In the strange pseudo-reality of television, there are certain givens. Lessons are learned, cases are closed, Jews are from New York. When in Los Angeles, they are fish out of water, decrying the poor quality of bagels and the lack of intellectual stimulation.
Recently, however, the Fox network has begun to shed light on a little seen subspecies: the Southern California Jewish television family. Stripped of pesky ethnic associations that might brand them as outsiders, the Cohens of The OC and the Bluths of Arrested Development can best be described as Californian in their connection to their Jewish past: that is, they seek to leave it behind. Yet the opportunity to remake yourself does not mean you can abandon the past. These Jews are deprived of every Californian’s birthright: the right of total self-reinvention and escape.
With the first season of Arrested Development now available on DVD and the second beginning on November 7, it’s time to examine the mysterious world of this Southern Californian tribe of crypto-Jews. Long associated with those who hid their true religious affiliation in Inquisition-era Spain and Portugal, the notion of the crypto-Jew can be applied, albeit with a slightly different meaning, to televisionland. The Bluth family—scabrous, toxic, and irredeemably self-involved, yet bizarrely charming—is not hiding its identity from a hostile government. They are in hiding from themselves, unaware of their essential Jewishness as they take great pains to appear just like everyone else. But like the Costanzas of Seinfeld, who Jerry Stiller once likened to “Jews in the witness protection program,” the Bluths’ identity is glaringly obvious.
Their background does not make them the close-knit ethnic family of sitcom lore, nor does it enlighten them spiritually. What makes Arrested Development so refreshing is that, just as the show relies upon negative stereotypes (the Jewish American Princess, the crooked businessman, the unscrupulous lawyer) for offhand character development, the writers use those stereotypes to deflate the pompous reverence that often surrounds Jewish characters on television, from Alex Rieger on Taxi to the Rabbi Hyman Krustofski of The Simpsons. Judaism has often been depicted as a redeeming force, elevating those who have returned to the fold to the position of sage or scholar. The Bluths do not suffer this fate. Happily, there will never be “a very special episode” of Arrested Development acting as a corrective to the scurrilous yet hilarious stereotypes it reinforces each week.
Midway through the first season, the jailed patriarch, George Bluth, Sr., (Jeffrey Tambor), experiences an epiphanic return to his roots while locked in solitary confinement. He becomes devout, fashioning a yarmulke out of the tongue of his shoe as “a reminder that the divine presence is always above.” After describing his grandson, George Michael, as “a scholar, just like his grandfather,” George Sr., announces in hushed tones that he must prepare for “the first night of Yom Kippur.” When challenged by his son Michael (Jason Bateman), who reminds him that there is only one night of Yom Kippur, George Sr., declares the arrival the Sabbath in the middle of a Tuesday afternoon. A scholar he is not; at least not in the classic sense.
George’s journey of self-discovery in the big house leads him not only to start a Torah study group that offers rather bizarre interpretations of wisdom (“As the Talmud tells us, do not lie with the jackal as with the oxen”) but also to produce and star in a series of inspirational videotapes titled Caged Wisdom: Learning to Live with Solitude. A low-rent television ad shows George Sr., bedecked in tallis and tefillin, exhorting his fellow inmates to learn to be alone. Seeking to profit materially from his spiritual awakening only places him more securely in the role of the crooked businessman. The twisting of these traditional tropes of observance—gleaned wisdom, piety, and paternal love—emphasize just how far the Bluth family is from being a pillar of the community.
George Sr., breaks rank from the crypto-code by proudly asserting his newfound spirituality, but he is by no means the only member of the family in flight from a more traditional understanding of Jewish culture. A total inversion of the prototypical nurturing mother, Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) is a drunken harridan, nasty, narcissistic, and competitive. She takes great pleasure in destroying her children’s self-esteem, instructing her daughter Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) not to eat so much, as “you want your belt to buckle, not your chair.” She even tells her 14-year-old granddaughter that her “chubby little wrist is testing the tensile strength” of a bracelet she’d just given her as a gift. A Jewish mother manqué, Lucille festoons her apartment in Newport Beach’s Balboa Island with red and green ribbons and a large tree at Christmas. Yet her deceased mother’s house clearly displays a mezuzah on its doorframe, giving the lie to any implication that George Sr., is the only Jew in the family.
Similarly, the semi-dissolute Lindsay, the “self-proclaimed liberal member of the family, known for her wine and cheese fundraisers,” as narrator Ron Howard describes her, sends up women’s charitable efforts. Her involvement with the anti-circumcision movement, Hands Off Our Penises (“It’s a Doberman! Let it have its ears!”), gets the Jewish Defense League after her. And she’s confused that her visits to George Sr., are not eliciting boorish reactions from the other inmates, until her father explains that he has been paying off his cellmates “to stop them from hollering obscenities at my little girl.” Delighted, she says, “That’s all I’ve ever wanted, Daddy. For you to spend money on me.”
Jewishness in the world of Arrested Development is only a cause for further mockery: spiritual enlightenment is revealed as hollow and meaningless; family attorney Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler) is untrustworthy; Lindsay’s good works heap derision upon the symbol of the covenant. But the joke is on the Bluths. Inasmuch as they try to hide from themselves—or, as in the case of George Sr., debase what little affiliation they have—it keeps bubbling up in their behavior and their humor, and in how others perceive them. George’s oldest son, Gob (Will Arnett)—in prison to perform a magic trick, a jailbreak—gets stabbed by a prisoner named White Power Bill. Fainting from the pain, Gob (tellingly pronounced Job) says, bewildered, “I’m white.” Apparently, not white enough.
The Bluths have no idea who they are. In deep cover as Southern Californians, they are rudderless, untethered from their ancestry. Only Michael, the unstable moral center of the show, offers a glimmer of redemptive hope. For all his efforts to escape, he is sucked back into the morass created by his wretched relatives. He must learn the hard way, time and time again, that you cannot escape your roots.
And that is why we return to the Bluths, the absurd storyline of their lives bolstered by a curious element of tenderness in their relations with each other. For as ridiculous and pathetic as they are, their primary concern is the family. As Lucille says, locked in mortal combat with her “best friend and chief social rival,” who is played by Liza Minnelli and also named Lucille, “I may not have her money anymore, but at least I have a live husband!” They may not be aware of the outside world, but they’re certainly connected to one another.