“Mr. F” and “The Ocean Walker” (season three, episode five and six; originally aired 11/7/05 and 12/5/05)
There are two prevailing points of view about the six-episode Rita storyline in Arrested Development’s third season—and in particular its biggest twist—and having now rewatched the lot, I have to say that I agree with both of them to varying degrees. To sum up:
It’s not funny! As I mentioned last week, speaking strictly for myself, I don’t find it that offensive that Rita Leeds is a “mentally retarded female.” And I actually do believe that these six episodes are consistently hilarious, overall. But I don’t think that the reveal of Rita’s retardation is especially clever in and of itself, except for its fleeting shock value, and its more significant satirical value (which I’ll get to in a moment). The problem is that “retarded” is such a loaded word, carrying with it certain impressions—fair or not—which the frequently well-spoken, merely childlike Rita doesn’t meet. Had the character been brain-damaged, or lobotomized, or had there been a moment when it was clear that Michael’s perception of Rita differed dramatically from the reality—rather than him just being so dazzled by her beauty that he missed the clues that she’s not so smart—perhaps the gag of Rita’s big secret wouldn’t seem so tasteless. (Whatever the legitimate reason for the joke, tagging a retarded person as a “Wee Brain” goes beyond cheeky political incorrectness to downright cruel.) To be fair, as I also said last week, Arrested Development is playfully, exuberantly phony most of the time, which is why in the end I don’t take the “retarded” thing too seriously. But “don’t take it too seriously” doesn’t equate to “find it funny,” and for me, the joke of Rita’s condition just doesn’t land.
It’s brilliant! Back in my writeup of “For British Eyes Only” two weeks ago, I talked briefly about Rita as a parody of the Manic Pixie Dream Girltype, which goes from implicit to explicit in “Mr. F,” right at the moment when Michael and Rita go see the British romantic comedy Love, Indubitably. Whether she’s wearing her clothes inside-out, rolling gleefully down a hill, playing the banjo, listening to The Wiggles or doing an uncanny impression of Julia Roberts’ Pretty Woman laugh, Rita is the very model of the kooky rom-com heroine, just tweaked a little to seem more out-of-whack. (Charlize Theron is pretty brilliant in this role, by the way; I don’t think that’s been properly acknowledged.) “The Ocean Walker” even rips on the cliché of the magical, life-changing handicapped person, by having Rita end her story arc by walking off across a pool of water, Being There-style. One of the reasons why I think Arrested Development is one of the ballsiest sitcoms of all time is that for the most part it avoids playing the “sane vs. crazy” game, pitting the calm, smart character against the loons. Instead, Michael is as nuts as the rest of his family, and pretty much everyone the Bluths interact with regularly is bent to some degree. The show even turns this “everyone’s an idiot” notion outward from time to time, as when it criticizes the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq; and in the Rita storyline, Arrested Development skewers the American moviegoing public for being suckered by feel-good movies that say we’d all be happier if we behaved like simpletons.
Plus, did I mention that “playfully, exuberantly phony” thing? Because “Mr. F” carries that about as far as it can go (at least until the upcoming “S.O.B.s”). The Narrator once again asserts himself, commenting on “the poorly narrated reality series Scandalmakers.” The film crew makes its presence known, dropping a boom mike into frame right after Bob Loblaw wonders if the Bluth Company conference room has been bugged. And in “The Ocean Walker,” Theron’s acting past gets dredged up, as a picture of Theron in her uglifying Aileen Wuornos Monster makeup is presented as a depiction of a pre-plastic-surgery Rita. In other words: Don’t worry so much about Rita being retarded, because there is no “Rita,” really. There’s only Charlize Theron, Oscar-winning actress of a thousand faces.
The main plot of “Mr. F” continues to explore this idea of fakery and stand-ins, via a riff on Godzilla movies. GOB decides to construct a model version of a Bluth housing subdivision, which he expects will look real to their Japanese investors if the investors stand far away and squint. (“God knows they’re squinters,” GOB says, re-confirming that this show is not overly concerned about being tagged as offensive.) GOB builds this “tiny town” with Larry Mittleman, who’s being controlled by Buster, though GOB thinks Mittleman’s being controlled by George Sr. The secret comes out when Buster, trying to speak as his father, says, “I like making love to mother.” GOB forgives Buster though, saying, “It took some idiot parrot man with a camera to bring us together.”
Besides, by then the tiny town has been destroyed, by Tobias wearing a mole costume (because his CIA agent pal Frank asked him to be “a mole” and spy on the Bluth family, and Tobias agreed because he thought Frank was a CAA agent) and by a jetpack-wearing George-Michael (who accidentally opened a package meant for his grandfather, who planned to use these “jetpants” to escape). People speaking through surrogates, fake towns, mistaken packages, confusion over the meaning of the words “mole” and “agent”… it all goes back to the idea that nothing in the world of Arrested Development is real. It’s all playtime.
As for “The Ocean Walker,” it plays further on the idea of dopey romantic comedies as insidious sucker bait. The title comes from a rom-com script that Maeby is working on, which Rita “improves” by suggesting that the movie’s separated lovers could come back together by walking across the ocean. Maeby loves this idea, because she figures that audiences won’t want to seem stupid, so they’ll assume this ending must be really profound and meaningful. There’s a lot of that “pretending a dumb idea is actually a good one” in “The Ocean Walker,” including the response to Rita and George Sr.’s separate ideas for water-top communities: “Bluthton” and “Sea Britain.” In their way, all these “trying to seem smart”/Emperor’s New Clothes gambits are a variation on the “invisible locks” that Rita’s Uncle Trevor puts on her door to keep her in, which she heeds because she believes they’re real.
