Because it’s five-thirty and because it’s time for you to leave work, you get up from your desk and put on your coat and walk down the hall. The receptionist has gone already, and though you might see a janitor getting ready for her shift to begin while you wait for the elevator, this is far from certain. In the elevator, you close your eyes. You are tired for reasons you do not understand. Your job is not difficult. You have trained yourself to get into bed early enough that there are eight hours available for sleep. At the bus stop, you use your phone to check your email even though it’s been only ten minutes since you stared at Gmail on your office desktop for a whole day. On the bus, you convince yourself that you care enough about the day’s college basketball to check it, too, watching excitement elsewhere echo in the figures of a box score or two.
Trying to distract yourself from the droning conversation of the homeless guys behind you on the bus, you think about the evening ahead. There will be dinner – a turkey burger on toast, or canned chickpeas cooked with canned tomatoes and a little cumin and coriander, or a frozen pizza – and then you will face the stretch between eating and sleep that is not claimed by any prescribed activity. You suppose that you will spend that time on your computer. There are essays you have been meaning to write, about nature documentaries or about the hobby of amateur audiobook recording, but when you sit at your little kitchen table, the fatigue throbs behind your eyeballs and you decide to offer yourself a little mercy and watch something, instead.
Watching something that you haven’t seen before requires almost as much attention as producing new material of your own, so you evaluate the options you have. There are the movies that you have watched again and again, chosen without apparent reason: five years ago you watched Cold Mountain, and three years ago you watched Sideways, and now you watch The Fantastic Mr. Fox. There is the collection of YouTube clips you’ve memorized, Kittens Inspired by Kittens, fragments of Strangers with Candy, nothing special except made so by ritual. And there is Arrested Development. More than other television shows, it yields to watching and rewatching, because it is a show about repetition and circularity. Though you own all three seasons of the show on DVD, you now open your internet browser and stream an episode over Netflix Instant, because this seems easier, somehow. A year ago, you might have been working on your second or third beer by this time in the evening, but you’re trying to leave that habit behind, and tonight you’re halfway through a two-liter bottle of carbonated water instead.
Every season of the show starts and ends the same way. Michael Bluth decides to leave California, but his family implores him to stay, and though it is this fact above all others that makes him want to leave, he stays. Again and again, characters are put into prison and escape from prison and are returned to prison before they escape again. Characters fail to have sex when they want to, and succeed in having sex when they do not want to. When trying to teach each other lessons, characters are taught lessons about the impropriety of teaching lessons. Arrested Development‘s fundamental structural mode is fruitless churn.
Characters become each other. George and Oscar Bluth, twin brothers, trade places again and again. Buster Bluth is torn between two iterations of his mother, the original article and her neighbor, both of whom are named Lucille. Though, by the end of the show’s third season, the audience understands that Buster is not George Bluth’s son (he is Oscar’s) and that Lindsay Bluth is not Lucille Bluth’s daughter (she is no one’s daughter, since she is adopted), the audience also understands that shape of a family tree is determined more by patterns of behavior than genetic inheritance, and in this the Bluth family has not changed. Even surrounding the Bluths, apparent activity never results in change. There is a parade of lawyers and prison wardens, each of whom is as ineffective as his predecessor. There are terrible gags centered on a quartet of Andy Richters, on a pack of Saddam Hussein lookalikes. Different actors perform the same roles and dissolve into one another. There are two T-Bones and three Martas.
In this, you are reminded of the elements of your own life subject to the same sort of perpetual return. You think of yourself alone, here, in Seattle, and you remember the times you have been alone elsewhere, studying in Europe, living in the Northeast. You eat too much and take long walks, because being outdoors and looking at other people and other people’s homes offers at least a shred of the stimulation you might find in real social interaction. Eventually, you suspect, you will make the same friends you always make: smart women, polite men. You will try and fail to take up the same hobbies: gardening, the piano, tennis. You will remain ten pounds overweight. Your life will slip along, and though you suspect you will derive more pleasure from some things than most people can – works of Alberto Burri’s hanging in regional museums, twilit evenings suspended between warmth and chill, when temperature seems to vanish as a consideration and your body seems to dissolve into the world – you know that you will always be as temperamentally gloomy as you are now.
Even Arrested Development’s easy references to the Bush family recall for you a certain stasis that seems personal to you. In Arrested Development‘s scores of loony Georges, you are reminded sometimes of November 2000, the longest month of your life, when you memorized the names of the sixty-seven counties of Florida as they tallied their recounted votes. You can still recite most of them, Osceola and Okaloosa, Broward and Brevard. You turned sixteen in 2000 and for a long time afterwards you still felt sixteen: naive, uncertain, passive, too young. The years since then have slipped past you, and though you have taken things from them, a bachelor’s degree, an MFA, you are still the chubby, tired dullard you were then, animated only when you are mocking yourself or gossiping about others or talking about the craft of fiction, though this last is not so different from gossip itself, since gossip is just chatter about the craft of sociability. You have watched the world shudder through tsunamis and earthquakes and hurricanes, but it seems much the same place that it did then, obeying many of the same rules and favoring many of the same people again and again.
Julian Assange has written of the existence of an invisible government, composed of the people whose tastes determine the culture of the capital, whose judgments delimit the range of actions permitted and unpermitted in their society, who thus control the nature of truth, of time. Of course this notion is not Assange’s alone. In it, there are echoes of Immanuel Wallerstein’s world-systems theory, or Michel Foucault’s conception of episteme. But the idea of the invisible government appeals to you most, suggests most evocatively the enforced detachment of those results that are actually possible from those results that might seem possible to an unacculturated observer. Of course, things change. The world changes when technology changes; families change when babies are born; individuals change when they become alcoholics or lose limbs. Still, it seems to you that absent any shift in the material substrate of existence, change is vanishingly difficult to come by.
You think of George Bush and the United States in Iraq. The invisible government is the same as it was then. It has not permitted punishment or even serious censure. It has permitted instead only a labored maintenance of ignorance. Ten years from now, Donald Rumsfeld will speak at your company’s corporate retreat. Thirty years from now, George Bush’s body will lie in state under the Capitol dome. And your invisible governments? Your mother’s anxiety, your unshakeable preference for animals over people, your genetic makeup– these things legislate the terms of your existence as much as any of your choices do.
So every time you remind yourself that there’s always money in the banana stand, every time somebody shouts “No touching!”, you are taken backwards and forwards at once to the other moments in which these events occur, and you feel a little smarter and a little more worldly for it. You are reminded that the only pleasure of existing in a world made of systems in recognizing what is system and what is not. It is impossible for you to change the systems that surround you, so all you can do is find pleasure in noticing the little repetitions they generate. Watching Arrested Development, then, is like watching yourself, like watching the world. You are standing and yawning in the hinge of an articulated bus, blinking more rapidly than you should be, and it is 2004, and it is 2011. Sarah Palin is barking her outrage on television, and it is 2008, and it is 2010. You are typing stewardesses, because it is the most fun you can have with your left hand and a keyboard, and it is 2000, and it is 2007. There are troops on their way to Afghanistan, and it is 2001, and it is 2009. You are too timid. The world is too dangerous.
In Arrested Development, the end is the beginning and the beginning is the end, because circumstance — in families, in business, in politics — is both unchangeable and inescapable. You turn off your computer and get into bed and lie there sleepless. Do you hope that the world is not in fact like this? Do you wish that this day, this month, this year were not versions in miniature of the whole of your life? You are not certain. Your life really isn’t so bad. Maybe, you suppose, maybe in a little while you will try to imagine a world where change is possible, so you close your eyes, and so you wait.