With rumors of an Arrested Development movie in the works, contrary to earlier rumors that it was not, it seems like a good time to look back at the amazing TV series America discovered just a bit too late. As critics and fans appropriately sing the praises of the brilliant creative team being reassembled, I thought I’d say a few words about the spiritual grandfather of the series, without whom none of this would have been possible: Sigmund Freud. My intent here will not be to add a layer of Freudian analysis on top of the show, but rather to demonstrate the strong Freudian currents that already run throughout the series. If that appeals to you, just lie back on the couch, and read on!
Michael Bluth is established as the central character in the opening credits, and all of the other characters are defined by their relationship to him. The family, therefore, represents Michael’s psyche in all of its facets. Michael has three siblings, who represent his id, ego, and superego. Older brother G.O.B. is the id, seeking pleasure and avoiding responsibility at every turn. He often wins the things Michael wants by pursuing them without any of Michael’s second-guessing. Sister Lindsay represents the ego, constantly refashioning her definition of self to gain the attention and approval of others. It is no coincidence that she is framed as Michael’s twin. Younger brother Buster is the superego, living his life by others’ rules and in constant fear of his own independence. His obvious issues reflect Michael’s more subtle inability to break free from his family. But Michael can no more escape them than he can distance himself from his own psyche; they are a part of him.
Even in the series finale, when Michael finally fulfills his wish to be free of them, he winds up face to face with the one person he most wants to avoid, his father. Michael’s number one driving force throughout the series is the very Freudian desire to supplant his father: he wants to replace his father as the president of the Bluth Company, and he wants to be a better father to his son George-Michael than George Sr. was to him. (The names here are no coincidence; George-Michael combines the names of his father and grandfather, and they are to live on through him. Does George Sr. have another grandchild who can carry on his legacy? Maeby.) George Sr. is a very dominant figure to this family – powerful, controlling, sexually voracious. He also has an alter ego in his identical twin brother Oscar, who is carefree and nurturing. Note that Oscar is George Sr.’s middle name as well. It is built into the show’s premise that one of them must be imprisoned at all times. In one episode, they are both out of prison, and they fight. Being twins, neither is able to defeat the other. This represents the duality of Michael’s father image.
Just as George Sr. is an archetypical father figure, Lucille is a controlling mother right out of the Freudian playbook. She is the one who pulls all of the strings, and she’s not above pitting her children against each other as a power play. When Buster (Michael’s superego) disobeys her just once, he literally has a body part bitten off by a “loose seal,” a deliberate play on Mom’s name, justifying his castration anxiety. When Buster first dates, it’s a mature woman named Lucille. Again, Buster’s obvious issues highlight the dynamics of the family as a whole. A recurring theme with Buster is having borderline-incestuous overtones in his relationship with his mother. In fact, incest is much more of a theme on this show than one would normally expect on network television, particularly the tension between George-Michael and his cousin Maeby, but in several other places as well. Lucille has an affair with her brother-in-law. George Sr. and G.O.B. independently see a prostitute that Michael suspects might be his sister (and who is conspicuously played by the actor’s sister). When Lindsay finds out she’s adopted, the first thing she does is make a pass at Michael.
Tobias, as an in-law, is outside of this system of Michael’s psyche, but is close enough to it to provide commentary. He serves as the voice of the analyst (or therapist, or… whatever), and his tidbits of psychoanalysis are all Freud. But Tobias himself is the most overtly Freudian character of them all, as he constantly expresses his repressed homosexual desires through his layered speech patterns. Barry Zuckercorn, who (unlike Tobias) acts on his desires and lies about it, often makes Freudian slips revealing his activity, due to a subconscious desire to be found out. More subtle examples of subconscious feelings revealing themselves through language patterns are found throughout the series, as with Michael’s inability to remember Anne’s name masking his hostility towards her or with George-Michael’s talking about Maeby and inadvertently revealing his lustful thoughts.
One of Freud’s major contributions was in demonstrating how early experiences in our lives can affect the people we will later become, and Arrested Development keeps coming back to this theme. The “lessons” George Sr. teaches his children return to them repeatedly later in life. Michael’s affinity for playacting the role of a lawyer can be traced back to a role he had in a school play. One can only imagine the memories being formed by the kids who acted in the warden’s play. The “Boyfights” that Michael and G.O.B. engaged in as children helped form the relationship they have as adults… to the degree that they have become adults.
And here we have one of the most important themes of the series, found in the very title. Freud originated the concept of stage-based development, which would later influence such thinkers as Erikson and Piaget. If one’s development is “arrested” it means that he or she does not normally move into the next stage at the appropriate time. In the series Arrested Development, adult characters often display juvenile characteristics and continue to play out family dynamics they should have long outgrown, again demonstrating how early experiences can be formative in deciding who we will be later in life. Freud would have been proud.
You may notice that, in all of my discussion of Freud, I have avoided discussing some of the more phallic imagery in the show. But sometimes a banana stand is just a banana stand.