The sitcom Arrested Development subverts the idea of love at almost every turn. Yet somehow this short-lived program managed to save the most important relationship of my life.
By the fall of 2004 my girlfriend and I had been maintaining a long distance relationship for over a year. I was living in Chicago; Natalie in Greensboro, North Carolina. We were in love, but late night phone calls and weekend rendezvous in geographically central towns in West Virginia were beginning to lose their novelty. It was clear that if we were to continue the relationship, we’d have to take the next step.
On November 2, 2004 — the day John Kerry lost his presidential race to George W. Bush, something at least 48.3% of the country might interpret as an inauspicious omen — she packed her belongings, along with two dogs, into a U-Haul truck and drove from North Carolina to Chicago. It was a gutsy move, made on the barest of instincts, with an almost immeasurably low chance for success, but we were naïve enough not to realize just how naïve we were.
From the beginning, things did not go smoothly. Aside from the typical growing pains associated with cohabitation, we had a number of factors working against us. She’d given up a desk job with Bank of America and the only jobs they were hiring for in Chicago were teller positions, which meant standing all day and dealing with a constant stream of rude customers. Never having lived in Chicago, she had no friends, making me the only person she knew here. On top of that, I usually conducted my writing sessions under hermit-like conditions, and when I wasn’t writing, the frequent rejections I received often left me shrouded in black moods for days on end. It made for some trying times.
Among the possessions we unloaded from Natalie’s U-Haul that first night — as Ohio sadly tipped to Bush — was a rabbit-eared, thirteen-inch TV. I hadn’t owned one in a couple years, but it found a welcome place on our bookshelf. A few weeks later, we happened to be flipping though the few channels our antenna brought in when we stumbled across our first episode of Arrested Development.
As anyone who’s tried to jump into Arrested Development mid-season can attest, it was a bit disorienting. The show’s staccato editing and frenetic story arcs can be off-putting to the uninitiated. But we quickly got up to speed and made plans to be at home on the nights it aired. If Natalie and I were having an argument — as we frequently were — we put it aside while the show was on.
Of course, a 30-minute sitcom is on only once a week. Which left a lot of time for us not to get along. Sometimes our arguments were over petty things, like whether the word “cute” was an appropriate adjective for describing a significant other. Other times, the fights were foundation-rattling questions about trust and honesty, intimacy and solitude. In previous relationships, when things got hard, that usually meant it was time to move on. Because of our living situation (limited resources, shared custody of two dogs) moving on became a less tenable solution. We were stuck with each other, just like the Bluth family.
One of the reasons we were so drawn to the show was the assurance it provided us. It was a relief to see someone else’s dysfunction — yes, even the colossal hyperbole of Bluth dysfunction — as a reminder that perhaps we weren’t beyond help. Our favorite scenes were the ones where, despite all their wild differences and deserved grievances, the Bluths managed to come together as a family. There was the time the children staged an intervention for their mother Lucille and it ended up being the best party the Bluths ever threw. Or the time Michael decided he’d no longer protect the family’s publicist from the family, which resulted in a headline-making restaurant brawl. Those scenes gave us confidence that we might be able to rise above our own self-destructiveness.
The show was perpetually in danger of cancellation, which endeared it to us. After all, our own relationship had more false breakups than either of us would care to recall.
I still remember the night we watched the final episode — which was a challenge because FOX, by the end, seemed to be deliberately making it hard to find out when they’d be airing episodes. At the conclusion, when the narrator suddenly switched to the past tense, “It was Arrested Development,” we were speechless. Yes, we’d known the show was going to be ending, but to hear it spoken so bluntly made it all real. This silly show had become one of the few things we had left in common and now even that was being taken away from us. It seemed like we had nothing else by the time the screen faded to black.
Compounding all our struggles as a couple was the fact that we came from tremendously different backgrounds. Natalie is a Latina who grew up in a single-parent household in New York City. I was raised in a stable two-parent home in lily-white Montana. When I was graduating from college, she was trying to make friends at whatever new school her mercurial mother had dragged her to in search of a “fresh start.” When I was going to graduate school, she was trying to scrape together tuition for classes at her local community college. These divergent backgrounds informed our respective worldviews. She was naturally distrustful of the world; I was less so. Sometimes we’d sit there in the apartment staring at each other, wondering who on earth this person sitting across from us really was. It felt like we didn’t even speak a common language. Here, again, Arrested Development saved us.
It had been cancelled, but, like everything that’s gone, it lived on in memory — in this case, through DVDs and, eventually, Netflix. Deprived of new episodes, we became students of the existing ones. Over time, we adopted a lexicon based on Arrested Development. Certain phrases worked their way into our conversations. Some of our adopted lines were merely a fun way to interact, to inject levity into the mundane: “You have to be some kind of She-Hulk” was a line we used whenever one of us tried to do something that ended up being a lot harder than anticipated. “Hot ham water” became a term for any new culinary experiment we were trying out for the first time. A variety of crazy chicken clucks seasoned our daily badinage.
Other phrases took on deeper significance, became ways for us to express more difficult things. “There’s no I in Teamocil” was a way for one of us to gently tell the other that he/she was being self-centered. Lucille’s “I don’t understand the question and I won’t respond to it” became a way for us to express that the premise of a question was absurd or out of bounds. “You better lock that down” was a way of saying, “Don’t take me for granted. I might not always be here.” Soon, it became possible for us to have entire Arrested Development-based conversations. Uninitiated friends and family could only look on in confusion. And if we came across someone who did get our references, we knew this was probably a person worth knowing.
A little over a year after we moved in together, things between Natalie and me began to improve. We were finally able to see the qualities that had first drawn us to each other. We fell back in love, stronger for the trials we’d gone through.
In 2007, we got engaged. In 2009, we married. My relationship with my wife is one of the things I’m most proud of in my life. I know it sounds silly to say that a television show had a hand in making those events transpire, but it’s true.
I think, ultimately, a long-term relationship succeeds or fails based on the way both people answer one question: Is this someone I want on my team? If the answer is yes, then you’ll do what needs to be done to make it work. There are a lot of reasons Natalie and I made it. I’m not suggesting Arrested Development is the sole cause, but it did play a part. It gave us the space and bought us the time to get past all the early baggage so we could answer that one question honestly.
And now, a new season of Arrested Development will be released on Netflix this May. Having been teased so long by this possibility (and true to her mistrustful nature), Natalie is taking an I’ll-believe-it-when-I-see-it attitude. I, however, am taking an optimistic approach. From what I’ve been able to glean, the new season will be different in that each episode will revolve around one family member and the whole family won’t be together until, perhaps, the final episode of the season.
Whether or not this strategy proves successful (and I believe it will) I already feel like the show is playing with house money. It’s given me more than I can reasonably expect from a television series. It taught me how to be in love. Or, as Tobias Fünke — the combination analyst/therapist — might say, it taught me more than you’ll never know.