Warning: Some political mumbo-jumbo in the intro ahead. Feel free to ignore and skip down to the episodes.
I typically avoid interjecting politics into what I write, because that’s not my area of expertise—and besides, angry rants about congressional gridlock could be unnecessarily alienating to those who’ve come to a television review to, y’know, read about television. Also, having grown up surrounded by a mix of right-wingers and lefties, I tend to play devil’s advocate about everything, even if that means arguing against what I actually believe. So any political assertion I make will almost always be accompanied by so many “on the other hand”s that it’ll be pretty stingless.
Nevertheless, it’s impossible to avoid politics completely when it comes to Arrested Development, in part because in its second season, the show so deftly integrates world events into the plot. Sometimes the nods to reality are just for the sake of a relatively non-partisan comic reference, such as in this week’s “¡Amigos!” when Lucille gives her Army-bound son Buster a camera “so you can videotape it when they put you in a human pyramid and point to your Charlie Browns.” But sometimes, as with last week’s “Mission Accomplished” banner hanging from the rickety shell of a new house, the jokes have a fairly unmistakable message. I could argue that this entire series can be read a specifically scathing critique of the Bush family dynasty: from the inherited messes in Iraq to the idea that being born into privilege nurtures an unearned arrogance. At the very least, it’s hard to deny that Arrested Development is spoofing what its creators see as the delusion of the moneyed classes.
But another reason why it’s hard to leave politics completely out of an Arrested Development write-up is that when looking back at the show from a historical perspective, it’s worth noting how important Arrested Development was to its left-leaning fans. The years 2003 to 2006 were a dark time for the people in the minority party, as the country seemed to drift further away, with very little pushback from the media or the public at large. I’m not saying that it’s any easier right now for people on the right; I know from reading my high-school friends’ Facebook feeds that there’s some very real despair out there about the direction we’re headed, and whether the press will ever report the “truth.” But I’ll leave it to you lot to hash out which side has had it worse. (Be civil, please.) My point is only that Arrested Development and The Daily Show were among the few television programs at that time that seemed to be saying, “It’s not just you. The world’s gone crazy.” And just hearing that point of view expressed on a regular basis made everything seem a little less insane.
Thus ends what will likely be my only personal political interlude in this run of reviews. From here on out, I’ll mostly note the show’s political content in a more general way. But given that this week’s column would otherwise be shorter than usual (for reasons noted below), this seemed like a good time to mention Arrested Development’s legacy as a life-preserver to leftists during an era that seemed awash in bullshit. It’s an aspect of the show that doesn’t get recognized enough, in my opinion, and I say this not just because Arrested Development’s satire was a comfort to me personally, but because so few sitcoms in the ‘00s were as engaged with issues that were actually relevant. Plus, Mitchell Hurwitz and company explored these themes in ways that were funny, not strident or overly polemical, which only enhances the show’s overall brilliance.
“¡Amigos!” (season 2, episode 3; originally aired 11/21/2004)
“¡Amigos!” is the third consecutive Arrested Development episode with a Friends reference as a title, which as I noted last week was a nod to Friends having just gone off the air, and perhaps even an answer to the inevitable think-pieces that popped up around then, asking, “What will be the next Friends?” I doubt Hurwitz ever had any illusions that Arrested Development would be Friends-level popular, though. After all, this is a show that thinks it’s funny to show people getting mistakenly tackled by law enforcement over and over, and to show people in the backgrounds of scenes being shot by stray bullets that have been fired into the air. And this is a show that, in “¡Amigos!,” spends a few seconds showing footage from a 1927 silent film illustrating how the Bluth family “chicken dance” is interpreted in Mexico as a grave insult—footage that, inevitably, ends with someone firing a pistol in the air and someone in the background keeling over.
In “¡Amigos!,” a procession of Bluths make their way to Mexico, following a tip from the family’s private investigator Gene Parmesan (played by Martin Mull) that George Sr. is hiding down there, given that the Bluth staircar has been spotted in Encanta. Initially, the Mexico trip is only going to include Michael and George-Michael (whom Michael believes has been spending too much time with his girlfriend Ann and too little time with his father), along with an additional driver to bring George Sr. and the staircar back. But then Lindsay, that second driver, decides to bring Maeby along for some mother-daughter bonding. And George-Michael brings Ann along so that his dad can get to know her. And Buster hides in the trunk so that he can duck having to serve in the Army. And GOB hires a bounty hunter named Ice to track Michael, whom he assumes is fleeing the country. And then GOB follows Ice, because he doesn’t have any friends or anything better to do.
