“Motherboy XXX” (season 2 episode 13, original airdate 3/13/05)
What follows is a spoiler alert for all of scripted television, past, present and future: None of it is real. The people who make TV sitcoms and dramas hire people called “actors” to memorize and recite “dialogue” and tell “stories” while wearing “costumes” and moving around “sets.” I hope that’s not too shocking. But I can understand the confusion. Some TV shows try very hard to seem at least moderately real, from the way they’re shot to the kinds of true-to-life stories they tell. They don’t have to do that, though. At a certain point, in sitcoms especially, the creators may have the revelation that these toys they’ve built can do anything, really. Then they have to decide from week to week just how weird they want to make it.
I’ve written over the past couple of weeks about the guest stars on Arrested Development, and how some of them (like Julia Louis-Dreyfus) fit in because they know how to react calmly to extreme eccentricity, while others (like Martin Short) feel out-of-place because they’re playing to what they see on the page, not to what’s supposed to be on the screen. In essence, Arrested Development is like what would happen if documentary filmmakers wandered into the world of The Simpsons, in that the people in the cartoon don’t realize it’s a cartoon. Only Arrested Development’s writers and directors know, and as the show moved toward the end of its second season and into its third, Mitchell Hurwitz and company started pushing the tension between the kookiness of their universe and the natural reactions of the people in it. How much could they wink at the audience? How suggestively perverse and/or grotesque could they make the content? How many coincidences could they pile into the plot?
“Motherboy XXX” is one of the funniest and ballsiest episodes in the entire run of Arrested Development, but it’s also one that really approaches and maybe even crosses the line of “too zany.” Case-in-point: The running gag in “Motherboy XXX” about Burger King. Carl Weathers returns in this episode to announce his intention to direct an episode of the docu-series Scandalmakers about the Bluth family, and he asks Tobias to meet him at Burger King because BK has been known to give money to TV and movie projects in exchange for product-placement. For the rest of the episode, the characters frequently consume or talk about consuming Burger King products, which allows Arrested Development to advertise for BK while still maintaining some degree of creative integrity. But the pitching is still distracting, breaking the reality of a show that needs to maintain at least some hold on realism, lest it all fall apart.
It’s hard to explain why the Burger King material is problematic while it’s not a problem really for Henry Winkler to call back to his most famous TV role by having Barry Zuckerkorn literally “jump the shark” in one scene. Maybe it’s because the nod to Happy Days is so quick, and so unexpected. The non-product-placement product-placement gag has been done before (and since), but only the intricate web of plot and character in Arrested Development would allow for such a well-timed “jump the shark” joke.
Anyway, these are minor elements in an episode that is full-to-bursting with plot and gags, the main one of which is a perfect distillation of Arrested Development’s recurring parenthood-as-abusive-romantic-relationship theme. The title refers to an annual mother-son dinner-dance that Lucille and Buster usually attend together; except that with Buster now sporting a hook-hand, Lucille is looking for a replacement. After Michael turns her down, she recruits George-Michael, and suddenly the youngest male Bluth is getting a firsthand experience of what it’s like to be Buster, having to cater to Lucille’s at-time-inappropriate whims, which include zipping up pantsuits that require the zipper to get on his knees before the half-naked zippee. The fact that this is the 30th Motherboy is no accident: The “XXX” is an apt tag to put on this whole sickly surreal burlesque. (At various points, a younger child stuck at Motherboy cries out to Michael and Buster to take him with them, which is a reminder that everyone here realizes how wrong this all is, even if they can’t escape it.)
But Buster, having been been raised as a mama’s boy, is used to the degradation. He may crave independence outwardly, but there’s some inner comfort for Buster in being in familiar surroundings. When he joins Michael on a mission to free George-Michael from Lucille’s clutches, Buster describes what his nephew is going through with the coolness of a battle-scarred veteran. Then he suggests they code-name their “hot” mission “Operation Hot Mother,” and though Michael says, “Let’s try to top that,” The Narrator says, “They never did.” Ultimately, Buster saves George-Michael by taking his nephew’s place, swooping in to dance with Lucille, after they concoct on on-the-fly “Peter Pan and Captain Hook” costume theme. (The reward for their efforts: A lovely trophy, reading: “SADDEST.”)
Is George-Michael really any better off though? Like Buster, he may be more comfortable with his dad than with his Gangy, but that doesn’t mean that his relationship with his pop is any healthier. The whole reason why G-M ends up at Motherboy is because Michael essentially orders him to go spend time with Buster. And the reason Michael makes his son go hang out with his uncle is to keep the kid away from Ann, who wants to take George-Michael on a Christian camping excursion called “The Promised Land.” Michael’s sniffs at G-M’s flirtation with Christianity, belittling it by talking about “family first” and adding, “Did they not teach you that at The Promised Land?” “I don’t know,” George-Michael mumbles. “You won’t let me go.”