But the most biting bit of commentary on rom-coms in “The Ocean Walker” involves sexual relations. Y’know… pop-pop. Sex is an element that’s often missing from those romantic comedies about overworked dudes redeemed by free-spirited gals (or vice versa). In “The Ocean Walker,” Maeby worries that she’s about to get fired from her Tantamount Studios job, and says, “Maybe I should go out to dinner with Mort,” which is something the sex-averse Maeby properly dreads, given that she’s just a kid and Mort’s a middle-aged man. But on Arrested Development, childhood and adulthood tend to get all mixed up, even when it comes to sex. When Michael invites Rita to sleep over, for example, she assumes he means a kid-style sleepover, so she jumps on the bed and asks him to “keep the light on so I can see if you have a monster” (which he assumes means his penis, which then scares him away from even trying to make a move on her). Meanwhile, Rita’s learned all about sex from Uncle Trevor’s secret magazine Bumpaddle, which channels sexual desire into a big game of “let’s pretend,” with lovers dressed as schoolkids.
I have absolutely no idea how much of this take on rom-com sexlessness and insipidness is intended. My guess? Some; not all. I’m probably reading more into it than is actually there. But I do think it’s embedded in the worldview of this show that people are naturally kinda dumb and self-aggrandizing, even when sex and entertainment isn’t involved. It’s not just Rita, in awe of GOB’s squirting lighter fluid. (“But wherever did it come from?”) It’s also GOB, who can’t make that fireball illusion work when he wants to. And it’s Michael, who believes Rita when she says there are seven houses in British parliament. And it’s the Bluth family, who are willing to let Michael marry Rita, even though they know about her condition, because they also know that she’s super-rich.
Michael doesn’t marry Rita, of course, not even under the persuasive influence of his family’s banner: “Michael Love Marry.” (“Check out banner, Michael!” GOB grins.) Michael has a moment of clarity, and ends this storyline relatively gracefully. Sometimes Arrested Development characters do that too: They have one of those “I’ve made a huge mistake” moments, where they see at last that the new banner is just the old banner with a few letters changed; or they realize that Tantamount Studios’ Tunnel Of Love, Indubitably ride is just the old Hell Tunnel ride remodeled. (And not remodeled very well, because people aren’t just dumb and selfish—they’re pretty lazy, too.)
- When Arrested Development comes back next year, do we want the opening credits to stay the same, or to be updated? Because I took a closer look at those credits before this week’s episodes and found it kind of distracting how different everyone looks in the still pictures from how they look in the action that follows.
- George-Michael’s birthday gift: a Jack Welch-style suit, a copy of Quicken, and a receipt so that he can deduct both.
- Tobias apparently sneaks a peek below the waistline when Michael’s changing clothes, saying that Michael looks just like his gym-buddy Frank: “Same size, same curly hair.”
- Does it count as another layer of self-reference when Mittleman parrots George Sr.’s line, “Another brilliant idea, Einstein,” given that Mittleman is played by Bob Einstein? (At the least, it sets up GOB’s line: “Another brilliant idea, Steinberg.”)
- A fine example of Arrested Development’s attention to detail: While Michael’s changing clothes, his face is still dirty from tumbling down the hill with Rita.
- Michael and Rita’s tour of Tantamount Studios interrupts an episode of Malcolm In The Middle, which annoys Malcolm star Frankie Muniz. I get the feeling that this is based on an actual incident on the Arrested Development set.
- George-Michael quotes the poster on his own wall: “Fun And Failure Both Start Out The Same Way.”
- Japanese instructions: Never not funny. (Jetpacks Was Yes!)
- What’s funnier: The Bluths doing their individualized versions of “the chicken dance” or then doing their respective Godzilla roars? (Cue Mittleman: “Roar.”)
- The CIA stakes out the Bluth home in their inconspicuous “Blendin Catering” van.
- George Sr. tells Michael that too many lives have been ruined because some cheap waitress at a HoJo said she sued an IUD. (“It was Stuckey’s,” Lucille reminds him.)
- Tobias knows all the British slang from the time he spent in the U.K.: like how “poofter” means “tourist.” Other British expressions, according to Michael (via Rita): “Boo-boo Man,” for doctor, and “Go-up box,” for elevator.
- GOB adapts his patter as his card trick goes awry: “The king takes his queen and showers her with diamonds. Clubs. Club sauce. He covers her with club sauce.”
- After spending all night on the phone with George Sr., Michael notices that the hotel phone charges $2.95 a minute for local calls. (“C’mon!” he mutters.)
- When George-Michael shows up unexpectedly at the hotel and sees Rita with the “bumpaddle,” Michael improvises: “We’re just getting back from the bumpaddle courts.”
- What’s your favorite Bumpaddle cover line: “Visit From The Swat Team” or “Bobby Has A Hobby?”
- A despondent Michael at the hotel indulges in the minibar, helping himself to “a $15 thing of candy beans.” I don’t think I even noticed the recurring “thing of candy beans” motif back when I first watched the show, but it’s practically become my favorite part of the entire series.
- The best “on the next” in these two episodes: At the end of “The Ocean Walker,” GOB says that Rita walking on the water isn’t a trick, and then in the “on the next” he says, “It’s my illusion!” He then sets off pyrotechnics, which catch Tobias’ hair-plugs on fire, and when Tobias goes hurtling toward the pool, he shouts, “Why am I not going underwater?”
- We’re off next week. Back on December 11 with “Prison Break-In” and “Making A Stand.”