Noah Glyn at NRO argues that Arrested Development is just a funny show: “A funny show. That’s it and nothing more. Not a metaphor for anything. Not an explication of anything, either.” Because the show receives lavish amounts of attention, none of which can refrain from searching the depths of the show’s plot, dialogue, set, and joke patterns for a deeper meaning. As a result, Glyn diagnoses society as delusional and obsessed. He goes on to criticize an admittedly silly post on WaPo’s Wonkblog titled “‘Arrested Development’ Was a Communist Utopia and Season Four Ruined It.”
The show’s only real theme is the pettiness of the Bluth family, their visceral self-interest occasionally trumped by their unique personality flaws (insecurity, materialism, laziness). So a line like “the show’s underlying progressive optimism about the basic decency of the people” is a real side-splitter.
We can all have a good laugh at the self-styled Jacobins trying to appropriate a show to their optimistically progressive rationalism. Brotherhood of man and all that. It’s funny when someone reads in to a story something that isn’t really there, especially when we think those people are pretty silly already.
But is Arrested Development really just a funny show? The statement smacks of naivete, of the young man who insists that his unrequited love is purely platonic. “Just a joke” doesn’t work for hurtful words and it doesn’t apply to media either. I suspect that very few screenwriters or producers go through the trouble of writing television purely for laughs. Comedy is the medium, not the message. Even if a writer tried to do this, he would invariably tell a story through the lens of some narrative or, oh please no, churn out some postmodern meta-narrative attempting to deconstruct the genre. Or whatever it is those people are trying to do.
The problem is not that these critics are reading something where there is nothing; there is never “nothing”. The problem is reading the wrong thing in. Complicating matters, we tend to read ourselves in to criticisms as well. So when someone like Glyn (or me) reads the WaPo column, we are primed to see the worst in the liberal (in this case literally socialist) media and pounce. There is a difference between an argument that says “this story can be used to illustrate this point” and “the people who wrote this story were trying to illustrate this point.” The first, using a particular narrative as a metaphor, is perfectly fine, but the writer should be careful to make clear what’s going on. The second is another claim entirely, one that is harder to substantiate and will certainly open you to justified ridicule.
We strive to exegete—to read out of—the Bible, and we should do the same with all messages. The stakes are lower in misunderstanding a once-and-future canceled TV show, but that doesn’t mean we’re free to do whatever we want with it. Likewise with the words of others who may appear to be misinterpreting something we value—we must take care to properly characterize the characterization, lest we be guilty of the great sin of Triple Ironic Metahypocrisy.