“Bringing Up Buster” (season 1, episode 3; originally aired 11/16/03)
Let us now praise famous props.
This week’s batch of Arrested Developments introduces two of the show’s best non-human characters. First, in “Bringing Up Buster,” we meet The Cornballer. Ah, The Cornballer. One of The Bluth Company’s biggest failures: a deep-fat fryer illegal both in the U.S. and Mexico, because it splatters the user with hot grease, which invariably leads to the air being filled with noxious profanity.
Michael and George-Michael have a weekly tradition of making Cornballs and riding bikes together, but in “Bringing Up Buster” the tradition is in jeopardy, because George-Michael would rather make his own plans. (“I can’t go on a million bike-rides whenever you want me to, y’know?” he snaps.) And so begins an episode all about how parents deal with children who are anxious to live their own lives.
As the title implies, the big case-in-point here is Buster Bluth, though in his case it’s the parent who’d like him to be more independent. In a keen example of how the Arrested Development writers keep every little detail of their characters’ lives in mind, Buster has been getting on Lucille’s nerves because the family can’t afford to send him to college any more. So when Lucille hears that GOB has left his girlfriend Marta and is living in the Model Home—which she imagines as an oasis of bike-rides and snack-making and family fun—she complains, “Everyone’s laughing and riding and cornholing except Buster!” She demands that Michael take him for a while.
Initially, Buster’s not sure how to behave when cut loose from the apron strings. (When Michael suggests that their mother is always wedging herself between the siblings, Buster sighs, “Yeah, Mom’s awesome. Maybe we should call her.”) But soon he’s making fun of his mother and letting loose with a long string of filthy epithets, ending by calling her an “ol’ horny slut.”
In addition to The Cornballer, “Bringing Up Buster” also introduces AD fan favorite Steve Holt! (played by Justin Grant Wade), the can-do high-school quarterback whom Maeby likes so much that she auditions for the school play just for the chance to kiss him on-stage. George-Michael, meanwhile, has blown off his bike ride with his father because he’s auditioning for the play too, hoping to kiss Maeby. Michael Cera gets an early opportunity to show off his deadpan comic timing when he runs into his cousin at the auditions:
George-Michael: I just love the theater.
Maeby: I’m actually just doing this to kiss Steve Holt.
George-Michael: I think I’m gonna quit. Theater’s dead.
In keeping with the theme of parental hovering, Tobias volunteers to direct the play, because he’s convinced that Maeby has taken up acting to get closer to him. But since Steve Holt! has football practice, Tobias is stuck with George-Michael as stand-in, which means his male lead is nervous and awkward and his female lead is annoyed. (“You are playing adults with fully formed libidos, not two grown men playing grab-ass in the shower,” he complains.) Tobias thinks the problem might be that George-Michael likes Steve Holt!, so when Maeby quits the play her father casts Steve in the female role and gives him one of Lindsay’s dresses to wear. Then Maeby rejoins as the male lead, but doesn’t enjoy kissing Steve because he smells like her mom.
In life as in the school play, all the role-switching turns out… well, weird. Eventually, the various characters drift back into their usual patterns. Lacking a son to boss around, Lucille lets GOB stay with her, so that he can attend to her important needs, like making sure that the backs of her dresses are zipped up. And Buster jumps right back into he dutiful son role, zipping up Michael’s backpack for him.
There’s a great recurring visual motif in “Bringing Up Buster” of the camera pulling back or cutting to reveal that there’s more people in the room than we’d originally thought. When Michael warns Lucille that if Buster spends time with him it’s “not going to be a day at the beach,” there’s a cut to Buster, with his towel and swimsuit. During scenes of Michael in business meetings and board meetings, the camera pulls back to reveal Buster yawning loudly, or loudly building George-Michael’s new bike. (In an echo of a line from the pilot, Michael asks, “You can’t do that in the snackroom, pal?” Buster: “Mom told me to stay away from microwaves.”)
The funniest such reveal comes at the end of the episode, when Buster tells Michael that he wants to return to his mom. “Yes, I was flying,” Buster admits. “But a little too close to the sun.” (“You let him go in the sun?” Lucille gasps.) Then the camera pulls back and it turns out that this whole family drama has been playing out in front of the company’s board, one of whom meekly asks, “So, can we go now?”
It’s a funny scene, and pertinent. A lot of “Bringing Up Buster” is concerned with the characters’ opinions of each other’s parenting choices, which means a public family squabble suits the theme. In the end, in Arrested Development-land, there are really only two ways to go with parenting. You can let your children get too close to the sun, or you can go by Michael’s Cornballer Rules: “Never touch that.”
