“Family Ties” (season three, episode 11; originally aired 2/10/06)
This week’s two Arrested Development episodes represent the show in hell-bent-for-leather mode, racing to bring a three-season-long story to some kind of a reasonable conclusion, while also demonstrating that the writers still had plenty of good ideas left, should any enterprising cable outlet have any interest in Saving Our Bluths. Neither “Family Ties” nor “Exit Strategy” is perfect, but both are well-oiled machines, chugging easily through a fine assortment of callbacks, meta-textual gags, sociopolitical satire, and double entendres.
Like a lot of season three, these two episodes push too hard at times, too. The Tobias storyline in “Family Ties” is a prime example of Arrested Development taking an initially clever idea and hitting it too hard. At the start of the episode, Tobias is “planning a night of heterosexual intercourse” (cue Michael: “You can just say ‘intercourse’”) with “the woman I’m sexually attracted to,” but he and Lindsay keep pushing the target date out, eventually setting the appointment for a 31-day month away, and only after providing each other with a list of “won’ts/can’ts.” But then while Tobias is hitting the gym to prepare for the big night, he falls in love with a muscular “woman” named Michael, which leads to some old-fashioned farce, sprung from the confusion between “Boy Michael” and “Girl Michael.”
All of this is funny enough, but as I’ve written before, I find the “Tobias is either gay, clueless, or cluelessly gay” material on Arrested Development to be tiresome after a point, because it starts to cross the line from coyness to preposterousness. I know that talking about what’s plausible and what’s not is ridiculous when it comes to this show, but for the crazier material in a comedy to work, there has to be at least some grounding in reality. And while I can buy that Tobias would keep stumbling into compromising situations (or that he’d either cover up or deny what’s really going on), I can’t believe that some Bluth or another wouldn’t say, “Dude, wise up”… and not just in the hinting-around-it way that Michael usually does. I’m with Lucille, who cackles with glee when she and George Sr. call Tobias, “Nellie,” saying, “Isn’t it fun to talk like this?” All I’m asking for is a little directness.
Then again, these are the Bluths we’re talking about. It’s not like Michael really takes the time to help anyone in his family, let alone his annoying brother-in-law. And anyway, the misunderstandings and inappropriateness that result from the introduction of “Girl Michael” connect to the main plot of “Family Ties,” which involves Michael tracking down the woman he believes to be his mysterious missing sister “Nellie Bluth,” who instead turns out to be a high-end prostitute played by Justine Bateman, the real-life sister of the real-life actor who plays Michael Bluth. To make matters weirder, Nellie’s pimp is Franklin, GOB’s puppet. (Michael realizes he’s being threatened by his own brother when GOB refers to Nellie “turning illusions for money.”)
Before Michael figures out what’s going on, he’s hired Nellie to help out at the Bluth Company—she is listed as a “conslutant” in his dad’s files, after all—in what is partly a satire of the decadent shenanigans at Enron. (Nellie refers to this directly when Michael says she’ll be “filling, like, three openings.”) This episode also riffs openly on the Terri Schiavo right-to-die case, with Rob Riggle playing a grandstanding congressman who intervenes on behalf of the coma-faking “Baby Buster.” (Cue Lucille: “Nobody’s called him Baby Buster since high school.”) These ripped-from-the-headlines gags are more passing references than pointed commentary, although a brief image of Buster being delighted by a balloon—just like Schiavo did—is pretty bold in its don’t-give-a-fuck-ness.
Mostly, “Family Ties” carries the recurring incest theme on Arrested Development to new heights (or depths), as Tobias looks to sleep with Michael—not Michael Bluth, though it’s interesting that your mind went there—while Michael fights off advances from a woman he thinks is his sister, played by Jason Bateman’s actual sister. When Michael blurts out, “Marry me!” to her as a joke, he immediately says, “It’s weird on so many levels.” And at one point during their flirtation, the soundtrack quotes a snippet of the theme from Family Ties, Justine Bateman’s ‘80s sitcom. So many levels indeed.
While this is all hilarious in its intense wrongness, it’s even more hilarious to watch Michael react to it, as he parries Nellie’s “burning desire” with “a burning… mutual respect.” (“Respect is fun,” he insists.) Arrested Development often comments on itself, whether it’s tossing in a bit of the “Mr. F” theme upon a passing mention of Rita, or giving “N. Bluth” her own theme—“Diff-rent!”—as a way of pointing out that Michael keeps making the same mistakes. It’s all in service of defining this character of Michael Bluth, a man who can convince himself that a prostitute is genuinely interested in his epic tale of all the lockers he had in high school, and a man who’s so sure of his own interpretation of what he sees, reads and hears that when the office reports that Nellie is “blowing” everybody, Michael is sure they meant to add “away.”
