"I Don't Know Who That is and I Don't Care to Find Out"
Sopranos creator David Chase once said that his show was about "people who lie to themselves, as we all do". I'm paraphrasing from memory, so I may not have the quote exactly right but you get the point. One doesn't have to be a sour-faced veteran Hollywood misanthrope to see what Chase was getting at. Some might even say that the socio-economic order that we are all - to some degree - complicit in is so morally abhorrent that, for most people, total denial is the only available strategy for psychological survival. I mean, we're all basically good people, right?
While The Sopranos certainly deals with this denial quite brilliantly, it's actually Fox's Arrested Development that most effectively makes denial the central topic of an extended satire on contemporary society, politics, economics and culture. Sure, it mainly does this through an endless stream of outlandish characters, knob gags, catch phrases and pratfalls but make no mistake, Arrested Development has layers and layers and layers beneath the surface.
The structures of the episodes themselves is extraordinary enough. In many ways, AD is similar to Seinfeld in the way that it splices and folds sitcom conventions into astounding new patterns. But whereas Seinfeld has a specifically sitcom-y approach to deconstructing the sitcom, there's something more literary (or at least cinematic) about the way AD uses foreshadowing, coincidence, captions, narration (courtesy of Ron Howard) etc. etc. to create a bizzare labyrinth of thematic juxtapositions. This reaches its absurd formal zenith during the episode in which Tobias (acclaimed stand-up comedian David Cross) and his nephew George Michael (the astonishingly gifted Michael Cera) unwittingly stage a live-action pastiche of vintage Japanese monster movies.
While Cross and Cera both give virtuoso performances throughout the series - each deploying a method actor-like array of tics, gestures and mannerisms - it seems unfair to single them out among what must undoubtedly be the greatest ensemble cast ever in a US network TV show (featuring Portia de Rossi, Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Jeffrey Tambor, among others).
Still, it's worth mentioning Cross and his failed-psychiatrist/actor character because Tobias is present at the central moment of denial in the entire series. Somewhere in the middle of the second season, Tobias confronts his mother-in-law Lucille (played with imperious venom by Jessica Walter) to tell her that - in his qualified opinion - she is suffering from what psychiatrists call "denial". Lucille then delivers a razor sharp, concise assassination of Tobias's character, directly to his face. There's a pregnant pause after which Tobias says something like "Well, if she's not going to say anything, I simply can't help her" before hastily leaving the room.
The thing is that, like most of the characters on the show, Lucille lives her life in deep denial. But with her, denial seems to be an entirely voluntary state, as evidenced by her fondness for phrases like "I didn't understand the question and I won't respond to it." Lucille may seem like the most despicable character on AD but in many ways, she's actually one of the most honest and least hypocritical.
The same might be said of her granddaughter Maeby (played brilliantly by Alia Shawkat). Maeby and her cousin George Michael are interesting cases because they're still teenagers (and unlike most US shows, the teens on AD really are played by teens). You see, "the Kids" haven't yet learned to work denial seamlessly into their day-to-day lives. For George Michael, this means enduring a constant stream of horrifically embarrassing and traumatic incidents. For Maeby, on the other hand, it means being able to shamelessly exploit the credulity of the adult world for personal gain - much to George Michael's horror. (Notably, one of the few adults on the show who seems to live without denial is the man-child Buster - played by Tony Hale in another of AD's most virtuosic performances).
Cera's character spends much of his time trying to live up to the apparently saintly example set by his father Michael (the show's central character, played by Bateman). The catch here is that Michael is a judgmental and egocentric jerk. His essential lameness is paralleled by the ludicrous faux-charitable antics of his twin sister Lindsay (de Rossi). Don't get me wrong, they both mean well. They're basically good people.
But aren't we all?
(Postscript: The lack of embedded multi-media content in this post has less to do with my recently-acquired aversion to such things and everything to do with the fact that Fox seems to be having some kind of ridiculous crybaby dispute with YouTube. Fear not, though, because it seems that you can stream the entire series online, legally, here!)