“Key Decisions” (season 1, episode 4; originally aired 11/23/03)
And now, beloved Arrested Development prop number two: The Staircar. Ah, The Staircar. One of The Bluth Company’s few remaining assets, designed to give dignitaries who ride on the Bluth corporate jet a classy way to disembark. With the jet now sold, The Staircar becomes the family’s chief mode of transportation. Down the road—I think in this season—George-Michael will get to drive The Staircar for the first time, and will have an exchange that my wife and I still quote whenever we’re describing an event that’s gone about as well as could be expected considering the circumstances:
Michael: How’d it go?
George-Michael: Okay. I had a few hop-ons.
Michael: Oh, you’re gonna have hop-ons.
I had forgotten that the concept of hop-ons was introduced in “Key Decisions.” Michael tells Lindsay that she’ll have to drive The Staircar from now on, instead of the fancy rental car she’d been avoiding returning. “Watch out for bridges and hop-ons,” Michael warns her. “You’re gonna get some hop-ons.”
If you’re looking for a thesis quote for this episode, you could easily go with, “You’re gonna get some hop-ons,” which pretty well defines the “gotta make do” attitude of Michael Bluth. But if you’re looking an alternate quote, consider “That’s why you never get out of the tree.” That line is spoken by environmentalist Johnny Bark (played by Clint Howard), who climbs into a tree to protest The Bluth Company’s expansion of high-cost, low-quality mini-mansions, and is joined by Lindsay, who initially goes up to talk Johnny down, then rallies to his cause when Michael drives The Staircar away and leaves her stranded. Even when Michael returns Lindsay’s mode of descent, she claims to be on Bark’s side. (“I’ll see you when you realize what that bucket’s for,” Michael shrugs.) When Lindsay eventually does give up and return to her cozy bed, a smitten Johnny Bark follows her, and the tree is uprooted as soon as he leaves. Lesson learned by Johnny Bark.
Like a lot of Arrested Development episodes, “Key Decisions” is about the weak level of commitment that most of the Bluths show towards any endeavor that involves “staying in a tree”—literally or metaphorically—for more than 24 hours. See also: GOB, who as a publicity stunt announces that he will enter the prison where his father is being held and then escape in less than a day. The warden goes along with the stunt, anticipating “the prison-beatings this brash magician was sure to receive,” but then GOB’s plans are stymied because the key he swallows before being incarcerated—after a long, arduous process of burying the key in various foods and beverages—won’t pass through his body. Or rather it might pass, if GOB weren’t too shy to go to the toilet in front of other people, which tends to be a requirement in prison.
Similarly, it doesn’t take long for the newly semi-rebellious Buster to regret his latest attempt to inch his way out of his mother’s nest. When Lucille attends an awards show for telenovelas—the Daytime Desi Awards—Buster accompanies her without his glasses, then flirts first with a sombrero on the dip table, and then with a woman he later describes as “a brownish area, with points.” When he discovers that the pointy, brownish area is actually his mother’s dizzy rival Lucille Austero—a.k.a. “Lucille 2,” played by a game Liza Minnelli—Buster has to consider whether it really qualifies as expressing his independence to his mother if he ends up with another old woman named Lucille.
I watched Arrested Development from the beginning, and while I recall liking the first three episodes, it was with “Key Decisions” that I realized, “Man, this show’s brilliant.” It’s not just that this is an especially funny episode, with multiple strong storylines that barrel ahead fairly unpredictably. It’s that every single detail seems to have been though through, right down to the name of the Spanish-language soap opera that GOB’s girlfriend Marta stars on: El Amor Prohibido. Part of the reason GOB pulls his prison stunt is to avoid attending the Daytime Desis with Marta. (“I gotta stand next to her like I’m Rita Wilson,” he grumbles.) So Michael takes Marta instead, and even comforts her by making her an origami swan after she loses. (“You really deserved to win in there,” he says. “Did you win? I don’t speak Spanish.”) Michael’s not sure if he should pursue this amor prohibido, but then he heeds Buster’s advice—“You just grab that brownish area by its points!”—and bikes over to prison to tell GOB that he’s not going to bring The Staircar to help him escape.
The problem? Before Michael can declare himself to Marta, she gets the news that GOB has been shanked. When he first arrived in prison, GOB tried to impress his fellow inmates with magic tricks, but it backfired when he pulled coins out of the ears of “White Power Bill,” inadvertently changing the hulking brute’s nickname to “Dirty Ears Bill.” White Power Bill pokes a shiv into GOB, and when Marta hears about it she tells Michael, “GOB has been stabbed in the back!” Michael misinterprets what she means at first, and is wracked with guilt. (This will become a standard piece of Arrested Development shtick in the episodes to come, with Michael taking something out of context and reading it as something far worse.)
GOB’s near-death experience convinces him to get back together with Marta, and Michael, being an honorable man who believes in family, steps aside. What Michael forgets is that GOB is not like him. GOB is more of a typical Bluth. Mere minutes after reuniting with Marta, GOB utters words that could also serve as an apt summary for the Bluths in this episode: “I’ve made a huge mistake.”