“¡Amigos!” is noteworthy as the Arrested Development with the greatest and strongest variety of “bland Ann” jokes. Early on, Michael lies that he’s upset with George-Michael for monopolizing Ann’s time, and tells him not to “be such an Ann-hog,” then when George-Michael says he’s bringing Ann on their trip, Michael says, “Ann-hog’s coming?” (“Just load her up in the car,” he adds.) Michael will eventually leave Ann in Mexico, and she’ll wait patiently on a bench until the Bluths return. “Way to plant, Ann,” George-Michael says, after which Michael suggests, “Why don’t you and Plant wait in the staircar?” Michael’s not the only one underwhelmed by Ann, but he’s the only one threatened by her relationship with his son, which gives his constant naming mistakes a hostile edge. Even when George-Michael asks what his dad thinks of Ann, Michael says, “She’s just really some girl as far as we’re concerned,” trying as always to project his own attitudes onto his kid.
Michael gets that from his own folks, of course. Even though Lucille enlisted Buster in the Army, she throws him a going-away party with a banner that reads, “You’re Killing Me, Buster.” But she needn’t be so dramatic. After hopping in Michael’s trunk for the Mexico trip, Buster falls asleep (“Oh man, it’s tired in here… ”) and then mistakenly gets out in Santa Ana with his mom’s housekeeper Lupe. Buster loves it there too, in a “Mexico” that’s a lot like America, in a house filled with all the second-hand Bluth clothes and furniture that Lucille has given to Lupe over the years, and with people who get up early and load onto a truck to do manual labor. “We’re like slave buddies!” Buster says delightedly, as the truck takes him right back to his own home—which he doesn’t recognize because he comes in through the servants’ entrance. (More sly but sharp sociopolitical commentary from Arrested Development.)
“¡Amigos!” also features some of the series’ best visual gags, such as the shot of Mexicans lining up to climb the Bluths’ staircar and leap over the wall to the U.S., and the different kinds of printer material—photo-paper, blueprint paper—that GOB’s new secretary Starla uses. Extending the printer gag, Michael takes a picture of George Sr. rendered as a blueprint with him to Mexico, where a local takes a look at it and says, “When do you want us to start building?” Then he gives the blueprint to Ice, who tracks down and tackles… Tobias, in his Blue Man Group makeup. (“I think your knee is on my heart. Hey, who wants to go to the hospital?”) No element is ever wasted on this show. If the creative team has got a guy standing around in blue make-up, they find a way to use him.
The key recurring visual gag in “¡Amigos!” is the surprise appearances of “master of disguise” Gene Parmesan, who keeps popping up, doffing his mask, and getting a good long Lucille-squeal in return. It’s hard to explain exactly what’s so funny about the scene in Mexico where a bearded Gene removes a fake mustache he’s plastered atop his real one. Maybe it’s just the silliness of it all. Maybe it’s the way the mustache-removal—like everything in Arrested Development—happens in a quick cut, before it really has a chance to register. Or maybe it’s that nobody in the Bluth family really notices the dopiness of the disguise, because if it doesn’t directly concern them, they never notice much of anything.
See also the way that Ice reports to GOB that Michael’s on the move at Buster’s party, and how no one really pays attention to the fact that Ice and GOB are signaling each other via crackling radios when they’re standing in the same room. And see the way that Maeby and Michael have what they believe to be a meaningful conversation in Mexico about a shared problem when in fact Maeby’s talking about her mom and Ice and Michael’s talking George-Michael and Ann. “At no point were they talking about the same person,” The Narrator explains. “And there were only four people in their group.”
Except, uh… Mr. Narrator? There were five people in their party. You forgot Egg.
“Good Grief” (season 2, episode 4; originally aired 12/05/04)
The reason the rest of this column’s going to be a little shorter this week is because I’ve already written a couple of thousand words about “Good Grief,” here, as part of my “A Very Special Episode” series. Follow the link in the previous sentence and you’ll find an extensive discussion of the plot of the episode—with clips!—along with a larger consideration of how Arrested Development’s elaborate, ever-expanding web of self-reference made the show both rewarding to fans and off-putting to newcomers. (Again: Not the next Friends.) In that column, I also tally up most of the Charles Schulz homages in this episode, though I missed that the word “Humorous” is in Schulz-font in the greeting card store where Buster buys a “comically” morbid card for his dad.
That’s not all I skipped, either. I also didn’t note the George W. Bush punch-clown against the wall in that same scene, or the way that George Sr. is found in a spider-hole at one of the Bluth construction sites, just like Saddam Hussein. George-Michael later examines his his Pop-Pop’s teeth—again just like Saddam Hussein. And as a further example of how Arrested Development is clicking so well at this point that everything seems to fit the larger theme, “Good Grief” cleverly extends the motif of illusions and empty boxes. George Sr. escapes Mexico by faking his own death (the officials he bribes plan to bury a George-shaped piñata in his place, but it falls out of the coffin), and GOB attempts to honor his father and make it on the cover of Poof magazine by faking being buried alive. (He asks his assistant Buster to spin the coffin around to show the audience that there’s no trapdoor, “And then I’m gonna escape out the trap door.”) There’s a lot in “Good Grief” that feeds the show’s season-long riff on people in charge who endeavor to fool the public with something slapped-together.
