Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, unless the family consists of a morally depraved patriarch and three highly differentiated siblings who, after years out of contact with each other, convene at the family home for a slowly escalating mess made inevitable by their respective and collective dysfunctions, in which case that family is unhappy in the same way as the Karamazovs.
If the same family is subjected to a criminal prosecution after being set up by a conniving quasi-sibling, if the brothers keep trying to mooch money off the family, and if the eldest brother is brash, the middle one smart, and the youngest one saintly, then we have to consider the possibility that this family actually is the Karamazovs, even if they call themselves the Bluths and they appear in an early 2000s Fox sitcom and not a nineteenth-century Russian novel. In which case Mitch Hurwitz (who has a degree in theology from Georgetown) is Dostoevsky. That’s probably the most farfetched parallel in this comparison. The rest are uncanny.
Once you realize that Annyong is Smerdyakov, everything else falls into place. [If I need to declare a spoiler alert for a show that has been off the air for six years and a novel published in the 19th century, then for courtesy’s sake, here it is.] He exists at the fringes of a family full of awful people, sort of a member and sort of not. No one suspects him of being the one-man conspiracy behind the set-up that brings the family down, partly because no one is quite sure it was a set-up at all, since the criminal charge against the family is just the sort of thing they would have done, whether they actually committed this particular crime or not. Everyone thinks he’s a simpleton, which also deflects suspicion. And remember that “Smerdyakov” is not a surname so much as a nickname meaning “Smelly,” so in both cases our villain’s name is a bad joke.
“I didn’t kill him, alright? And don’t edit this for your broadcast so it looks like I’m screaming, ‘I killed Earl Milford!’”
Kitty is Katya, the woman who nurtures a grudge against the family despite (or because of) her romantic interest in two of its members, and who has in her possession evidence that would clinch the prosecution’s case if she chose to reveal it, which she may or may not do.
Lucille Austero is Lise, a woman with a medical problem that limits her mobility and who starts off making eyes at the youngest son, then successfully romances him, then reverses herself and decides she wants to do whatever she can to hurt the family.
Tobias is Rakitin, the man who manages to stay involved in everyone’s affairs despite the fact that no one likes or respects him, whose plan to enter a more romantic profession (acting/journalism) is universally regarded as both unrealistic and annoying, and whose eager embrace of fashionable ideas (self-esteem and herbal medicine/socialism and materialism) makes him look even more foolish than he otherwise would.
Uncle Oscar is Father Zosima, an unworldly man of great gentleness and inner peace who is more of a father to the youngest son than the family patriarch is. Phoenix is Moscow, where Michael/Ivan keeps trying to escape to. And Fyodor Pavlovich’s taverns are his Cornballer. Some of these parallels are less critically fruitful than others.
G.O.B. is Dmitry. He’s a slave to his impulses. He’s the angriest Bluth and also the soppiest, when he gets sentimental. He lives off handouts and is always scheming to get more free money, which he feels he is entitled to morally if not legally. His lack of self-awareness frequently crosses the line into outright delusion. (If you don’t remember Dmitry as especially delusional, think of his scramble to obtain three thousand rubles in the hours leading up to his father’s murder. It was stupid of him to ask Mrs. Khokhlakov to lend it to him, for example, but “he had suddenly become totally convinced that she would not refuse him.” As the narrator says, “In spite of all his vices, Dmitry was very naive.”) G.O.B. even comes close to killing himself out of shame, in the season 2 episode “Sad Sack.”
Michael is Ivan. He is the smartest and most self-aware Bluth, a decidedly mixed blessing considering that it makes him the only one able to grasp just how awful everyone is. Most people think of Michael as the nice brother, but that’s only half right, since on an intellectual level he believes the ethical rules he lives by are idiotic. You shouldn’t put so much work into keeping together a family that isn’t worth it, his brain keeps telling him, just as Ivan keeps telling himself that he shouldn’t love a God who doesn’t deserve it. But both of them do the right thing in the end. As Ivan’s devil predicted, “You’re going to perform an act of great virtue, and you don’t even believe in virtue—that’s what keeps eating away at you.” This internal contradiction drives Michael to exasperation; if he were Russian, it would have driven him mad.
And Buster is Alyosha, not quite a Christ figure but certainly some sort of saint, as indeed he has to be to love his family. He is never judgmental although any reasonable person in his position would be. His good humor never fails, even when Jessie the publicist tells him to stay out of the spotlight because people find him odd and alienating (“I shall be neither seen nor heard!”) or a construction worker tells him to take his head out of his bottom. In the unwritten sequel to Brothers K, Dostoevsky planned to turn Alyosha into a revolutionary who ends up killing the tsar. Buster’s Army training could have come in handy for that.
“It’s not like there’s some list of rules handed down to us from on high.”
At this point I can’t tell if I’ve proven that Mitch Hurwitz was definitely inspired by The Brothers Karamazov, or if I’ve “proven” it the same way your crazy uncle can prove that the Denver Airport is ground zero for the worldwide lizard-people conspiracy. Certainly I wouldn’t want to ruin a good joke by taking it too seriously. But if AD is an updated version of TBK, then it’s worth asking what updates Hurwitz thought necessary in order to bring the story up to date, apart from the set dressing.
Dostoevsky’s intention with The Brothers Karamazov was to persuade Russians that their instinctive love of God was a great resource, and it would bring them true happiness if they would only stop enslaving themselves to reason or sensual pleasure. In the thematic map of AD, love of family replaces love of God as the thing that every keeps gesturing toward and no one quite achieves, but unlike Dostoevsky, Hurwitz doesn’t let anybody get redeemed in the end. Maybe that means he doesn’t think love is powerful enough to redeem a fallen mankind anymore, which would be a depressing assessment of our age relative to Dostoevsky’s. Or maybe it just means Hurwitz is saving the tragic but uplifting conclusion for season 4. “On the next Arrested Development: George Senior gets murdered, Michael goes insane, G.O.B. finds God, and Buster starts a revolution.” I would watch those Netflix episodes.
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