“Now the story…”: Brief Reviews of Arrested Development

The original plan — like four years ago — was for John S and Tim to barrel through the 53 original episodes of Arrested Development and cooperatively rank them best to worst, with an in-depth review of each. Circumstances intervened with the thoroughness of that project, and egos intervened with the idea of two people “cooperatively” ranking all 53 episodes. (Ranking Game isn’t as effective with just two people.)

So here’s the result of all that labor: Shorter reviews of all 53 original episodes, presented in chronological fashion (albeit with a good deal of ranking going on within them).

Arrested Development is our favorite show, and this, in 53 different ways, shows why.

(Extended) Pilot

John once made a point — I think it was in here — about how dramas are most perfectly conceived in their first seasons. (He’s taken a step back, btw.) Comedies have always been driven differently. It takes time for the characters to evolve and develop the right way, for the proper interactions to take hold.

Which makes watching Arrested Development’s extended pilot so remarkable. The characters are properly and almost comprehensively established right away. “This is Michael Bluth. He’s a good man” is the first line of the series, and it foregrounds everything that is to come after it.* Lucille is overdramatic and quick-witted, Lindsay is hypocritical, Tobias is oblivious, Gob is creepy, Buster is incompetent, George Sr. is going through one of his phases (a cowboy one to be exact). None of these characterizations ring untrue.

*The “He’s a good man” is actually cut from the pilot that aired. Seems like it shouldn’t have been.

This isn’t the funniest episode of the series by any stretch of the imagination, but it’s one of the funnier pilots you’ll ever see, especially considering the amount of expository work that has to be done. The series lays its extensive deck of cards on the table right away, complete with the eccentricities of its characters and absurd plot developments (i.e. incest in the first episode). It’s a nearly flawless pilot. —Tim

 

Top Banana

As Tim just explained, Arrested Development had one of the all-time greatest comedy pilots (particularly the extended cut version), but it’s easy to see reasons why it potentially wouldn’t work as a series. Could it handle so many characters? How would the documentary format work from week to week? Would any of these characters be sympathetic enough?

“Top Banana” handles all these questions, and would prove to be a more representative episode of the series than the pilot itself. With the exception of Buster, who doesn’t make an appearance, every character gets a memorable moment, whether it’s Tobias’ “Oh my God! We’re having a fire… sale!” audition, George Sr.’s love affair with his ice cream sandwich, or George Michael’s enthusiasm for being named “Mr. Manager.” It’s also the beginning of many of the shows most memorable running jokes: “No touching,” Gob’s failed fireball trick, and even Tobias as a Never Nude all start in this episode.

Of course, “Top Banana” also demonstrates the show’s subtlety and sophisticated structure. When Lindsay tells Michael that she has a job—“it’s called supporting my husband”—she’s setting up a joke that only pays off at the end of the scene, when she interrupts Tobias’ speech to remind him he’s never had an audition. Similarly, there are punchlines that are set up several scenes in advance, like George calling T-Bone a “flamer,” or Lucille ending her phone call with “Well then why don’t you marry an ice cream sandwich?” It’s easy to miss these jokes, and, based on how long it took for Arrested Development to find its audience, it seems like a lot of people did. –John S

It was a couple years ago when John S and I started this project in a different form, attempting to rank the episodes 1 to 53 with more in-depth reviews. I started my reviewing of the whole series excitedly, not sure myself of which episode would rise to the top of my list.

And then two episodes in, I gave “Top Banana” a perfect score.

What’s so astounding to me about Arrested Development in retrospect is how fully realized it was from the start. This isn’t to say that the series didn’t evolve over time; obviously, it built upon itself to craft many of its most memorable jokes in callback form. But the execution of the characters in an episode like “Top Banana,” which is setting up all those later jokes rather than cashing in, remains pitch perfect. Michael and George Michael’s Mr. Manager conversation, Tobias’ fire sale audition, Lucille’s “She doesn’t even have a house,” Gob’s hurling the letter into the sea — all these could serve as perfectly representative exhibits of their series-long characters. And the way everything comes together, with the whole plot beginning and ending with the banana stand “cathartically” up in flames (to Bachman-Turner Overdrive at the end), is brilliant.

I don’t know that there’s a single thing I would change about “Top Banana.” —Tim

Bringing Up Buster

Buster may land a spot in the title, but it’s a different secondary character who steals the show. Tobias’ turn as the director of the school play belongs in the Fictional Director Pantheon alongside Corky St. Clair, Llewellyn Sinclair (and maybe, to a lesser extent, Dana Marschz). Tobias’ flipping over in his director’s chair, his confusion of gender roles and his crushing reaction to sophomore Tracy Schwartzmann’s review (“Why Tracy, why?”) are all standout moments. That compensates for the fact that the school is performing “Much Ado about Nothing” with a line from “As You Like It.”

All this doesn’t mean Buster doesn’t fulfill his title role, blowing through nap time, constantly having his presence overlooked and proudly nodding to Michael when he tells Lucille he sits in the front seat now. He also comes through with arguably his most memorable line ever, and one of the best in the show’s history, with his tirade against Lucille. —Tim

Key Decisions

There are a couple of moments from AD that I remember less for being funny than for being moments of perfect, nigh-Seinfeldian plot construction. The first in the series’ history happens here, right as Michael is on the verge of confessing his feelings for Marta. That’s when she gets the phone call from prison: Gob has been stabbed in the back.

Overall, “Key Decisions” isn’t one of the funniest episodes of the series, but it’s one of the best conceived. It connects Michael and Buster’s pursuit of romance (“You just grab that brownish area by its points and you don’t let go no matter what your mom says”). It lays the groundwork for Michael and Gob’s ongoing romantic rivalry — at its apex obviously with Marta, who of course is the more impressive Marta I in this episode. And it introduces one of the show’s greatest running gags in Gob’s “I’ve made a huge mistake.”

