“Altar Egos/Justice Is Blind” (season 1, episodes 17/18; original airdates 3/17 & 3/21/04)
I don’t know if there’ll ever be an Arrested Development movie, but if there is, I hope it’ll be a lot like the first-season two-parter “Altar Egos” and “Justice Is Blind.” Not because these are the show’s best episodes—though they’re top-shelf, I’d say—but because they’re a prime example of how AD’s writers, cast and crew can sustain an intricate, comedically fertile, largely self-contained story for longer than just 22 minutes.
In fact, a new viewer could almost drop into these episodes cold, having never seen the show before, and not miss much of what’s going on, beyond a few long-running in-jokes and some basic character detail. The Narrator fills in most of the rest. There’s really only one storyline in “Altar Egos” and “Justice Is Blind” that’s superfluous, and that’s GOB’s dare-marriage to an unnamed woman played by Amy Poehler (Will Arnett’s real-life wife). That will play out in later episodes. Pretty much everything else that matters begins in “Altar Egos” and wraps up in “Justice Is Blind.”
The main plot has to do with Michael meeting and having a one-night-stand with Maggie Lizer, a blind attorney played by Julia Louis-Dreyfus. Or I should say a “blind” attorney. Because the main theme of these two episodes—or one of them, anyway—is people pretending to be something or someone they’re not. Maggie, we soon find out, has been faking blindness for years because it helped her cheat her way through law school and it earns her sympathy in court. Michael meets Maggie in a bar frequented by lawyers and through a series of misunderstandings ends up introducing himself as Chareth Cutestory, a “lawyer of the sea.” (This all connects back to Michael playing a lawyer as a boy in a school production of the musical The Trial Of Captain Hook.) Elsewhere, George-Michael learns that Maeby has been bilking their classmates out of money by pretending to be her own sickly, wheelchair-bound twin “Surely Fünke.” (“You don’t get checks if you’re healthy,” Maeby shrugs.) And Barry Zuckercorn announces that he’s “trying to get back in the dating world,” which involves him cruising City Of Industry looking for men dressed like women.
Also in “Altar Egos,” someone who was pretending comes clean. Cindi Lightballoon, undercover FBI agent, tells George Sr. the truth, because she’s watched Caged Wisdom and has fallen in love with him. Also, she kind of likes it when he tweaks her nipples through the chain-link fence. (Lucille, on the other hand, is livid when she catches her husband doing the tweaking on a woman she calls “this great redwood of a whore.” She files for divorce, and explains to her kids that it’s not just the infidelity, but the weird nipple-tweaking fetish. “I couldn’t breastfeed any of you kids because of that man.”)
Cindi barely appears in either of these episodes, but her confession to George Sr. drives a lot of the action. She’s convinced that the government doesn’t really have a case against George Sr., and she urges him to reject the plea offer he’s just received. Which sets up one of the sub-themes of “Altar Egos” and “Justice Is Blind:” nobody on any side of the big Bluth case really knowing what’s going on. Maggie, who’s on the case’s prosecution team, is reduced to deposing Buster for information. (“I know I have a fun time at home alone with Mom” is pretty much the extent of Buster’s testimony.) She prepares a big file of “evidence” and uses it to bait Michael once she realizes he isn’t “Chareth Cutestory,” but the file is actually a fake, representing the evidence the state wishes it had. (Nevertheless, GOB uses his “sleight of hand” to swipe the file from Michael, then he asks Tobias to use his cat-like agility to sneak into Maggie’s house and steal more.)
On the other side of the aisle, Barry has a big plea agreement in his hands that he hasn’t had time to read because he’s been too busy whoremongering. The huge plea-binder is a terrific Arrested Development prop: everyone brandishes it, but no one reads it. Michael tries to shame Barry into reading it, but his insults “make me want to read it even less.” Michael starts to read it, but he gets distracted by Maggie, and eventually decides that his dad should probably take the plea because “it’s very long,” which means it must be good.