“Exit Strategy” (season three, episode 12; originally aired 2/10/06)
The Iraq War had been going on for almost three years by the time “Exit Strategy” aired, and talk of “exit strategies” had begun to dominate the news, as the U.S. troops took their time to train Iraqi security forces, amid ongoing violent insurgency. This episode turns that into a running gag, as a trip to Iraq for the Bluth boys—in what Buster dubs “Operation Hot Brother”—finds them encountering Iraqi officers who have American soldiers standing right behind them, saying, “That’s okay, try again,” every time they make a mistake. It’s like something out of Airplane.
The title of “Exit Strategy” also refers to the Arrested Development writers trying to wrap up the series as best as possible with their shortened episode order. Hence the trip to Iraq, where GOB is supposed to do his magic act, but gets arrested when his “burning bush” routine is taken by the locals and by the U.S. government as a radical anti-GWB protest. It turns out that this all part of a larger ploy by CIA agent Richard Shaw (played by Gary Cole) to get GOB to lead him to the Iraqi version of the Model Home. Unfortunately, the perpetually inept “escape artist” GOB keeps missing his chances to escape—he points out his captors’ mistakes, then exclaims, “C’mon!”—so it takes the arrival of Michael and Buster to get GOB out a cell. (Buster goes along on the trip to impress his nurse Adelaide with his courage. Also, he was trained by Army.)
The Iraqi Model Home is one of the best locations/gags in Arrested Development’s third season: It’s the same Model Home set, only flipped, with a few pieces of exotic decoration added. Oh, and it’s populated by Sadaam Hussein lookalikes. (Though when the one who answers the door realizes that he hasn’t invited the Bluths in, he apologizes and says, “I am behaving like an Uday lookalike.”) The Husseins lament that they might get kicked out of their house, saying that they wanted to keep it “for one more season”—ha ha—but when Richard Shaw busts in, the jig seems to be up early, even though the trained CIA man fails to notice a Hussein with a scarred face, who is the actual Sadaam Hussein. The Hussein the Americans have locked up is a fake, with no scar. (He even has a website, imnoscar.com.)
I don’t know, I just love the wild surprise of a house full of Husseins. Sometimes Arrested Development repeats itself too much, but as the show drove to the end, it came up with a lot that was strange and new. Besides, what’s more true to the theme of the show than a bunch of fakes living in a fake house? And that’s ultimately what saves the Bluth brothers, too: that the house of Husseins doesn’t contain anything but Homefill ersatzery, including a fake WMD. “Exit Strategy” even foreshadows this at the start of the episode, when the family is talking about the incredible detail of TV set-dressing, while their cupboards contain only the cup and granola bar required for the scene. The fakery of the show itself is a tipoff to how the story’s going to resolve.
There’s more of that salvation through phoniness throughout “Exit Strategy,” including scenes of the fake-coma Buster working as a practice model for med students (and, strangely, cosmetologists), all because Adelaide is attracted to men with fake ailments. Meanwhile, Wayne Jarvis is trying to trick Tobias into revealing family secrets by luring him to a scrapbooking club—led by Detective Munch, played as always by Richard Belzer—little realizing that Tobias already thinks he’s auditioning for a CBS procedural called The Prosecution, and is willing to provide all the documents and secrets he can. (But first, a few lines from The Vagina Monologues: “A flower in my garden, a mystery in my panties.”)
Yet here’s the thing: the fakeness of the Iraqi Model Home ultimately reveals that George Sr. has been telling the truth all along, that he’s just a patsy, set up by a CIA bureaucracy that couldn’t keep track of its own secret missions. And when George-Michael accidentally spills Maeby’s secret teenagerhood to her Hollywood industry pals— by sending them all birthday party invitations that read, “Guess Who’s Turning 16?”—the cousins get drunk on fake wine and he tells her that she may have been adopted by her parents, which means maybe he and Maeby aren’t really cousins. The fake wine gives George-Michael the courage to tell Maeby what he knows, and how he feels.
And then Tobias pulls out his scrapbooks of Maeby’s childhood, proving that, nope, he’s their kid. This happens often on Arrested Development, where characters think they’ve uncovered a big secret that turns out to be more straightforward than they imagined.
Which sets us up nicely for next week, when all is really revealed.
- Did You Recall? Both of these episodes aired on the same night, along with “Fakin’ It” and the season finale. (This was all a full month after “S.O.B.s.”) I’ve always remembered this set of four fondly, and I wonder if that’s because I watched them all at once, over the course of two glorious hours. For those of you who came to the show first on DVD or Netflix though, and have always wondered why the opening credits are so short on these episodes… well, there you go. Mitchell Hurwitz and company squeezed in a few more seconds of content rather than repeating the credits over and over.
- (Almost) nothing’s incidental on Arrested Development. When Lindsay looks at a picture of the younger Nellie, she whistles, “Look at the beak on that bird!” and suggests that rather than a long-lost sister, maybe Nellie was a “deformed neighbor.” It’s a funny little insult. In the finale, we’ll find out exactly how funny.
