On Arrested Development, Disability Is a Joke

But that hasn’t always been a bad thing.

Buster surprises Michael with his new Terminator-like claw.
Jason Bateman and Tony Hale in Arrested Development.

There isn’t much to be excited about with the fifth season of Arrested Development, which dropped on Netflix on May 29. This latest batch of episodes is over-the-top, convoluted, and self-referentially up its own anustart—qualities that from 2003 to 2006 made the madcap farce, then on Fox, one of the best sitcoms of all time, but also a high-wire masterpiece impossible to follow up. If Season 4 felt like a warped copy of the original, Season 5 feels like a copy of a copy, a Xerox made on a machine lacking a color cartridge. The Bluths’ world feels smaller in these eight episodes, as if their universe has contracted since their latest escapades five years ago. (Season 5 starts immediately after the events of Season 4, in 2013). That sense of diminution can partly be attributed to the sudden scarcity of one of the show’s signature sources of humor: disability.

Jokes about disability were part of Arrested Development from the start—Tobias’ never-nudism, a crippling disorder that make it impossible for him to be naked, even in private, is mentioned in the second episode—and they gave the sitcom’s original three-season run its ballsy air, as well its comic edge. No other show made quips about vertigo, alopecia, and amputated limbs on the regular, meaning that some of Arrested Development’s laughs could be found nowhere else on TV. Tobias’ never-nudism was quickly resolved (and Maggie Lizer’s blindness revealed as a fraud), while Lucille Austero’s “dizzies” came and went. Never cured were Stan Sitwell’s (and later his daughter, Sally’s) hairlessness, J. Walter Weatherman’s one arm, Buster Bluth’s one hand, Jack Dorso’s waist-down paralysis, Marky Bark’s face blindness, and, most controversially, Rita Leeds’ intellectual disability. Many of these characters’ impairments were never named by their medical terms, (problematically) rendering them as one more zany quirk on a series full of them, like Carl Weathers’ shameless parsimony, Nurse Adelaide’s coma fetishism, and Kitty Sanchez’s post-surgical lazy-eyed nipples.

If you’ve recently rewatched Arrested Development’s first three seasons, you can’t help but notice that the sitcom is of a pre-woke era. In the decade and a half since its premiere, we’ve moved beyond its casual transphobia, its racism-lite, even the ugly gender politics that still plague the show behind the scenes. The dated insensitivity toward minority groups extends to the program’s depiction of Buster after his seal-induced amputation. This half-minute clip, for example, encapsulates how Buster and his family see him after his maiming. “I’m a monster!” the behooked man-baby cries, after explaining that, as “half-machine,” he should be expected to find the Roomba in his bed sexually attractive. Even in the latest season, a decade after his accident, Buster’s hardly made peace with his disability, calling himself a “half-man.” His various prosthetics—a hook, a rubber hand, and in Seasons 4 and 5, a bionic, military-grade, Terminator-like claw he can scarcely control—justify the scared (not just startled) reactions from the other Bluths. Such scenes are frequently funny, but they’re far from empathetic. In Buster’s case, they underline the idea that it’s acceptable for someone with a disability to be made into a spectacle and to be feared. The Bluths are a terrible lot, and the show never lets us forget it, but there’s something cruel, and boring, about continuing to harp on Buster’s otherness.

What feels insultingly one-dimensional with a core character, however, feels like just the right level of nuance for Arrested Development’s sprawling supporting cast. It’s hard to think of another series that features so many different kinds of disabilities while ensuring that the people with those syndromes are more than their impairments. In fact, they are, with a single, glaring exception, just like the rest of the show’s version of Orange County: vain, vindictive, pompous, dishonest, opportunistic, and/or oblivious. These characters fit so seamlessly into the rest of the show’s universe that they silently expose how cloying and/or exoticizing Hollywood’s usual stereotypes about people with disabilities are: inspirational, asexual, tragic, brilliant or superpowered, a victim or a villain, their impairments poised to be overcome. Yes, as with Buster, some of these characters’ physical differences are made into sight gags. But the joke is just as often about Stan’s clumsy attempts to hide his alopecia with ever-misplaced wigs; or Uncle Jack’s pathetic efforts to seduce Lindsay, a decades-younger woman he should have thought of as a niece; or the overcompensatory guilt that Michael feels the morning after sleeping with the faux-blind Maggie. Arrested Development is far from politically correct by 2018 standards, but it made plenty of sharp, socially conscious points back then, too.

Which brings us to Charlize Theron’s Rita, the beautiful Brit with whom Michael enjoyed a whirlwind romance—climaxing with an engagement—until his son pointed out that she had an intellectual disability. As a satirical tool, Rita is precise yet multipronged. Creator Mitch Hurwitz used Rita to point to the overvaluation of the British accent (Michael misses her disability because of her lovely brogue), to parody the doltish appeal of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl, and to send up general male horn-doggery. But the character unfortunately is yet another iteration of an intellectually disabled person as an eternal innocent, i.e., the notion that disability confers on a person infinite patience and unswerving sweetness.

And so, despite what I’d consider an overall positive portrayal of people with disabilities, it’s mostly a relief that Season 5 sidelines Buster, Lucille, and Stan, while the other characters mentioned above (excepting the cured Tobias) don’t make an appearance at all. I don’t know whether Hurwitz made a conscious decision not to bring back the disability gags given the more sensitive climate, which is just another way of saying we’re now more mindful of the fact that it’s not just able-bodied straight white guys who consume political news and pop culture. That elision is loaded: It arguably contributes to the overwhelming erasure of disability in movies and television—a sad state of affairs considering the arguably progressive depictions the show did accomplish in previous years.

I don’t know if Season 5 might have been funnier with more disability jokes. But I’m glad I didn’t have to spend big chunks of the new episodes wondering whether someone out there was wincing at this one-liner or that sight gag. And that’s why, when you resurrect a show, you learn to read the cultural barometer.