I also want to remark here on what a stunningly well-constructed piece of farce “Good Grief” is. For those who don’t want to click over to the longer review, and who don’t remember this episode so well, this is the one where the Bluths hold a wake for George Sr. after getting the news that he’s died, and the one where George Sr. watches that wake from the attic. Meanwhile, a sloppily grieving Lindsay tries to hit on Ice, and Michael tries to reunite the newly broken-up George-Michael and Ann (whom he’s sure are only pretending to be split, and are actually carrying on a secret sexual affair). This setup pays off in quirky, typically AD-ish ways, such as when George-Michael swipes Tobias’ hard-boiled eggs for his Pop-Pop, thus convincing Michael that his son is sneaking off with “Egg.” And it pays off more conventionally too, such as when the sight of a snot-nosed Lindsay in a “SLUT” shirt prompts her dad to mutter, “That’s a home-run,” from his perch in the attic.
Yet, oddly enough, what stuck out most to me about “Good Grief” this time around is how nice it is to see George Sr. back in close contact with his family, after three straight episodes of him on the run. When George-Michael finally tells his dad that he has Pop-Pop in the attic, and Michael goes up to see his father, the reunion is actually somewhat sweet. But I don’t want to downplay the comic gem that is Michael’s initial reaction to George-Michael’s confession: “The mere fact that you call making love ‘pop-pop’ tells me you’re not ready!” That’s not just a great left-field punchline; it’s also so typical of Michael, who only hears what he wants to hear.
The most significant recurring line of this episode is “I don’t know what I’m saying,” which is how the Bluths excuse themselves when they say exactly what they’re thinking. But the family’s rudeness and self-centeredness has a ripple effect. For example, every time one of the Bluths hears that Ann is George-Michael’s girlfriend, they say, “Her?” and then wonder aloud if she’s funny or something. Finally, when George-Michael points out Ann to George Sr. and his Pop-Pop says, “Her?” George-Michael mutters, “She’s really funny.”
Such is the power of public opinion.
- Funniest line in “¡Amigos!” and in the running for funniest line in Arrested Development history: Tobias sarcastically saying to Michael, “I know you’re the big marriage expert. Oh, I’m sorry, I forgot, your wife is dead!”
- Also: “Here’s some money, go see a Star War.”
- After GOB knocks down his framed “Don’t Be Afraid To Make A Mistake” poster, he shrugs, “I’m not gonna beat myself up over that.”
- GOB stumbles on the word “circumvent” (“circumverent?” “circumverate?”) and finally settles on “the ol’ reach-around.”
- First GOB replaces his office desk with a pool table, and now the pool table is covered with the kinds of cheap little games that people keep on office desks.
- Meanwhile, in Michael’s office, in the supply room, there are Christmas cards with Mr. Bananagrabber on the front.
- Maeby, complaining about her mother’s crush on Ice, insists to Michael that it’s “not a race thing.” Michael, always lost in his own thoughts, thinks she’s talking about who’ll make it home first from Mexico. Later, when Lindsay arrives back at the house and sees Michael there, he says, “Yeah, we won.”
- Foreshadowing: Buster finds his old hand-chair at Lupe’s.
- I don’t know if everything in Arrested Development is supposed to be connected, but just as “eggs” and “hands” keep recurring, surely it’s no accident that there’s an ice machine prominently featured in the episode that introduces Ice.
- Lindsay notices Ice following them to Mexico on his motorcycle and says, “Check out who’s on that hog in the rearview mirror!” Michael, still thinking about Ann-Hog, shouts, “George-Michael!”
- Maeby, on her parents’ open marriage: “The important thing is that you guys don’t lose focus on yourselves.”
- Michael, on hearing from George-Michael that his phone call interrupted Ann, says, “Oh, she’s still goin’, huh?”
- Because there are so many gags in a typical Arrested Development episode, the creative team can bury a few lower in the mix. Some shows would make a bigger deal out of the running bit about Barry Zuckerkorn saying that he must’ve left George Sr.’s will “next to the hot plate with the frayed wires,” but aside from having The Narrator mention that Barry actually had lost the will, “Good Grief” mostly lets that bit play out in background mumbles.
- Somehow I’d never really noticed until this week how many little signs there are scattered throughout the Model Home, obviously meant to point out the house’s features to prospective buyers. I’ll have more on this some future week. I’ve been giving some thought to the comic and symbolic conceit of the Model Home, but I want to file that away for sometime when it’s more on-point.
- Another example of how densely Arrested Development episodes are packed: I’ve seen “Good Grief” something like five times, and it’s never registered with me until now how many of the people at George Sr.’s wake are magicians, invited by GOB to see him do his little trick.
- The interrupting blender returns, as Ice whips up some smoothies during Michael’s eulogy for his dad. (Cue George Sr.: “There are smoothies?”)
- The best “on the next” in these two episodes: Gene Parmesan pops back up as a doctor at the hospital where the injured Tobias has landed this week. After the requisite Lucille-squeal, Gene allows that, “I did overhear that he’s bleeding internally”
- Next week: “Sad Sack” and “Afternoon Delight”