Any negative points for a meandering subplot involving Lindsay and Johnny Bark is overcome by the use of John Hiatt’s “Cry Love” at the end, and Lucille’s laughter following her “That’s why people don’t like hospitals.” —Tim

Visiting Ours

The breakout star of Arrested Development was clearly Michael Cera. This doesn’t necessarily mean that George Michael is the best or funniest character (I’d probably say Gob is the funniest), but that his performance was probably the most impressive throughout the series. Even in an episode like “Visiting Ours,” which has great scenes from Will Arnett and David Cross, Cera stands out. Tobias’ scene with his therapist, played by Bob Odenkirk, is reminiscent of Mr. Show, and Arnett brilliantly sells Gob’s revulsion, both at Kitty (“It just seems like there’s still some light coming in from under the door…”) and at the thought of his parents having sex (“I have a sense of propriety!”).

But for me, Cera has the best moments of the episode, even if they don’t look that way on paper. When Michael tells his son that Pop-pop only freaked out because of his sense of humor, Cera chuckles, nods, and says, “I don’t really get the hair joke, but…”  It’s that sense of agreeability, naïveté, and honesty that makes George Michael different from just a generic “awkward teen.” The way Cera says “A hug’s gotta end sometime,” after his hug with Maeby is one of his best deliveries in the series. –John S

Charity Drive

“Charity Drive” lacks a real highlight to the episode. Rather, it’s a quantity-of-joke over quality-of-joke kind of preamble to the second season’s “Burning Love,” which would also feature the bachelorette auction (and more effectively, I might add). Even so, “Charity Drive” does shine a light on some of the less heralded sources of the series’ comedy, like George Senior’s recruitment by a number of gangs (“I feel like the prettiest girl at the dance”), Lucille’s cruelty toward Lindsay (“Oh honey, you’re not supposed to show up as the Wetlands”), and Buster’s incompetence at nearly everything (after smashing a skull on an archaeological dig, he lets loose an excuse I use to this day whenever I make a mistake: “That was 90 percent gravity”).  —Tim

My Mother, The Car 

“My Mother, The Car” has a lot of very traditional sitcom-y beats. A lot of the humor comes out of one-liners from Michael—“This is a Bluth family celebration. It’s no place for children”—or gags that wouldn’t feel that out of place on a multi-camera show (Lindsay saying “I finally got Dad to respect me for my intellect” while revealing her “Slut” T-shirt).* And the noir mystery feel of the second half never really works.

*It also has one of the few jokes that really bother me: After Lucille tells Michael that he’s her third-least favorite child, the camera cuts to Gob, who the Narrator calls her “fourth-least favorite child.” Of course, her fourth-least favorite child would be her favorite child, when they obviously mean the opposite.

Still, this episode has some of my favorite lines, like “Loving this aspirin. Can’t believe we give it to children,” “We’re brothers: We kinda like each other!” and the introduction of Les Cousins Dangereoux. Even when Arrested Development was mediocre, it was pretty great. –John S

 In God We Trust

I’m pretty sure “In God We Trust” was the first episode of Arrested Development I watched in full (during an FX weekend marathon). That’s because I can pinpoint the moment I decided I was in love with the show, right when they reveal Michelangelo’s “Creation of Adam” and a woman in the audience shouts, “There is no God!” It’s not the funniest line the series or even the episode produces, but it’s just so perfect for the moment.

“In God We Trust” labors at times; it’s hard to believe George Michael really thought wearing the muscle suit could fool Maeby. But it showcases the most entertaining Michael-Lindsay dynamic of the series and starts explaining Tobias’ use of cutoffs. No Lucille, he doesn’t just like cutoffs… —Tim

Storming the Castle

It’s rare in any sitcom, including Arrested Development, for the secondary plot to align well with the primary one. In the better-than-I-remembered “Storming the Castle,” though, the parallel developments for Michael and George Michael work beautifully in concert: Each is trying to be bolder than normal, and each eventually realizes how uncomfortable that attempted transition can be.

The result is one of the more fully developed plots in the show’s history, with all the characters (sans Tobias) brought together at the Gothic Castle. And there are few lines I’ve recited more than Tobias’ “Look at us. Who’d want to mess with us?” —Tim

Pier Pressure

Arrested Development was known and loved for the speed and quantity of its jokes—the sheer number of punchlines meant that even “mediocre” episodes still had a few big laughs. But an episode like “Pier Pressure” showed how perfect the show could be when all of these jokes built on each other. The episode’s very first scene has great jokes, like Michael responding to his son’s A- with “I’m very proud of you…minus,” and the cutaway showing that “Science Makes Maeby Feel…C-.” Even more impressively, though, each of these jokes sets up the episode’s themes and future jokes, like Gob hearing that George Michael grades are slipping and saying, “I heard about the A-,” or Lindsay telling Maeby, “I know you got a crocodile in spelling, but come on.”

And of course the first scene sets up the most memorable thing from this episode, the Lessons of J. Walter Weatherman. The Lessons are such a memorable gag that it’s easy to forget that they only really appear in two episodes. The docks scene at the end of “Pier Pressure” is hilarious even before J. Walter Weatherman shows up (“Drug delivery!”), and the elaborate and ridiculous conclusion—“That’s why you don’t teach lessons to your son…”—is one of the first great climaxes the show ever did.

Even the episode’s denouement has a great moment, when George Michael finally tells his dad about his crush on Maeby, only to hear him laugh and assume it’s another Lesson. A pretty much perfect ending to a pretty much perfect episode… –John S

Public Relations

Michael Bluth’s romantic interests are almost uniformly uninteresting. None of the characters he pursued was ever particularly appealing or funny in her own right,* and they were occasionally even distracting. Still, Michael’s romantic life was usually a great source of material for the show because the characters served as great foils to the main cast.

*The one possible exception being Maggie Lizer.

Jessie Bowers, the publicist in “Public Relations,” is no different. As a character, there’s not much there, and she weirdly turns into a complete villain two-thirds of the way through the episode. But “Public Relations” works because her role as a publicist opens up a rich vein of material for the show. The scene where she tells each member of the family what to do to be more likable is one of Arrested Development’s first great self-referential scenes.

“Public Relations” also marks a crucial turning point in the series’ use of the narrator. When Ron Howard says Jessie “had better watch her mouth” after she calls George Michael “Opie,” it’s his first editorialization. As the series would go on, the Narrator became far less objective than he was in the Pilot. –John S

Marta Complex/Beef Consomme

On repeated viewing — and there may not be two episodes of Arrested Development that I’ve watched more than these two — the “Hermanos” joke does tend to wane a little. But man, the first dozen times I watched the Marta episodes, Gob and Michael’s inability to pin down with whom Marta was allegedly cheating may have been my favorite joke of the series. (When, at the beginning of “Beef Consomme,” Gob calls Michael mon frère and wonders why he knows the French for “brother” but not the Spanish, I almost fell of my chair.)

