Rupert Murdoch has been described as a power-mad mogul, debasing the public discourse with the cheapest forms of entertainment and using right-wing propaganda masquerading as journalism to advance his nefarious ends. I used to think all that was true. Then I started watching “Arrested Development,” which runs on Murdoch’s Fox network on Sunday nights.
To say that it’s the funniest program I’ve ever seen on television massively understates how good it is. Imagine if Shaquille O’Neal somehow joined a high school basketball team. You could say he’s the best player on the squad, and it would be true, but it wouldn’t quite capture the magnitude of the difference between him and everybody else.
Part of the genius of “Arrested Development” lies in its disdain for the conventions of television sitcoms. It’s shot in pseudo-documentary style, with a hand-held camera, a narrator and no laugh track. It liberally employs flashbacks, which makes the jokes frequently run in reverse. (You see something funny, then you see something that happened anywhere from a minute to 20 years earlier and realize why what you just saw was even funnier than you thought.) Often there’s something hilarious in the background of a scene you don’t catch the first time. For all these reasons, the show avoids the drearily familiar set-up/punch-line rhythms of most mindless sitcoms.
It may seem odd that such a smart product would appear on a network known for winning the race to the cultural bottom, but perhaps it shouldn’t be. After all, Fox also introduced “The Simpsons,” which in its prime was also very edgy and innovative. More surprising is the fact that Fox has stuck with “Arrested Development” into its second season despite abysmal ratings.
What you really have to wonder is why Murdoch allows this artistically compelling ratings sinkhole to subvert his political agenda on a weekly basis. The program takes as an underlying assumption that the government and media are run by the same kind of buffoons found in the Bluth family, on whom the show centers.
In one episode, a photograph emerges that the authorities believe shows secret bunkers in Iraq. The Army -- whose manpower shortages have forced it to accept the enlistment of comically unprepared mama’s boy Buster Bluth -- immediately deploys a new brigade to the region. A Fox News anchor announces, “Weapons of mass destruction found in Iraq! What does it mean for your weekend?” Unsurprisingly, the photograph turns out not to show weapons of mass destruction.
Some of the show’s humor goes after the left. In one show from last year, various characters enmesh themselves in webs of comic deceit and treachery and, at the end, a teenage son tells his father: “It’s just so hard to know what the right thing to do is.” The father replies: “I know it. It’s not like there’s some list of rules handed down to us from on high.” Meanwhile, unnoticed by both of them, a tablet of the Ten Commandments -- which his liberal activist sister has successfully crusaded to remove from a courthouse -- is dangling over their heads, suspended from a crane.
But the show’s overall ideological thrust is plain. In another recent episode, idiot son George Oscar Bluth II (“G.O.B.”) takes over the family housing development business and decides to clear the company name by building a new model home. G.O.B. insists, against the protestations of his brother, Michael, that he can build the new house in just two weeks. To meet his hasty deadline, G.O.B. builds the shaky facade of a house. He later appears at the ribbon-cutting with a “Mission Accomplished” banner draped across his chest and triumphantly declares, “My brother wasn’t optimistic it could be done, but I wouldn’t take ‘not optimistic it could be done’ for an answer!” G.O.B. then unveils the new company motto, “Solid as a Rock,” the last two words of which he pronounces “Iraq.” Of course, the house immediately collapses.
I’m guessing Murdoch and his minions have enough brains to grasp the symbolism here. And this suggests a subversive thought. Maybe Murdoch isn’t as grand or as evil as liberals believe. Maybe he likes lowbrow fare and noxious right-wing populism but he doesn’t insist that it permeate every corner of his empire. Maybe he doesn’t want to be Citizen Kane after all.
Or maybe he does and “Arrested Development” is a sop to distract his critics. Who cares? If he keeps the show on the air, as far as I’m concerned, Murdoch can be as evil as he wants.