That’s the reality I’m talking about. “Motherboy XXX” is a whirlwind of an episode—so stuffed that I’m going to have to save most of its subplots for the Stray Observations—but with everything going on, it keeps circling back to who these characters really are, and making sure that everything they do or say is plausible. When Buster finds out that the seal who bit off his hand has itself lost a flipper, he empathizes with the sad, bloodthirsty beast, out there “swimming in a circle… freaking out his family” (to quote GOB). There’s a real sadness there, as ridiculous as it is.
But by no means do I want to undersell how hilarious “Motherboy XXX” is. Some of the Buster-related comedy is typical for the show: Buster being startled by his hand-chair, his stuffed seal, the words “arm off” on his al“arm” clock, et cetera. But the episode also gets a lot of mileage out of the sheer physical threat of Buster’s hook. He smashes windows. He scars his mother’s back while trying to zip her up. And his family reacts in kind. Whenever he waves his hook anywhere near them, they flinch, and mutter, “Oh my God!” It’s freaky, yet true.
“The Immaculate Election” (season 2 episode 14, original airdate 3/20/05)
I have a confession to make: A few weeks back, I accidentally watched “Burning Love” when I was supposed to watch “Queen For A Day,” and while I figured out my error and watched the right episode before writing the review, I initially started writing about “Burning Love,” complaining about how the plot seemed to lurch ahead unexpectedly. Once I plugged in the gap with “Queen For A Day,” I realized that I’d been a dope to doubt the Arrested Development writers—this show, I thought, is drum-tight.
Then this week I fired up “The Immaculate Election,” and for about the first minute, I thought I’d accidentally skipped ahead again. But no, there actually is a bit of a lurch-ahead at the start of “The Immaculate Election,” as suddenly The Model Home is recovering from a fumigation, and Lindsay has kicked Tobias out. According to the production codes, this episode was in the queue right after “Motherboy XXX.” But I can’t help but wonder if having 18 episodes for season two instead of 22 meant that some stories got compressed.
Anyway, the abrupt leap forward is only disconcerting for a moment or two. “The Immaculate Election,” while not as brilliantly batty as “Motherboy XXX,” is just about as funny. The main plot has to do with George-Michael’s plan to run for student body president, against the ever-popular Steve Holt!, who’s been president ever since his first junior year. Michael thinks this is just the thing to improve his son’s self-esteem, conveniently forgetting that he himself was once crushed in a similar election back in his school days—“Plenty in the school wanted to overturn the decision,” he insists—and also failing to realize that Steve Holt! is way too popular to be beaten. (When Michael asks Maeby if Steve Holt! is more popular than George-Michael, she says, “That’s like comparing apples and some fruit nobody’s ever heard of.”) And it doesn’t help that Ann is running G-Ms campaign, pitching him to the school’s Christian kids via a poster that reads “Voting In Righteous George-Michael Is Noble,” or, “VIRGIN.” It’s left to Michael to call on GOB, master of dirty tricks, to help George-Michael “sacrifice the whole virgin thing.”
This campaign business though, while plenty funny, isn’t as thematically rich as this episode’s loosely connected subplots. Michael getting help from GOB requires a certain amount of humility, since Michael has just fired GOB from The Bluth Company for filming his new magic video Tricks—let me finish—Around The Office. GOB insists that since he’s the president, he really fired Michael; but he leaves the office anyway. Meanwhile, Lupe takes pity on Buster and sleeps with him, before she’s caught by Lucille—“And yet you’re too good to polish the candlesticks,” Lucille sneers—and gets fired. Luckily for Lupe, Lindsay has promised Michael she’ll clean up around The Model Home, and when Lindsay sees Lupe sitting all alone on a bus bench, she offers her a job. Unluckily, Lindsay asks Lupe to dustbuster, and Lupe says, “I no does Buster any more!” Thus ends that gig.
And thus sets up yet another of season two’s bits of Tobias-related comic genius—one to rival his non-job with the Blue Man Group—when Tobias returns to The Model Home dressed as an English nanny named “Mrs. Featherbottom.” Never mind that this disguise gives Tobias more opportunities to be inadvertently inappropriate, as when he sings a “Spoonful Of Sugar”-esque song about “a squirt of frosting in your throat.” Never mind that it allows Maeby to emasculate her father by calling him “Mr. Fingerbottom,” (or for Tobias to emasculate himself by telling Maeby, “Wherever your father is, she loves you”). What’s so great about the Mrs. Featherbottom storyline in this episode is the family’s reaction to Tobias, which is simultaneously stunned, appalled, moved, and grateful that someone’s going to pick up around the house.
And what’s also great is that just as with Lindsay trying to hire Lupe, and Michael asking for help from GOB, the return of Tobias in a Featherbottom suit is another indicator that this Arrested Development universe is an interconnected one, where everyone has a role to play.