On a plot basis, no arc of the show does more to characterize the three Bluth sons better than this one. Gob waffles on his commitment to Marta; he will waffle on all his commitments in the series’ history. Michael will unsuccessfully attempt to straddle being noble and getting what he wants. Buster will linger always on the fringe, unable to make a serious impression.

(I’m not sure there’s a better, or at least more efficient Buster episode, than “Beef Consomme”: There’s his juxtaposition of “I want to make love to a woman, I want to get a checking account,” there’s his acknowledgement that the blue sweater will look great with the gray pants, and there’s his realization when Marta doesn’t know who he is that “THAT’S what it feels like to get punched in the face.”)

Finally, “I also like your hair, your face, and your breasts” is the funniest line Michael ever utters on the show. —Tim

 

Shock and Aww

Picking up after the conclusion of the Marta storyline, “Shock and Aww” introduces the stories that would dominate throughout the second half of Season One. Cindy Lightballoon’s work as an undercover agent, Lucille’s adopted son “Annyong,” and the Bluth Company’s crimes in Iraq are all set up in this episode. At this point, the show was so dense with characters and information that it was able to insert punchlines for jokes that were set up episodes in advance. In “Shock and Aww,” Maeby does a “Steve Holt” chant that only makes sense if you’ve seen “Bringing Up Buster.”

It’s a simple callback, but it’s part of a broader trend. Setting up jokes that wouldn’t pay off for weeks (we see a “Surely Funke” poster behind Maeby in this episode as well) probably explains why Arrested Development alienated casual fans; but it also explains how the show was able to make episodes so dense with jokes, since it could rely on all the information from prior episodes and scenes as setups. –John S

It’s interesting that your approach to this episode was to mention the episodes-long jokes it fulfills and establishes, because to me, “Shock and Aww” is one of the great one-off episodes of AD. I wouldn’t feel bad recommending it to someone who has never seen the show at all.

The plot isn’t completely self-contained; obviously, there’s residual effects from the Marta situation between Gob and Michael. But for me, the funniest aspects of the episode reside more in the alignment of Michael’s pursuit of Beth with George Michael’s learning about ethics (and the morals of a pre-emptive strike). It’s sitcom-y on a basic level, but it executes that premise so well (“That may be the most unethical thing I’ve ever heard.” “Well, you’ve only been doing this half a semester.”)

Plus, I’ve always appreciated the line the episode draws between loving something and merely being interested in it. —Tim

Altar Egos

If ever I were forced to parse Arrested Development down, to try to contain its brilliance into one single scene, I’d probably choose one about 9.5 minutes into “Altar Egos.”

It’s Michael and it’s Gob, and the topic is Michael’s “one-night stand” with Maggie:

GOB: Should have stayed with me last night. Could have seen me get some major action, from a major blonde, who just majored in marine biology, if you know what I mean.

MICHAEL: I don’t know what you mean. I can’t imagine what that means. I actually had a pretty interesting night myself.

GOB: Really? What’d you do? Read the plea?

MICHAEL: No I didn’t have a chance to. I went home with someone.

GOB: What was wrong with her?

MICHAEL: Nothing’s wrong with her. She’s blind.

GOB: Are you serious?

MICHAEL: I didn’t know at the time. And now I have to take her and her dog to the park.

GOB: You’ve got work to do. You’ve got to read that plea.

MICHAEL: I know I’ve got work to do. That’s what I was trying to do last night when you put me up to all this!

GOB: No I didn’t!

MICHAEL: Yes you did!

GOB: I told you to walk away. I told you to give a fake name.

MICHAEL: I did. Thanks very much. I’m Chareth Cutestory, a pirate lawyer. It was airtight.

GOB: Boy, you really had to work hard to bag this blind girl, huh?

MICHAEL: I certainly can’t take advantage of her now knowing what I know.

GOB: What? No. Michael, you can. You just won a gold medal at the sexual special Olympics! She can’t ever find you again! Don’t you see that you’re so…lucky? God… How do you not…

MICHAEL: What’s wrong with you? Didn’t you bag some woman you’re never going to see again?

GOB: Well, I screwed up. I broke a couple of my own rules last night. She knows I’m Gob Bluth…. I got married…

MICHAEL: You did what?

GOB: Well, she was a darer. She’s one of those girls that dares you to do things.

MICHAEL: You married her?

GOB: I needed a dare.

Besides being outrageously funny, the scene captures the ways in which Michael and Gob are different — and maybe more importantly, how they’re the same — while also setting up about 15 other jokes that would be referenced down the line. (I always liked how Lindsay’s flirtation with Tom Jane started with the same “There’s nothing wrong with him. He is homeless.” construction.)

The episode also delivers two great lines from Lucille, when she tells George that “even when you slept with my sister it was for a good cause” (George: “Got her to stop drinking.”) and when she calls Cindy Lightballoon “that redwood of a whore.” How I’ve longed to call someone a “redwood of a whore.” —Tim

Justice is Blind

Maggie Lizer is probably the funniest of Michael’s love interests, largely due to the absurd premise of her character: a lawyer pretending to be blind to garner sympathy with the judge and juries. Such a ridiculous set up is worth it, if only for Tobias’ scene inside her house. Watching David Cross tiptoe around Maggie and drench himself in her clothes and perfumes is great—revealing Maggie’s deception in the middle makes it even better.