- Of course, it’s possible to read too much into the jokes on Arrested Development—as some of you have suggested I do on a weekly basis. Like, when Michael refers to his whole Rita misadventure as “retar… misguided,” was that the writers subtly apologizing for that whole storyline? Or do think I’m looking too hard again? (Well, excuse me, Judge Reinhold!)
- Having a list of “can’ts/won’ts” is a good idea. GOB’s been having trouble with his Christian girlfriend—name still withheld until next week—because she won’t go along with his idea of a “holy trinity,” which involves bringing another woman into the bedroom. GOB’s girl keeps saying that God is trying to show GOB the… something… of his ways. Maybe wisdom? (Cue Michael: “It’s probably wisdom.”)
- We get a brief glimpse of George-Michael and Maeby’s marriage certificate, which has a big photo of Arnold Schwarzenegger under the text. (Meanwhile, George-Michael, in an effort to show how not seriously he’s taking this very real fake marriage, bought Maeby a wedding ring… tone.)
- George-Michael also makes a (jokingly censored) reference to Veronica Mars, a show that Michael Cera appeared on with Alia Shawkat, in an episode that aired about a month after “Family Ties.”
- GOB wrote a computer program that just fills the screen with “penuspenuspenus.”
- George Sr. is using an electromagnet to delete computer files—which leads a classic bit of comedy staging, with clanking noises constantly going on out-of-frame—so the employees of The Bluth Company have to use an old dot-matrix printer to make their banner, “WORKERS LOVE NELLIE.”
- Michael remembers those old printers as being faster, but Tobias says it probably just seemed that way because back in the ‘80s they were all so “jacked up on Amyl and disco music.”
- Another tipoff that Nellie’s pimp is GOB/Franklin: He threatens to put his hand up Michael’s ass.
- Once again, GOB boasts about having had sex with someone he hasn’t had sex with, although to be fair, pretty much every man who spends time with Nellie just talks and cries. (She’s a very good listener.)
- The Model Home may be furnished by Homefill (and undefinanced Hollywood set decorators), but the Arrested Development team doesn’t miss a trick. One of my favorite bits of business in “Exit Strategy” sees Lindsay lay her head down a piece of toast, and then later GOB pick up that same toast, take a bite, and pick hair out of his mouth.
- One of the weirdest callbacks in the whole Arrested Development run happens in “Exit Strategy,” as Buster and Adelaide play out a scene from the movie A Thoroughly Polite Dust-Up, seen previously in “Notapusy” (and featuring Tony Hale and Bronwen Masters, who play Buster and Adelaide as well). Only instead of saying, “When I miss you, I’ll put a fag in my mouth,” Buster says, “When I miss you, I’ll put a fig in my mouth.” Now how far in advance do you think that joke was planned?
- Lindsay believes every lie that Lucille has ever told her about alcohol, including that vodka will bad if you don’t finish a bottle as soon as you open it, and that wine only turns to alcohol if you let it sit. (Maeby seems to be following in Lindsay’s gullible footsteps, complaining that her mother is drunk and saying, “Would it kill her to let some vodka go bad?”)
- Lindsay and Lucille try to get out of testifying at George Sr.’s trial by entering “rehab,” though they’re actually away at a spa while Lupe and a younger woman in Lindsay’s “SLUT” T-shirt are at the rehab facility.
- While in his “coma,” Buster frequently called in requests to the local oldies station: “I Will Survive” and “She’s Out Of My Life.”
- This fall on CBS: The Prosecution! They’ll bend the law to enforce the law!
- Richard Shaw tells the Bluth boys that they’ll be going to prison, where they’ll have plenty of time to eat ice cream… sandwiches.
- Maeby is sure that no one came to her surprise birthday party because she’s just a kid, but The Narrator admits, “A lot of us just didn’t want to drive down to Orange County.”
- CIA East and CIA West are only one cubicle away from each other, and yet each doesn’t what the other is doing. A punchy bit of political commentary there.
- Along the same lines, when Michael reports to Buster that GOB isn’t just an Iraqi prison but in an American-run Iraqi prison, he shudders to imagine what the guards might be doing to him. Whether you agree with it or not, I don’t know that you can really argue that Arrested Development didn’t have a point-of-view on the state of the world in the Bush Era, unless you want to say that any jokes about Iraq being remade in the image of Dick Cheney and Halliburton are just an example of the show making fun of any target available. I guess we’ll have to see what kind of political jokes make it into the upcoming Netflix season to get a sense of where the show’s head’s really at.
- Anyway, always remember: Life is about making difficult… sandwiches.
- The best “on the next” in these two episodes: While Buster keeps faking his coma, the right-to-life congressman crawls into bed with him, prompting an alarmed Narrator to mutter, “Oh my.”
- Next week: “Development Arrested.” And adieu.