- I don’t know if it’s a result of the Arrested Development writers not being able to think of enough to do with George Sr. in season two, but his story takes a delightfully bizarre turn in these two episodes, as he arranges some dolls he finds into a little tea party, pours booze in their cups, and asks, “Who wants to take their top off?”
- When George-Michael asks where the air-pump is in the attic, Michael—remembering his dad’s recent sexual misadventures with his late wife’s breast-pump—says, “I had to take all pumps out of here.”
- GOB’s wife returns to finish off the divorce proceedings, though GOB still can’t remember her name, or anything about her. (“What about her cans? Did she have big cans?” he asks Michael. And when he sees her at last, he wonders if she’s “lost a lot of weight in the… northern region.”) All GOB has to do to avoid a pricey divorce settlement is to admit to the court that he never consummated the marriage, but pride won’t let him. Also, he actually does consummate the marriage right before the hearing, when his wife seduces him out of his tearaway pants.
- Wife Of GOB continues to offer the AD writers an opportunity to riff on the Iraq War and the Bush administration, as she does her Lynndie England post again, and tells GOB, “I misunderestimated you.”
- In the dramatization of the Bluth family crisis, Carl Weathers will be playing ICE, and oft-confused-for-David-Cross stand-up comedian Dave Attell will be playing Tobias (though Attell’s having a hard time wrapping his head around the information that Tobias is not gay).
- Tobias has vanity license plates made up for every role he thinks he’s going to get, including INM82, BLUMN, CONMAN2, and DRHOUSE.
- When George Sr. says that Michael shouldn’t let George-Michael “go on that church thing,” Michael delivers one of my favorite lines in the series when he says, “Her name’s Ann, Dad, and he’s not ‘going on her,’ okay?”
- Maeby thinks maybe she should become a Christian so she can go to camp and miss school. All she needs is “one of those gold necklaces with the ‘T’ on it.”
- It needs to be clear that just as Arrested Development has nothing to do with the hip-hop band Arrested Development, so Motherboy is not to be confused with the band of the same name, even though said band’s promotional photo looks a lot like Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Jeffrey Tambor, Tony Hale and Michael Cera.
- I was a person alive and in the world in 2005, and yet the reference to how Tobias always TiVoed The Christopher Lowell Show flew right over my head. I understood it better when Tobias explained that he likes to wear his leopard-print bikini briefs because of “the way they shape my junk.”
- When he gets kicked out of The Model Home, Tobias takes up residence on the set of the TV series Wrench, in Frank Wrench’s fake apartment. He probably shouldn’t be using the set’s fake toilet, though.
- Not only does Mrs. Featherbottom sing about a squirt of frosting, she carries around a giant piping bag full of the stuff.
- What keeps GOB from firing Michael is that he still can’t figure out how to work the phones to call security.
- Continuing George Sr.’s recently strange storylines, he discovers one of Ann’s Christian tracts and converts, then delivers unto Michael a parable about two very different brothers: “Gallant and… Goofuth.”
- The three things that most made me laugh in these episodes: George-Michael’s perpetually panicked reaction to Buster’s hand; Michael’s long, silent stare the first time he meets Mrs. Featherbottom; and the way the Bluths treat the Roomba that they buy to replace Lupe as though it were an actual maid. (“Robot’ll get it,” GOB says when he knocks over a dish in the living room; and a few minutes later Lucille sees the mess and shouts, “Roooobot!”)
- Steve Holt!’s campaign gets taken over by Ann when she gets disgusted with GOB’s anti-virgin approach to George-Michael’s campaign. Ann promises to deliver the Christian vote, with the help of Steve Holt!’s version of proselytizing in his campaign video: “You’re probably wondering what these footsteps are. Well, this is my second take.”
- Not only is George-Michael apparently viral video sensation “Star Wars Kid,” but while awkwardly spinning his “lightsaber” he yelps a line of dialogue from the Star Wars series about Luke Skywalker having his hand cut off. That’s called a motif, gang. (Part of the same motif: An old video clip of Buster dancing with an armless mannequin.)
- Two great throwaway lines in the George-Michael campaign storyline: “Took me all day, but I got the 10 signatures,” and “I tied with ‘Bart Simpson’ and ‘school sux.’”
- GOB warns that when you get a religious girl pregnant, she “stays pregnant.” This is all foreshadowing for the revelation at the end of “The Immaculate Election” that GOB is the long-lost father of Steve Holt!
- The important thing is to raise the old self-esteem and not to rush a physical relationship. Those are really the two important things.
- The best “on the next” in these episodes: Buster shows up at virginity camp in “Motherboy XXX” at exactly the right time, as Maeby is telling the classic “Hook” campfire story. (“Heeeey, campers,” Buster says, as they scream and flee.)
- Next week: A week off! And then back on August 15th with “Sword Of Destiny” and “Meet The Veals.” (I was going following production order rather than broadcast order, but you guys have convinced me that it won't make much difference to stick with how it is on the DVD.)