But Lizer’s most valuable contributions are, like those of Jessie Bowers and Beth Baerly, in the tension she brings to the Bluths, here to the trial of George Sr. The running gag of characters misremembering the Ten Commandments is great, both because of their versions are absurd—my favorite being Gob’s “Thou shalt protect thy father and honor no one above him, unless it beith me: they dear sweet Lord”—and because every character falls prey to them. Heck, even George Michael ends up morally compromised (by Surely) at the end of this episode, which almost never happens… –John S

Missing Kitty

One of Arrested Development’s slowest burning jokes is how it gradually reveals Michael to be, in his own way, just as selfish and immoral as the rest of his family. “Missing Kitty” is yet another example of Michael’s poor parenting, as he whisks George Michael away from spring break and into service as his assistant (and I only recently, in my umpteenth viewing of this episode, noticed the jump cut from Lindsay accusing Lucille of locking a family member “in some gray, windowless room against her will” to George Michael in just that situation). Eventually, almost everyone would get a turn as Michael’s assistant, but George Michael’s stands out for “Talk you off what, Pop-pop?” –John S

Best Man for the Gob

Dr. Funke’s 100% Natural Good-Time Family Band Solution doesn’t get much screen time, yet somehow manages to function as a satire of both hippie folk-music culture AND the pharmaceutical industry. That such a high-concept idea could work—while still working in jokes about Tobias’ sexuality and Lindsay’s drinking—is a testament to how much Arrested Development could do with only a few lines.

But the best scene in this episode is the hotel scene between Michael and his son. In addition to introducing us to the difference between “lasting fun” and “fleeting fun,” it also subverts the traditional sitcom moralizing: Instead of George Michael giving a vague speech that somehow applies to both of their stories, he forces in a reference to pride because he’s “afraid it wouldn’t land” without it. –John S

Whistler’s Mother

In focusing on the relationship between Michael and Lucille, “Whistler’s Mother” takes more of a traditional sitcom tack, leaving less room for the rapid-fire comedy that often characterizes the show. The exception, of course, is when Gob and Tobias team up to form Gobias Industries (“Go buy us a cup of coffee!”). Tobias’ attempt at playing hardball with Michael is, indeed, the worst bluff we’ve ever seen.       —Tim

Not Without My Daughter

I understand it when other people who love Arrested Development talk about Gob or Tobias or George Michael as the show’s funniest character. We all know they have their moments. “Not Without My Daughter” ranks as one of my favorite episodes, however, because of how well it utilizes the supposed straight man Michael in hilarious ways. (Disclosure: Michael has always been my favorite character.)

That hilarity ensues after Michael becomes the focal point of the investigation into Kitty’s disappearance, since he threatened her in a restaurant (“That’s a restaurant…”). The cops’ interactions with Michael (complete with their daughters) and Michael’s with Barry highlight the episode.

“Not Without My Daughter” also pairs Michael and Maeby far more effectively than the later “Afternoon Delight,” as it highlights that Michael, too, has his flaws as a parent (“Kids love boundaries.” Really?).

Finally, just because the focus is on Michael doesn’t mean the secondary characters fade. Gob and George Michael always make for an interesting pair, especially when Gob mistakenly discusses threesomes with his nephew. —Tim

Let ‘Em Eat Cake 

For a show that premiered almost ten years ago, not much about Arrested Development feels dated—except for the recurring joke about the Atkins diet in the Season One finale. If it didn’t play such a prominent role in the episode, I probably wouldn’t remember what the Atkins diet was. Having said that, it’s another great example of the show’s slow-playing a joke, as it gradually reveals everyone in the episode to be off carbs.

Also notable about the finale—which finally reveals George Sr.’s “light treason” in Iraq and introduces Dr. Fishman, the overly literal doctor (played by Ian Roberts)—is that the two funniest scenes are also the two “emotional” scenes: The first coming when George Michael tells his dad he doesn’t want to leave the family, and the second coming when they think that “old big bear” has died. Arrested Development was able to make traditional sitcom reflective moments funny, in way most shows (like, say, Modern Family) never could. –John S

The One Where Michael Leaves

The start of Season Two feels like a turning point for Arrested Development. The premiere does the typical job of setting up the season’s stories—Oscar living with Lucille, Tobias joining the Blue Man Group, Gob running the Bluth Company—and includes the show’s usual number of hidden jokes (one I only just noticed: When Michael talks to his mother the first time she tells him that Buster is “too much of a big shot to brush Mother’s hair.” In the next scene, Lucille is brushing her own hair.). But “The One Where Michael Leaves” also includes at least two jokes that only make sense on repeat viewings: First, when George-dressed-as-Oscar leaves, he says, “I’m going to go. You don’t need a piece of shit uncle hanging around,” which only makes sense if you already know that he’s in disguise. Of course, this is revealed only a few minutes later. The other hidden joke—the local news report about a seal attack—only makes sense several episodes later, when Buster gets his hand bitten off.

By Season Two, it seems, the writers were embracing the kind of show Arrested Development was—one so dense with jokes that there was no way to get them all at once. As such, episodes became intentionally layered with callbacks, callforwards, and hidden jokes that would only make sense to the kind of obsessive fans Arrested Development bred. –John S

 The One Where They Build a House

With so many episodes, John S and I have tried to take one moment and place it in the context of the series as a whole: “This joke is representative of how awesome Arrested Development was at x.”

But where to begin in “The One Where They Build a House”? Maybe more than any other episode, it contains volumes. There’s Michael’s reaction to the “mayonegg,” which takes what The Office (U.S.) is so known for and perfects it — before The Office (U.S.) even debuted. There’s the background signs of “Mission accomplished” and “Nothing creates the illusion of success like a boat” — the latter perfectly tailored to Gob — and Oscar asking “Everybody’s still up, huh?” while a blue dot obscures his erection. There are callbacks to Portugal and hermano and “I just want my kids back.” There’s an entire rock-paper-scissors motif.

And then, of course, there’s the transcendent c-word/Seaward scene, which might encompass the show’s subversive humor more succinctly than any other. —Tim

¡Amigos!

“¡Amigos!” is another example of an episode that, by the standards of the series, is somewhat uneven and mediocre, but still contains great stuff. A lot of the jokes don’t really work: Starla’s obsession with Quincy Jones never really paid off, the Ice-Lindsay love story doesn’t really pay off until the next episode, the Buster-in-Mexico stuff doesn’t really develop and feels vaguely racist. Nevertheless, there are still multiple guffaws to be found in this episode, particularly anything involving George Michael and Ann (this episode has some of Season Two’s best Ann jokes, with “Annhog” and “Way to plant, Ann!”). My favorite bit, though, is the running gag of Gob’s motivational signs. And notice how the last sign, reading “Keep an Open Mind,” isn’t even visible when it pays off with Michael reasserting his distaste for Ann. Yet another example of the show trusting its audience to get the joke… –John S

Good Grief

For a long time I considered “Good Grief” to be my favorite episode of Arrested Development. It still might be. After all, it has “The mere fact that you call making love ‘pop-pop’ tells me you’re not ready” and Poof magazine and “I’ll be bringing you some salmon rolls real soon…in heaven” and “Who left the cap off my fucking Glisten?” and “I don’t know what I’m saying” and what Buster did to what he thought was Rosa’s car with what he thought was Rosa’s favorite toy. All of these are among the best jokes the show ever did. Even the minor jokes, like Maeby trying to get emancipated and Buster having “half-a-day” at the Army, work. There’s just not much to say about an episode where almost everything clicks. –John S

Sad Sack

Look, I’m not going to get all over the sitcom trope of talking to the camera. Most of the humor from The Office and Modern Family and some of it from Parks and Recreation derive from confessionals to the camera. It’s a thing, and it works for the most part.

