There is an old Marx Brothers joke from the movie Duck Soup. Groucho is called upon to defend his brother Chico in a court of law and in the course of the chicanery and puns says, “Gentlemen, Chicolini here may talk like an idiot, and look like an idiot, but don’t let that fool you. He really is an idiot.”
This same truth applies to the television series Arrested Development. That is, the show’s title refers to Freud’s theory of the stages of sexual development, it features several story arcs wherein family members either compete with one another sexually or harbor incestuous desire for one another, and the character Buster is clearly a victim of an Oedipus complex. He just can’t escape his mother’s clutches.
The show sounds Freudian and even acts Freudian. But, we shouldn’t let that fool us. It really is Freudian.
- Michael: Can’t a guy call his mother pretty without it seeming strange?
- Buster: Amen. And how about that little piece of tail on her? Cute!
- Michael: I’ve opened a door here that I regret.
To really understand why and how Freud is at the center of the show you have to look past the obvious plot points with Buster and his mom. Forget about the Motherboy pageant, ignore the fact Buster’s first girlfriend was his mother’s best friend and shared the name Lucille. Don’t even let yourself think about how a “loose seal” bit of Buster’s hand when he disobeyed his mother Lucille’s instructions and went “swimming in the ocean.”
Okay, maybe that last bit is such an obvious invocation of castration anxiety that you can’t ignore it. In fact, I’ve made a huge mistake. You shouldn’t ignore any of the things I mentioned. Still, while Buster’s Oedipus complex is obvious he is not the only one on the show who is suffering from a love of mother. All of the characters, on one level or another, are coping with, if not a direct Oedipus complex, then at least with the castration anxiety that comes along with it. After all, castration anxiety is not just a fear of being emasculated by your father as punishment for your sexual desire for mom, but it can be thought of as any anxiety that stems from a sense of powerlessness.
For instance, when you want to teach your own son a lesson but your father stops you by teaching you a lesson not to teach lessons, and when he does this by hiring a one armed man to trick you into believing that he has lost a limb when he really has, well this can make you anxious. It might even seem like your dad is implicitly threatening to rip off your own limb or limbs, especially when he does the same trick again and again.
- Michael Bluth: Oh my God this guys arm…just came off and landed on the dock.
- J. Walter Weatherman: And that’s why you don’t teach lessons to your son.
I mean, come on!
Here’s the thing, the Oedipus Complex arrives during the phallic stage of a child’s development. That’s the phase when a boy or a girl becomes aware of the fact that the banana stand where he or she works has certain connotations that he or she hadn’t noticed before. The phallic stage is the moment when it is no longer possible to think of Uncle Tobias as friendly and funny. It’s the moment you realize that he is foul mouthed, pathetic, and obscene.
- Tobias Fünke: Even if I have to take a chubby, I will suck it up.
Still, to think of the Oedipus Complex as the consequence of a genital awakening might get things backwards. It’s not that Buster loves his mother instinctually and the dilemma is how to cope with his instinctual feelings, but rather it’s only through his relationship with his mother and his father that Buster comes to love his mother as a dilemma. The same holds for Buster’s brother Gob who only discovers his love of magic as a way to gain his father’s approval, or for Michael who thinks of himself as fully mature and strives after his father’s validation of this maturity and independence.
- Michael: I’m president whether you like it or not, Dad. I don’t need your approval anymore.
- George Sr.: I’m proud of you.
- Michael: Really?
What is Arrested Development? Freud had his answer, which is that it’s a kind of fixation that occurs that stops normal sexual development. But, what is that? What is normal sexual development?
Normal sexual development is when you accept that the object you desire can’t fulfill you. It’s the realization that you only want to sleep with mom because Dad forbids it. It’s the understanding that you want to impress and fool Dad with your magic, with your illusions, precisely because he’s impossible to impress or fool. Finally, normal sexual development is the acceptance that you actually need somebody who will say no to you, need to have something denied, in order to maintain your desire.
Confused? Consider the plight of the never nude.
- Ron Howard: Tobias suffered a rare psychological affliction of never being able to be completely naked, even when alone.
- Tobias: Excuse me, do these effectively hide my thunder?
Why does Tobias always wear cut-off jeans? Why is he a “never nude?” It’s not because “bananas and nuts” offend him or repulse him, but rather because, as he says, he’s always after the man parts. He wants them in his mouth, sinking into his buttocks, or in the jacuzzi.
- Tobias: I apologize for that. I thought it was a pool toy.
The point is that Tobias is a never nude because he wants to deny that what he wants is something he already has. He’s a never nude in order to hide his thunder and protect it. He’s a never nude precisely so that he can remain a blowhard.
At the beginning of Arrested Development Ron Howard tells us that the show is “the story of a wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together,” but I think Freud would say that the show is really about a wealthy family who worked hard to keep losing what they already had and the one son who is the very best at keeping things the same.