- There’s a running subplot in “Bringing Up Buster” about Lindsay’s efforts to trick her mother into giving her money to go clothes-shopping, and Lucille’s insistence that Lindsay get a job. Lindsay still doesn’t quite seem to get what it means to earn money. When Michael cock an eyebrow at her fancy new dress, Lindsay explains, “I paid for it myself. With the company credit card.”
- In Cornballer infomercials that aired both in the states and in Mexico, George Sr. gets burned by fat-splatter and is so enraged that he chokes Richard Simmons.
- George Sr. complains that he never sees Michael anymore, to which Michael says, “You’re in prison. And I was here yesterday.”
- It’s tough playing strip poker in prison. Lose two hands and you’re out.
- Buster spent 11 months in the womb. (“Our miracle baby.”)
- While Lucille’s talking on the phone, Buster’s chases a loose bird around the apartment with a hand-mirror. (“It walked on my pillow!” he shrieks.)
- GOB hangs out in his bathrobe in the copy room of The Bluth Company, running slices of bread through the shredder.
- Lucille gives GOB three days to crash with her. He jokes, “Hey, if I can’t find a horny immigrant by then….”
- Lucille asks for a zip while GOB’s in the middle of reading a coffee-table book titled Turn Of The Century French Erotica.
- Tobias finds the idea that some P.E. teacher is directing the school play so disgusting that “makes me want to puke on your head, sir.” When the P.E. teacher says, “Sure, let the little fruit do it,” Tobias exults, “Huzzah!”
- Nice piece of David Cross improv (I presume) when Tobias licks his pencil-tip, enjoys how it tastes, and then starts straight-up sucking on the pencil.
- Steve Holt! is not bothered by the news that he’s going to have to play a woman in the play. Instead he pumps his fists and shouts, “Beatrice!” (Steve also pumps his fists when he kisses Maeby.)
- When “Key Decisions” originally aired, I just about hyperventilated during the montage of Daytime Desi supporting actor nominees, all of whom are freakish-looking man-children with painted-on freckles. Such a superfluously odd and hilarious bit of detail, capped off later by an “in memoriam” reel for the make-up artist responsible for those freckles.
- Lucille prefers to tie Buster’s tie long, so he won’t seem so… round.
- More Lucille on Buster’s appearance: “His glasses make him look like a lizard. Plus, he’s self-conscious.”
- Lucille assumes that the attendees at the Daytime Desis are all waiters. “Can I get a vodka tonic please?” she repeatedly asks some of the top Hispanic actors in Hollywood.
- There’s a nice bit of visual humor when Michael watches a TV news report about Johnny Bark’s protest and sees a reporter tap on a pane of glass on a Bluth McMansion, which turns out to be the Model Home. As the reporter knocks out the glass, Michael turns from the TV to his immediate left, where the same pane of glass is falling into the house and shattering. Later, when Marta rings the doorbell at the Model Home, another pane of glass falls into the house and shatters. Gotta love a recurring gag.
- Tobias doesn’t appear in “Key Decisions” because he’s “at a weekend stage-fighting workshop with Carl Weathers.” And thus Carl Weathers becomes a character in the Arrested Development universe, which in retrospect makes sense, since “Carl Weathers” is kind of an AD-style name.
- One of Lindsay’s pet causes is “Neuterfest,” which sterilizes household pets. Michael explains to her that rather than protesting The Bluth Company’s business interests, she could take the money she makes from those deals and put them into her activism. “You can make dogs and cats a thing of the past,” he promises. “No more dogs and cats.”
- Michael also questions whether Lindsay really cares about nature, given that she’s wearing ostrich-skin boots. “Well, I don’t care about ostriches,” she explains.
- Lindsay’s indisputable logic when faced with the anti-logging idealism of Johnny Bark: “What about beavers? You call yourself an activist. Why don’t you go out and club some beavers?”
- GOB actually enjoys his time in prison with his dad, who never had much time for GOB when the boy was little. When GOB sees George Sr. playing catch in the prison yard, he says, “I thought you said that throwing a ball against a garage by yourself built up accuracy.”
- When GOB finds out he’s out of prison and in the hospital, he sarcastically whispers “Ta-da.”
- When Lucille realizes that GOB’s going to be okay, she announces, “I’ll be in the hospital bar.” When Michael tells her that hospitals don’t have bars, she takes his straight-line and hammers it over the fence: “This is why people hate hospitals,” she says, then laughs so long and loud that the cackling can be heard long after she’s walked offscreen.
- The best “on the next” in “Bringing Up Buster:” Tobias reads the reviews for his play in the high school paper and insists, “I didn’t get into this business to please sophomore Tracy Schwartzmann.” Cut to Tobias in the shower, wailing, “Why, Tracy, why?”
- The best “on the next” in “Key Decisions:” GOB learns that he survived the shivving because the weapon hit his key, which was lodged in his lower intestine. “So close,” GOB mutters.