It works for the most part because you have to ignore the enormous loophole of, Who’s filming these people? The Office explains it as a documentary, and eventually — long after you’ve forgotten they’re there — brings in the documentarians as characters. Modern Family and Parks and Rec aren’t so specific.

Arrested Development, on the other hand, has the narrator in Ron Howard, which at least feels like less of a pink elephant. The narrating Howard is always useful: Look at how he sets up new action at the start of “Sad Sack,” meaning the characters don’t have to engage in unrealistic expository background. He also becomes funnier, evolving into a character as the show developed. Witness Michael’s “I’m not lying anymore” being rebuffed immediately by Howard’s “Michael was lying.”

Also, what does it say about a show when “They found WMDs in Iraq so we got a half-day” is only its second-best line about half-days? —Tim

Afternoon Delight/Switch Hitter

Despite Arrested Development’s large cast, it usually did a very good job of working in all its characters. Of course, there were bound to be times when characters got lost in the shuffle, and usually that happened to Maeby. There were times when Alia Shawkat seemed to disappear or fade into the background for a few episodes, particularly once George Michael started dating Ann (or, as Michael calls her in this episode, “Yam”). “Afternoon Delight” feels like it was written in large measure to give Maeby something to do, as she spends the episode teaming up with Michael to make George Michael and Lindsay jealous. And yet it still feels like Maeby is just a prop in a larger story: The real standouts of this episode are Gob and his suit (I’ve always loved how the suit gets more expensive as the episode goes on), Buster and his “awards” from “Army,” and Tobias getting “blown” and being unable to hear.

In “Switch Hitter,” though, Maeby would finally get her own subplot, where she conned her way into a role as a movie executive. This wasn’t an ideal solution—there were times in this story where it felt like Maeby was on her own show—but it at least put Maeby into a role as something other than someone else’s sidekick. And the Hollywood satire the show did with Maeby as an executive was often an excellent source of humor.

“Switch Hitter” also introduced Stan Sitwell, who would prove to be an even better Bluth Company foil than Lucille Austero. He served both as a contrast of business philosophy—as his plan to give one of the 450 homes to a disadvantaged family, presumably “so the other 449 family live in fear” shows—and of parenting philosophy. His role as a surrogate father for Gob would pay dividends through the next few episodes. –John S

Queen for a Day

Of all of Tobias’ ill-conceived plans, none are more ill-conceived than his wish to change the streets with his gang of Hot Cops. Hearing him yell, “We’ve miscalculated!” while he and the Hot Cops are beaten on the street is one of the episode’s biggest highlights. (And have we not given the Hot Cops their due as a recurring joke on the series? They always work.)

I would have said that was the biggest highlight of “Queen for a Day,” but I had to check my lease, man, because I’m living in F*** City! —Tim

Burning Love

Part of what I’ve long considered the Sitwell Cycle of Season Two, “Burning Love” is notable mainly for its introduction of Sally Sitwell (Christine Taylor) as pretty much the only reasonable love interest Michael ever has on the series. Much as Maggie Lizer shows Michael’s flaws in a one-night stand, Sally would come to reveal his problems in a relationship — over a longer and more serious arc than Jessie Bowers or Beth Baerly.

Here, it’s simply Michael as an awkward, juvenile flirter — a trait that’s connected to his past interactions with Sally. It’s not like other episodes don’t highlight the differences between Michael and Gob as people, but few do it as efficiently as this one in the “It’s called taking advantage” conversation.

George Michael’s Christian “Music Bonfire” — it’s not a “Christian Music” bonfire — and his infatuation with the Jerky Boys is an admirable side plot. And don’t forget the concept of the “rule-abiding detective” Frank Wrench, or the news bulletin highlighting the golf course’s annual bachelorette auction as “Antiques Sold at Auction.” It all comes with a side of club sauce. —Tim

Ready, Aim, Marry Me!

From the moment it first aired, “Ready, Aim, Marry Me!” has been the worst episode of Arrested Development. I don’t think it’s even up for much argument. The episode revels in its lack of accessibility in a way the series didn’t embrace until the end of the third season. Martin Short’s Uncle Jack is its most over-the-top character as a 90-year-old man carried around by the deaf Dragon — although, fine, I suppose he served as a precursor to Bram and Hodor.

The lack of accessibility is best captured by this exchange:

GEORGE SR.: You’re pimping out your sister?

MICHAEL: You were pimping out my mother.

GEORGE SR.: Yes, because she was sleeping with my brother. But your sister?

In spite of all this, what makes me smile when I rewatch “Ready, Aim, Marry Me!” is how, even though it’s the worst episode of the series, it’s still so good. There’s Lucille yelling “Bitch!” at Lucille 2, Buster’s fear of “making that love,” Gob’s “Michael!…Michael?” line when finding his brother with Tobias, and, of course, Tobias’ even-better-than-usual phrases of innuendo. Even the bad episodes of Arrested Development are really good. —Tim

Out on a Limb/Hand to God

The “Out on a Limb”/“Hand to God” two-parter is the culmination of a host of stories in Arrested Development’s second season. Most obviously, it’s the payoff to all the hidden jokes about Buster’s hand. The loss of his hand was foreshadowed from the beginning of the season—“Out on a Limb” alone has George Sr. saying “What if I never get to reach out and touch that hand of his again?” and Buster sitting on a park bench so it reads “Arm Off”—and it paid off just in time to save him from deploying to Iraq. Everyone’s reactions to Buster’s hook hand, like Michael’s strained laughter and George Michael’s barely concealed terror, are a great source of ongoing physical comedy in “Hand to God.”

