration.

But over time, even this will fade. The poignancy of its war critique will dull (it already has to an extent). Think of M*A*S*H, the sitcom which convinced everybody the Korean War lasted eleven years. Its pacing, its ability to veer into dangerous and dark territory is astonishing. The show would go from bleak to sidesplitting in a single exchange.

When I watch reruns today, I know I’m missing every other reference to Vietnam. Sure, I may pick up the obvious ones about the excesses of war and the horrors of conscription. But any subtle call outs to the politics of the 70s? Lost on me. The same fate will befall Arrested Development.

In the future, I can imagine kids catching their parents streaming an episode and being completely turned off. “How can that be funny,” they’ll ask. “It’s so old.” I know this, because that’s how I treated M*A*S*H until actually sitting down to watch an episode. They won’t get the topical jokes about Operation Iraqi Freedom, but that’s a small price to pay.1

Because whatever impact Arrested Development  has made has been subsumed by pop culture at large already. We have single camera comedies basically because of AD. How I Met Your Mother with its pervasive narrator, its games of chronological hopscotch, would never have made it to air without the Bluths. Basically, any moderately to hyper intelligent comedy owes a debt to Mitchell Hurwitz’s baby, even if his show becomes inscrutable to our future offspring. In time, the jokes will lose their edge, but their influence will remain undeniable.

1. Arrested Development, I think, cared very little how it would be received decades to come. They wanted to be funny during whatever half hour Fox decided to air it. When its third season wrapped, I can’t imagine they actually thought they’d be pulling the stair car out of storage again. Had they cared about being too insular, too referential, would they have based a plot around a short lived diet? If they were actually worried about being too contemporary, would Arrested Development  have filled its 53 episodes with references to Happy Days, Malcolm in the Middle, the Iraq War, The Birdcage, Michael Moore, William Hung, the Blue Man Group, Carl Weathers, Mrs. Doubtfire, Andy Richter, Howard Dean, The Big Lebowski, The Jerky Boys, House MD, The Beatles, Girls Gone Wild, Inside the Actors Studio, “Afternoon Delight,” Being There […] and, of course, Arrested Development?
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