How My Obsessive Arrested Development Watching Helped Me Overcome My Anxiety

I have watched the first three seasons of <i>Arrested Development</i> 35 times. That's a conservative guess. It might actually be a lot more.

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Sep 8 2015, 2:45pm

An early-season Arrested Development promo photo

I have watched the first three seasons of Arrested Development 35 times. That's a conservative guess, as it might actually be a lot more. Many, many nights I've had the show playing on my phone through an earbud as I try and fall asleep. I've watched it at work. I've also loaded it on my phone, and listened to it while walking around the city, or on long drives. It's a lot.

And while I've met people who've been to hundreds of Phish or Grateful Dead shows throughout their lives, or read about people like Steven Soderbergh who went to see Altered States 11 times in two weeks, or the guys who set a TV binge-watching world record, 35 watch-throughs of Arrested Development still feels like a lot.

For a while Arrested Development was just a show that I loved. And I really do love it. The second season especially, I'd argue, might be one of the most winningest streaks in TV history. Early on in my fandom, the show felt like a feat of engineering, something to be studied from a technical standpoint. I wanted to know every setup, double entendre, and hidden joke. As an aspiring writer, studying the ease with which it pulled off this depth was like its own version of film school.

But when does enjoyment become obsession? And when does obsession become a detriment?

I came upon the show at a time when everything was good. I was in college and had been living inside a pre-graduate bubble, with my youth and the endless potential of life on my side. At 20, I felt invincible, exceptional, and destined to succeed. But, of course, things rarely work out as planned. What followed were years of rejections, bad jobs, missed opportunities, anxiety, and self-sabotage. My mother was terribly sick. I bounced from job to job, never really progressing in any of them. I distanced myself from people I cared about. Depressions were regular, and awful (often accompanied by the guilt of self-indulgence, and a feeling of the depressions being somehow unearned). Some days it was hard to even get out of bed. My enjoyment of AD was tied up in all of it.

It was, ironically enough, a state of actual arrested development.

Arrested Development became a world to escape to when all else felt unwieldy. I've never found a closer match to my sense of humor in any single piece of media entertainment. I still can generate actual, physical laughter just thinking about certain lines from the show ("I always pictured him in a lighthouse"; "I did not find their buffoonery amusing"). But there was something more personal that signified my pull to the show. The heart of AD is about a family coming back together—or, put best by Ron Howard in the opening credits: "a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together." As I moved away from Ohio (where I grew up) and on to a series of bigger cities, I wasn't always "physically" there for my family. AD resonated so deeply because of this. It's not that my family didn't want me to go, either—they wanted me to follow my interests wherever they took me—but when things weren't going well while away from them, that pain was intensified. I envied, in a weird way, what the Bluths were able to achieve despite their dysfunctions, simply by virtue of their being together.

Often I'd doctor my Hulu or Netflix viewing history, so my friends and family—we shared accounts—would not know I was watching the show this often, in the same way an alcoholic will cover up the smell of liquor on their breath with some mints. Sometimes I found myself adding a few too many jokes and references to the show in everyday conversations, to the point where I'd have to consciously dial it down for fear of sounding like one of those middle aged dudes who've clung a bit too hard to a favorite band—say, Motherboy—from their high school days. I didn't want to be the guy who's seen talking about, and quoting AD, while oblivious to the fact that he's also wearing a Bluth's Original Frozen Banana Stand t-shirt (but, full disclosure, it's happened to me).

It sounds like a cliche, but within the Bluth family I saw flashes of myself. And not the self I try to maintain in my day-to-day encounters, but hints of a darker, more difficult self that, in my worst moments, I could see myself starting to become: Gob's truculent narcissism, insecurity, and need for validation; Tobias' oblivious self-delusion; Lindsay's vapid do-gooderism, George Michael's own self-sabotaging anxieties; Buster's infantile neuroses; Michael's false sense of superiority. The more I watched, the more of myself I saw in these people.

Someone I know in AA once told me it isn't necessarily the drink or the drug that's the problem, it's how and why a person uses it. And the way I was using this show, and others too (my usual lineup: It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Parks & Rec, Seinfeld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Flight of the Conchords, and the sitcoms of Graham Linehan), began to make me feel weird and deeply compulsive. Like a security blanket (or a pair of never-nude cut-offs) that, in times of high stress, I could always count on.

I tended to watch the show more often in times of stress. Every time I had a job interview, I'd be up half the night before watching AD. I'd push back making a phone call I dreaded with an episode or two. I'd wash down a hangover with an entire half season and a bottle of Gatorade.

My compulsive viewing habits were a tactic for dealing with my anxiety. I'm someone with an extremely hyperactive mind, and when I'm put under stress I tend to get overloaded with a series of ping-ponging neuroses. The real problems begin when the anxieties compound and soon I'm fully convinced that every horrible thing that could possibly happen will not only happen but has already begun to happen. Such worry can be paralyzing. Sometimes the worry gets so bad that my mind will try and trick itself to be OK with "opting out" of something instead of actually trying. When I reached that point in the depths of my AD watching, that's when things would get a little sad, episodes of Arrested Development would get watched, and regrets would be created. If I could train my mind on a TV show that I knew and loved, it would distract, comfort, and re-focus it away from the stress. But that doesn't solve anything, it often makes it worse. Psychologically, it's a bit like Lindsay Bluth getting drunk "to celebrate" the night before her big audition and missing it the next morning.

There are worse things to be addicted to than Arrested Development. It can feel trivial to talk about—it's not as if I'd been using vodka (like Lucille), sex (like Kitty Sanchez), or meth (Barry Zuckerkorn, probably) to get outside of my sense of self when facing pressure. Nevertheless, my AD binge-watching was the manifestation of genuinely addictive behaviors. A recent study at the University of Texas at Austin concluded that binge-watching "allows (people who feel lonely or depressed) to escape from negative feelings." It also found a correlation "between binge-watching and loneliness, depression, and having self-regulation deficiency, which is an inability to control compulsions."

But eventually, things got better.

On Motherboard: How the Internet Ruined Arrested DevelopmentArrested Development

I don't remember the actual epiphany, but at some point about a year and a half ago, I began to ask why I was watching these same 53 episodes over and over. This slight pivot into self-awareness taught me that if I ever feel an need to watch the show, it's a red flag. I can now use this impulse to hack my emotional well-being: maybe there's a small, positive step I can take toward handling the things I need to take care of before I throw it on. Often, if I take this step, it turns out I don't end up watching Arrested Development at all. It's not that the anxiety is any better per se, or that certain aspects of my life are any less stressful, but this slight tweak in how I handle my anxiety has made a positive difference. It helps to try and step back and think about what it is that I'm actually worrying about. And I've found a new strength in not only knowing what it is but accepting it too.

I still watch AD all the time, but my appreciation for it has once again changed. It's satisfying to know something so fully and completely. It's more than that, too. Now, somewhere buried within my experience of watching AD, lies a chunk of my own formative "development" and the full range of unexpected emotions—pain, sadnesses, frustrations (some triumphs too)—of that time. It contains a small key of my own self-discovery. Now when I watch, I do so and reflect that Arrested Development has played a part of how I view the world and of who I am today.

More than anything, I've learned that it's perfectly OK to have anxiety. As Tobias Funke once said, "there are dozens of us... dozens!"

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