But these episodes also see the abrupt end to Michael’s relationship with Sally Sitwell and the return of Maggie Lizer. I’ve always felt the show never really got all it could out of Michael and Sally—indeed, all the jokes about Michael trying to sabotage his relationship with her seem like an admission by the writers that the relationship was just too boring. Instead, these episodes offer one of the most convoluted, slapstick-y stories in the series. Rewatching them it’s almost hard to keep track: First Maggie’s pregnant, then she’s faking, then she’s really pregnant but it’s not Michael’s baby, but then it IS his baby, only it turns out she’s not actually pregnant at all… And all this while the Skip’s Scramble lawsuit plays out in the background. It’s very impressively diagrammed, even if some of the jokes (like the cop’s line about giving the surrogate a “mixed cocktail”) feel a little a forced.

The subplots more than make for it, though. In the first half-hour, George Michael getting sick of Ann leads to one of his best line deliveries in the series: “I like not having fun. I like your idea of fun—I mean, our idea of fun… I like not having that.” This is also one of the best Buster/Lucille episodes. I’ve always liked that Buster finally learns that Oscar is his father, despite all the obvious double-entendres, by misunderstanding what George Sr. says. And if this about going swimming in the ocean, the answer is no, he’s not going swimming in the ocean… –John S

Motherboy XXX

Before I start this, I’d just like to remind you that you can get a free refill on any drink at your local Burger King. It’s a wonderful restaurant!

There are some pretty standard pairings of Arrested Development characters: Lucille and Buster, George Michael and Maeby, Lindsay and Tobias, etc. “Motherboy XXX,” though, uses the loss of Buster’s hand to offer some unusual pairings, as George Michael and Lucille go off to the Mother-Son competition, Michael and Buster join forces to stop them, and Gob goes to his divorce proceedings with Barry. This could feel forced, but since it never gets in the way of jokes, it’s hard to notice any change in the formula. Henry Winkler has probably his best episode as Barry Zuckercorn, as he admits, among other things, that he’s “not exactly super prepared.” And I skipped breakfast so I’m off to Burger King…. –John S

The Immaculate Election

Perhaps casting Tobias as Mrs. Felidia Featherbottom wasn’t the most original move; the show acknowledges as much when it calls it “the exact plot of Mrs. Doubtfire.” But few subplots on the show are as efficient in delivering laughs than Tobias in drag, whether he’s driving on the wrong side of the road, crashing into coffee tables or just ending every song he sings “in the most delicious way!”

“The Immaculate Election” also does a good job of illustrating Michael’s flaws as a parent, and his occasional — maybe even frequent — misreading of George Michael. The episode also contains two perfect throwaway lines: Gob’s “I like Steve’s more” after the videos air, and Michael’s “You’re still doing that?” to George Michael at the end. —Tim

Sword of Destiny

Dan Castellanata’s performance is one of the rare guest appearances that doesn’t really work at all. His only joke is that he continually refers to himself as the best doctor in the state/county/world, even though he can’t seem to properly diagnose or fix Michael. Throughout his story, I always wish we had the other doctor back. On the flip side, Ben Stiller’s appearance as Tony Wonder is one of best guest appearances of the series. Not only does he work as a foil for Gob and Buster—his approval of Buster and dismissal of Gob leads to the great “Silence slave!” line—but he’s one of the rare guests who rivals the main cast in terms of humor: His brilliant “trick” of hiding food in his clothes, and his inability to name his DVD are among the best jokes of the episode. –John S

Meat the Veals

Introducing the Veal family could have been a mistake for the show. After all, even though Ann had been around since the season premiere (or the finale of Season One, if you count weird original Ann), she was really just a one-joke character (though what a great joke it is…). Trying to expand her family could have finally ruined that joke, either by wearing it out through repeating it on her family or undercutting it by humanizing her. Luckily, though, the Veals don’t do either of those things. They are two of the most mundane characters ever introduced, though they still manage to be funny: Alan Tudyk’s delivery of “Do you want me to go to the liquor store and get you some liquor?” is a highlight of the episode, for example.

More importantly, they serve as a contrast to the Bluths for one of the wackier episodes. Not only does this episode continue the Tobias-as-Mrs. Featherbottom story (to the point where he drives on the wrong side of the road to sell the ruse), it also introduces Franklyn Delano Bluth, the puppet who’s not afraid to call out George Michael’s “cracker ass” or say things that whitey and African-American-y aren’t ready to hear. The Veals ultimately help ground the episode, and they even help develop Ann’s character—without ruining her original joke—when it’s revealed that she, like her mother, is attracted to the ways of the secular flesh. –John S

Spring Breakout

If the second half of Season Two is Arrested Development’s strongest stretch—and I would suggest it is—“Spring Breakout” is its weakest point. Of course, there’s still great stuff, like the jump from George Michael telling Maeby the guys just like hearing her say “bananas and nuts” (“I won’t tell you why. That’s your father’s job.”) to Tobias chanting that at some spring breakers. It just doesn’t gel in the same way the episodes around it do: Most of the humor comes from callbacks (to Tobias as a Never-Nude, Gob on “Girls with Low Self-Esteem,” etc.), without anything especially memorable added to them. –John S

Righteous Brothers

So much of the best material on Arrested Development comes between Michael and Gob. Whether it’s them talking about their one-night stands in “Altar Egos,” their competition over Marta in the beginning of Season One, or their ongoing dispute over who should be president of the Bluth Company, the sibling rivalry between them is the possibly the best relationship on the show. Largely for this reason, I’ve often considered “Righteous Brothers” among the series’ best episodes. It was slightly disappointing on rewatching—it doesn’t really pick up until the meeting with Kitty—but the Michael/Gob story (now with Franklyn thrown in!) is as good as ever.

“Righteous Brothers” also has a memorable subplot that brings back Les Cousins Dagnereux, this time for an American remake. George Michael’s two “protest signs” (one that says “Cuz (It’s a) Sin” and another that says “This is a tricky gray area”) are one of my favorite jokes on the series, and having him finally act on his crush on Maeby immediately pays off when he panics in front of Gob. There are times when I lament the fate of Arrested Development, since it was canceled after three short seasons, and then there are times when I marvel at how a show with an ongoing subplot about an incestuous crush stayed on the air for three seasons. –John S

The Cabin Show

Among the many things that made Arrested Development so groundbreaking was its ability to sneak onto network air jokes that never should have been on network air. This is, of course, epitomized best by the infamous Seaward/C-Word joke from Season Two.