Similarly, there’s a running joke in “Justice Is Blind” about The Ten Commandments, another legal document that everyone has an opinion about but nobody has actually read. When Lindsay hurts her foot on a big Ten Commandments monument outside the courthouse, she threatens to sue unless the monument is removed, because she supports the separation of church and state. (Though when asked what should be done with the monument, she suggests they “give them to a school.”) GOB says that for all Michael’s high-and-mightiness, he’s forgetting the most important Commandment: “Thou shalt protect thy father and honor no one above him unless it be-th me, thy sweet lord.” And when Maggie mentions the Commandment “Be true to thine self and to thine own self be true,” Michael mutters, “Yeah, number seven.” At the end of the episode, both Michael and George-Michael try to hide behind the Ten Commandments monument, but then it gets lifted by a crane, exposing them both and forcing them to admit that it’s tough to know how to do the right thing. After all, “It’s not like there’s some list of rules handed to us from on high.”
Not everything about these episodes works. The fake disease that Maeby gives Surely is called “B.S.,” which is a joke that’s a little too corny for Arrested Development, in my opinion. And having the revelation that Maggie can see teased as part of the “on the next” in “Altar Egos”—a rare “on the next” that’s actually accurate—kills the moment in “Justice Is Blind” where the secret is revealed.
But these two episodes contain some of the series’ best physical comedy, whether it be Tobias sneaking around Maggie’s house, trying not to touch her, or the flashbacks to Maggie pointing to the wrong evidence in court while everyone smiles condescendingly at her, or Maggie knocking over the coffees that Michael brings to her in the park, or Maggie’s guide-dog wandering off while Michael mouths “what’s wrong with me?” and pretends the dog is fine. (We later learn that the dog is actually blind, which Michael confirms when the dog jumps into a trashcan at the vet’s office.) I’ve long thought that Julia Louis-Dreyfus was one of the best comic actresses of her generation, because she has ace timing, amazing body-control, and is unafraid to look silly. She gets to show all those skills in Arrested Development.
Most of all though, “Altar Egos” and “Justice Is Blind” are fun for the way they work a discussion about ethics through 44 minutes of well-paced farce. We have GOB, telling Michael that in sleeping with Maggie he “just won the gold medal at the sexual special olympics,” and urging him to “do the right thing here… string this blind girl along so that dad doesn’t have to pay his debt to society.” There’s Lindsay, urging her family members to threaten to sue institutions, because “it’s free if it’s just a threat.” And then there’s Michael, who tries to expose Maggie’s blindness in court by throwing a Bible at her.
Hey… no Commandment against that, is there?
- I don’t think I’m alone in thinking that these two episodes work as a little half-movie. As I recall, Fox’s unusual airing schedule for “Altar Egos” and “Justice Is Blind”—only a few days apart—was part of one of the network’s periodic attempts to get viewers to sample the show. “Staff Infection” aired in the usual Sunday slot, then “Altar Egos” aired on a Wednesday (the same night as the American Idol results show), before “Justice Is Blind” wrapped the story on Sunday. With a former Seinfeld star on-board and a story that’s pretty easy to jump into, Fox had the right idea here. As I’ve often said, fans are too quick to blame Fox for the failure of Arrested Development to catch on. The network kept the show on for three seasons, and tried all kinds of special “now’s your chance to catch up, America” promotions in the early going especially. America just wasn’t interested.
- The presidential motif of Arrested Development begins to become more prominent in this episode, as we see Barry’s office and various locations around the courthouse festooned with portraits of Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and both Bushes. Meawhile, in a flashback we see Maggie cheating her way through the LSAT while wearing a big Dukakis button.
- Lindsay and Tobias have one of their periodic pangs of parental conscience and ask George-Michael to help bring Maeby’s grades up. They can’t offer any money, but Tobias promises, “I will pack your sweet pink mouth with so much ice cream….”
