Why Michael Is the Best ‘Arrested Development’ Character

Arrested Development fans are busy counting down the hours until Season 4 premieres this Sunday at midnight on Netflix, and here at Flavorwire, we’re no different. So, we’re passing the time by declaring this Arrested Development Week, all leading up to a Recap-a-thon on Sunday, when our own Jason Bailey will review the whole season, episode by episode. This piece is the part of a series of contributors’ essays in support of their favorite Bluth. Click here to follow our coverage.

It’s not easy to be the lone voice of sanity amongst a gaggle of crazy people. In many ways, the role of Michael Bluth, the steady and reliable anchor of the madcap Bluth family, is the most thankless of Arrested Development; it’s the straight man, and nobody likes to play the straight man. But thanks to the show’s smart writing and Jason Bateman’s sly playing, the character of Michael is quite the opposite: he is, in fact, the best and most important character on the show.

This is a conclusion I’ve arrived at after careful consideration, following a full re-watch of the entire series to date in anticipation of Sunday’s season four debut (click over to Flavorwire all day for our Recap-a-thon! </plug>). Early on, Michael was written as a conventional straight man — presumably either in response to or anticipation of the requests of nervous executives for a sympathetic, relatable figure among the show’s menagerie of entitlement, smugness, mild racism, and light treason. But even in those early days, creator Mitch Hurwitz and the show’s talented writers seemed to realize that Bateman was the show’s secret comedy weapon.

He doesn’t just feed straight lines and tee up payoffs. Bateman’s nonplussed cutaways and wry reactive dialogue aren’t just padding — they give an extra bump, another spark, an additional laugh to every Tobias malapropism (“You know what you do? You go buy yourself a tape recorder and record yourself for a whole day. You might be surprised at some of your phrasing!”), Lucille wink (“I wonder how I can talk you out of ever making that face again”), and G.O.B. trick (“If I know your uncle, they’re at least strippers”).

But the show is careful to keep Michael grounded — to make him a better and more adjusted person than his train wreck of a family, but to ensure that he has flaws of his own. He may be the only responsible member of the family, but he’ll also never miss an opportunity to remind everyone of that; George Sr. complains of Oscar, “Do you know what it’s like to have a sibling who has no source of income except for you?” And Michael retorts, “Just one? No. No idea. It sounds wonderful, though.” But his siblings have also got his number — as they take pains to point out, much of Michael’s self-worth is rooted in being the Responsible One Who Keeps the Family Together.

Later in Season 1, the show begins to toy with the burdens of being Michael in the running subplot about his relationship with Maggie Lazar (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) — an intended throwaway that carries on because nice guy Michael doesn’t realize his one-nighter is blind until after the night in question. (She ends up not being blind, but that’s neither here nor there.) It was a funny subplot, but it was also a clever deepening of Michael’s character — an indication that his goodness was a character trait, sure (his love for his family and particularly his son are no doubt genuine), but also a carefully cultivated persona.

michael2

And even that persona cracked in Season 2, with the introduction of George Michael’s girlfriend Ann Veal. “I don’t like her,” Michael admitted early in the relationship, and it must be said, he didn’t exactly do a yeoman’s job of hiding it. The Ann running gags — “Her?” and “Egg” and the like — were uproariously funny, but they also gave Michael an extra edge; even Nice Guy Michael couldn’t be bothered to remember this forgettable girl, much less to pretend that she was an acceptable match for his son.

Michael Bluth isn’t the most inherently funny character on Arrested Development — he doesn’t have Tobias’s sexual peccadilloes, Buster’s glorious weirdness, or Lucille’s booziness. But he serves a more important function: as the audience surrogate, observing the madness around him, offering up a bit of commentary (often solely for his own amusement), and rising above it all. Until he doesn’t, but who could blame him?