No episode, though, captures the spirit of the show’s subtle vulgarities like “The Cabin Show.” There’s Lucille talking about the cabin — and perhaps meaning something else — as a “musty old claptrap.” There’s Lindsay sitting on the copier, telling Michael she wants to buy a Volvo, and Michael saying, with perfect enunciation, that “this is not a Vol-VO.”

And then there’s the casual implication that Gob had two abortions in high school, which I didn’t pick up on until about the 15th time I watched the episode. “The Cabin Show” goes to a few wells too often — i.e. the disappointment of not going to the cabin — but those jokes aren’t one of them. —Tim

For British Eyes Only

Despite the best efforts of the writers or the executives at FOX or whomever it was that decided Arrested Development needed to be more accessible in the third season, “For British Eyes Only” feels, for the most part, like a typical episode of the series. There are some clear signs of the show trying to be more viewer-friendly, like a “Previously On…” segment with an extended juxtaposition to explain where things stand and set up things that don’t even come up in this episode, like the George Michael and Maeby story. But once the show gets going, it’s full of the dense writing and hidden callbacks (like Lupe calling Tobias “Mr. Gay”) that made the show great. Overall, it’s actually a pretty great episode.

If I sound surprised it’s because the most memorable thing about the episode is the introduction of Charlize Theron as Rita, Michael’s British love interest. The addition of Theron, who was coming off her Oscar win at the time, to the cast was the most blatant instance of stunt-casting, and the most obvious misstep in the series. It’s not really fair to blame Theron, who did what she could with a rather weak character: Rita, it would be revealed at the end of “Mr. F,” is mentally retarded.

The show clearly set up Rita’s disability as a more elaborate version of the Iraq foreshadowing in Season One, or story of Buster’s hand in Season Two: Like those stories, there are hidden jokes in the early episodes that set up the reveal, and they seem painfully obvious on second viewing. The problem in this instance is that a mental handicap can’t play out in the background like those other stories did. When you rewatch an episode like “For British Eyes Only,” you don’t notice peripheral jokes you missed the first time—you are distracted by something so obvious you should have seen in the beginning. As such, the scene where Michael meets Rita—which is actually pretty funny on its own, as Michael’s “worst hello”—becomes all about the hints that Rita’s retarded instead of, you know, the jokes. This problem hangs over all of Theron’s episodes, and since there’s nothing else funny about her character, she becomes a lingering distraction.*

*Of course, there is some irony here. It’s fitting for Arrested Development that, when it attempted to attract viewers via stunt-casting, it hurt the show by making that character TOO complicated and not accessible ENOUGH. 

John S

Forget-Me-Now

Basically when rewatching the Rita episodes, it’s fruitful to eliminate all the scenes that contain her. “Forget-Me-Now” is pretty good if we cut out all the Rita nonsense, whether it’s the introduction of Bob Loblaw (and the always fun game of watching Lindsay in any scene with Bob Loblaw), George Michael’s fulfilled hope that Steve Holt “would be gifted sexually,” or how the Bluths have treated Michael’s array of then-girlfriends. (Buster pantomiming Barbara is one of my favorite Buster jokes.)

And now for a brief, contrarian rant: The joke that the episode is probably best known for, however, is Tobias’ claim of being the world’s first analrapist (it’s pronounced uh-NAL-ruh-pist). It’s one I’ve always found a little overrated in the show’s annals. It’s an SNL Celebrity Jeopardy joke that is often the first cited by some of the show’s purported proponents. Whenever I go to a pub trivia note and hear another team named “The Analrapists,” I die a little inside. This show is so much better than that. —Tim

Notapusy

In the generally uninspired run of Rita episodes, “Notapusy” stands alone as a highlight, itself carried by the sublime perfection of a “Church and State Fair.” (Like DFW’s “Getting Away from Pretty Much Being Away from It All,” it will forever alter your perception of state fairs.) The pope impersonator, the dueling “Scared Straight” tents, and the best line of the third season, care of Gob: “I think we all feel that way about our mothers — and we all have legs.” —Tim

Mr. F

One of the bigger issues rewatching the Rita episodes isn’t how slow she seems some of the time; it’s how quick she seems at others. In attempting to maintain suspense at its ultimate reveal (which takes place at the end of this episode), AD tries to have its cake and eat it, too, with any number of Rita’s foreboding lines (“I’m going to take you out”).

Aside from that, “Mr. F” does a terrific job capturing the magnitude of Tobias’ obliviousness. This isn’t the first time he’s been recruited by the government, and it isn’t the first time he’s fallen prey to it. (The over-the-top nature of his ignorance — most explicit in the “Capture George Sr.?” scene — keeps a recycled plotline from feeling as such.)

Oh, and I’d watch Gob and Buster make Godzilla noises for hours. —Tim

The Ocean Walker

“The Ocean Walker” is the most uneven episode of the series. On the one hand, it has the all-time greatest “On the next episode…” tag, as it fades from Gob saying “It’s not part of my trick…” to “…it’s part of my ILLUSION”—I don’t know if I ever laughed harder at Arrested Development than I did the first time I saw that. The entire subplot of Gob coming up with a wedding trick for Michael is great, including the best joke from Rita: “Lighter fluid…but wherever did it come from?”

Unfortunately, everything else involving Rita is pretty bad. With the audience now in officially “in” on the joke of her being retarded, it reveals how repetitive the jokes about her are. Almost every joke is just “Look how stupid this person is” or “Isn’t it crazy nobody can figure it out?” At best this isn’t really credible, and at its worst it feels like the show mocking the mentally handicapped. Of course, the show made fun of disabilities throughout: alopecia, vertigo, and blindness all come to mind. But in those cases the show was able to craft original jokes that made a weird degree of sense in the series universe,* and it was never the character’s sole defining trait. Rita, though, is not stupid in any real way that differentiates her from countless other stupid sitcom characters, and there is nothing else noteworthy about her.**

*Of course Stan Sitwell would have “just woke up” hair…

**Also, is the scene between Uncle Trevor and Rita the only extended scene of the series to feature none of the regular cast? Nothing else comes to mind, and you can hear how unnatural the show’s dialogue sounds without the rhythms of the regular cast members.