- George-Michael’s actual tutoring sessions with Maeby don’t come to much. He looks over her math test and says, “I see the problem. You got all the answers wrong.” Maeby tells him to put the right answers down for her, then hands him a wad of cash as she walks out the door, saying, “Enjoy the 200 bucks.” George-Michael mutters, “There are six 20s here.”
- GOB thinks lawyer is Latin for liar. A minute later we meet Maggie Lizer (“as in ‘lies her ass off’”) and soon discover that she is, indeed, a liar.
- GOB boasts that while Michael was hooking up with Maggie, he was getting “major action from a major blonde who’s majoring in marine biology, if you know what I mean.” Michael does not know what that means.
- The marine biology element introduces seals to the Arrested Development mythology in a way that gives no indication how significant seals will later become. I sometimes wonder how far ahead the writers planned certain elements of the show, but with the seals, my sense is that they knew where they were going right from the start. As funny as it is to hear GOB’s Wife spouting off semi-nonsensically about her work with seals—“Seal the deal! My seal-deal!”—the bit is too random to be wholly of-the-moment.
- “You’re a crook/Captain Hook/Judge, won’t you throw the book….”
- James Lipton returns as Waden Stefan Gentles, hailing the triumph that is George Sr.’s Caged Wisdom series. But his appreciation for a good self-help video doesn’t keep the warden from pointing out a Shasta can that George Sr. failed to pick up.
- A terrific example of Arrested Development nesting jokes within jokes: Warden Gentles tells George Sr. that he very much enjoyed the blooper footage at the end of Caged Wisdom, especially the moment when George Sr. accidentally choked himself with his prayer shawl. (“A self-choking for the ages!”) Later, we find out that the blooper footage contained the moment when George Sr. said “faith is a fact”—which impressed Cindi Lightballoon—when he meant to say “faith is a facet.” And after he muffed the line, he laughed at himself, leaned the wrong way, and there was the shawl-choking. I mean… that’s just beautiful. What can I say?
- We get our first (by my count) bit of Happy Days self-reference as Barry looks at himself in the bathroom mirror while preparing to comb his hair and then does the Fonz “you look perfect” gesture.
- When “Surely” acts weak, one of her classmates yells, “Somebody get her a cupcake!” Was that the same kid who baked the Sadaam cupcakes for Miss Baerly a few episodes back?
- Surely Fünke is “rolling” for school treasurer.
- GOB’s still-unnamed wife likes him to wear bright sweaters.
- When Lindsay has a shoe malfunction, Lucille is right there with a dig: “They’re heels… they can only support so much weight.”
- The whole reason to do the joke of a couple falling into bed together and then popping back up “thirty minutes later” is so you can do the joke of them falling back again and popping up “two minutes later,” having failed to rev back up.
- Maggie lives on Scenic View Drive.
- GOB’s “sleight of hand” with Maggie’s fake file involves him desperately cramming pages under couch cushions.
- GOB expects to bond with his parents when he mockingly calls Michael “Mr. Moral,” but instead George Sr. and Lucille exhange loving looks and say, “We did something right there.”
- The inevitable end to Barry’s attempt to “reenter the dating world” in City Of Industry: he meets “a woman who works two jobs.” One of those jobs is as an undercover cop.
- GOB tries to motivate Tobias by telling him that Michael “feels like you’ve been sucking off this family for too long.”
- Among the headshots on Maggie’s Bluth family bulletin board: Carl Weathers.
- The biggest piece of scandalous news that Buster has to offer Maggie is that his dad once came home from a business trip toting a black statue with an erect penis.
- “What’s gotten into you? Have you been eating cheese?”
- “I could kiss you on the [bleep]!”
- The best “on the next” in “Altar Egos:” GOB’s wife is distraught because three of her seals died on the way to Chad, and wonders where she can find a maritime lawyer.
- The best “on the next” in “Justice Is Blind:” Barry sees the Ten Commandments on his car and pledges to obey the will of God… until he sees a parking ticket on his windshield, and says, “to hell with this!”