-John S 

Prison Break-In

Between Tobias Graft vs. Host pratfalls, Oscar getting knocked out by Gob’s cage and the police, and Michael and Gob trying to break into the prison, this is a very slapstick-y episode. How much you enjoy it is probably closely related to how much you enjoy David Cross’ physical comedy as Tobias. Of course, this episode also features the happiest moment of George Michael’s life… –John S

Making a Stand

I often don’t know exactly how to evaluate the final half of Season Three — post-Rita — because one can see the show’s creators trying to fit so much material into so little time. “Making a Stand” can never escape this feeling of being a tad rushed, which can cripple a comedy that bases so much of itself on timing. Arrested Development is a show that builds jokes on jokes and works at the sentence level; some of that can be lost when Michael has to say a line a split-second too quickly.

But of course, these are the kinds of complaints you make when you’ve been watching a ton of awesome Arrested Development episodes. The final half of the third season also goes all-in on being meta, with “Making a Stand” essentially a sequel to “Pier Pressure.” The lessons-upon-lessons-upon lessons work nearly wonderfully, except for that rushed aspect.

Bonus points for including “Yellow Boat” near the end, probably the second-best song to appear on the series. —Tim

S.O.B.s

The most meta episode of a very meta show, “S.O.B.s” serves as the series’ commentary on itself. There are the not-so-subtle allusions to the hopes of being “saved” by “HBO” or “Showtime” and the addition of Oscar-winning actresses and other celebrities, and there are pleas to put on 3-D glasses and “tell your friends about this show.” More than that, the entire plot functions as an attempt by the Bluths to be more relatable: Lindsay acts like a typical housewife, Michael and George Michael have a very contrived argument, and it all converges on a banquet the family has to cater itself because the country club cancelled at the last minute.

Of course, within all that traditional sitcom setup, the episode packs its typical amount of absurdity. As a housewife, Lindsay makes “hot ham water” and accidentally feeds someone her brother’s prosthetic thumb; the George Michael/Michael fight somehow involves Andy Richter and his four identical quintuplet brothers; the final banquet scene features the return of Bob Einstein as a “surrogate” and Gob offering to follow strangers to their cars. Michael’s final speech, then, seems like an admission that the Bluths “don’t deserve” another chance because the show simply never could have the kind of mass appeal a network needs. It’s understandable to want to blame Fox for the show’s failure, but this episode shows that the series was incapable of doing episode that wasn’t packed with allusions and references and satires and callbacks and a hundred other things that don’t make sense to a casual fan. Besides, who would want an episode like that? –John S

Fakin’ It

While I’ve been rewatching Arrested Development, I’ve also rewatched some old episodes of How I Met Your Mother and The Office over the past couple of weeks — both shows well past their prime and reaching (or having reached) their conclusions. And what stands out most about AD — what makes it so much funnier than those other two — is that there is never a missed opportunity for a joke. It’s to the point where nearly every line in every episode is funny in some way; there’s no plot filler.

Amid the Adelaide callbacks, George Michael’s ongoing quest for Maeby and the fall-off-your-chair hilariousness of “Mock Trial with J. Reinhold” starring William’s “Hung Jury,” “Fakin’ It” includes a brilliant throwaway line. It’s from Gob, as he leaves the family circle at the hospital — this is just before George Michael’s rambling “It’s a great day…for being sad” line — and asks casually, “Does this hospital have a bar?”

It barely registers, but then again, there’s that whole exchange Lucille had back in Season One, when, informed there were no hospital bars, she responded, “That’s why people hate hospitals.” Lines like Gob’s — that’s why people love Arrested Development. —Tim

Family Ties

In some ways, all of the final four episodes of Arrested Development serve collectively as one finale. There are enough threads running through all the episodes—Gob’s religious girlfriend, the mysterious “N. Bluth,” allusions to “Judge Reinhold”—that they work together as a whole. But “Family Ties” stands out for the appearance of Justine Bateman, Justin Bateman’s actual sister, playing someone who might be his TV sister. With so much else going on, I’m not sure introducing a new character who amounts to little more than a red herring is such a great use of time in these last episodes, but she does lead to the great “It’s like we finish each other’s—“ “sandwiches?” line. And she blew everyone in the office…away. –John S

Exit Strategy

One of the more subversive aspects of Arrested Development is just how much fun it makes of the United States government. Nowhere is that more apparent than in “Exit Strategy,” in which George Sr. is revealed to be a patsy after all. I’m not sure I remember a harsher line about the U.S. than when, after George Michael fears Gob is in an Iraqi prison, Michael rebuts, “It’s U.S.-run. God knows what they’re doing to him.” —Tim

Development Arrested

As Tim will tell you, I am the biggest finale apologist. I have rarely seen a TV series finale I didn’t like (though there are some). I liked The Sopranos finale; I liked the Lost finale; I am the only person alive who actually kind of liked the Seinfeld finale. So theoretically I should like the Arrested Development finale. And in many ways I do: I particularly like how it serves as a compressed version of the series as a whole, with Michael making small moral compromises in order to keep the family together. And I like all the callbacks to the pilot, particularly the inverted ones, like Michael now saying “the most important thing” is breakfast, and him crying instead of smiling at the party.

The problem I have with the finale is the way it distorts the usual dynamics of the show. Lucille is “revealed” as the secret mastermind behind the Bluth Company, when anyone who’s watched the show knew all along that A) Lucille always knew about more of the company’s dealings than she let on, and that B) George Sr. was just as, if not more, corrupt than she is. So this “reveal” manages to feel both unsurprising and untrue. Similarly, the reveal that Lindsay is adopted feels rushed—I can buy that she’s not related to Michael, but not that she would rush into bed (literally) with him. In general, “Development Arrested” suffers from the same forced finality that plagues a lot of finales. It’s still funny—it just feels a little off.

This forced finality probably explains why there was such clamoring for a movie, even years after the show went off the air. It’s not just that the show was prematurely canceled and unique, but that the closure fans got with the characters never felt complete. It always felt like fans were waiting for that facetiously promised epilogue. And now we have it…  –John S

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