It’s a fun what-if game for Arrested Development fans to consider whether the show would stand a better chance at drawing a big audience if it were on the air today, after dozens of post-AD sitcoms have made its narrative and comic techniques more common. My feeling? Probably not. (The most AD-ish shows haven’t fared so well, honestly.) That said, it would be interesting to see how the subject matter of Arrested Development would be handled now, in the wake of the explosion of reality and tabloid TV. Granted, both of those phenomena were already gaining in popularity in 2004, but in a 2011 beset by Kardashians, how would comedy writers approach the Bluths?
That thought popped into my head while watching “Public Relations.” Early in the episode, Lucille and Lindsay are tossed out of the low-class eatery Klimpy’s for fighting, and the incident is reported by the local news, which smirks that the public is “having a love affair with hating the Bluth family.” If Arrested Development were launching now, I’d bet that element of the story—the man-on-the-street reaction to the Bluths’ troubles—would be more front-and-center.
As it stands, the issue of how the Bluths “play” in the media makes for another stellar episode, completing a four-episode run of excellence that in and of itself would cement Arrested Development’s reputation as one of the all-time greats. (That streak ends soon, but more on that in a moment.) It seems the tarnished Bluth reputation is starting to interfere with the family’s daily lives, as Michael finds out when he tries to get his son into The Milford School—whose motto is that children should be “neither seen nor heard”—and learns that even though the Bluths have been Milford regulars for decades, the new dean would prefer to distance the institution from the Bluth name.
In response to the snub, Michael hires a PR flack named Jessie, whom he met—and has flirted with extensively—at his gym. Jessie comes up with a list of remedies to restore the Bluth name, including telling Lindsay to get a job. (“Why don’t you do your job and just tell everyone we have jobs?” Lindsay suggests.) Unfortunately, one of those remedies backfires when GOB performs a magic show at a retirement home, and loses an old person inside his Aztec Tomb illusion. GOB frantically calls Michael and tells him that he needs Jessie to “spin something for me… murder.”
Making matters worse: the old man GOB lost was Earl Milford, the founder of The Milford School. (“I didn’t know it was him,” GOB insists. “Though he was spectacularly quiet in there.”) The media has a field day with this too, excerpting and continuously replaying the last four words of GOB’s soundbite: “Don’t edit this for your broadcast so that it looks like I said, ‘I killed Earl Milford!’”
It doesn’t help either that Jessie seems less interested in repairing the Bluths’ rep than she does in dating Michael, who’s previously pledged not to get serious with anyone until his son gets through high school. He weakens some under Jessie’s charms, but his loyalty to his son prevails, causing a livid Jessie to plant more negative stories about the Bluths in the paper, and to confront George-Michael with a spiteful, “It’s all your fault, Opie.” (Cue the narrator: “Jessie had gone too far. And she had best watch her mouth.”)
To me though, the brilliance of “Public Relations” is the way it takes its most minor subplot and elevates it into the most consistently funny and thematically on-point element of the episode. After Jessie tells Tobias to fly back to Boston to renew his medical license, he takes the shuttle to the airport, at first marveling at how cheap and reliable the transportation is and then getting irritated as the shuttle keeps making stops to pick up more people. (“I paid twelve American…!”) But Tobias’ day brightens when he meets Carl Weathers on the shuttle—“Universe, you’ve done it again!”—and pays the actor $1100, his plane-ticket-money, to be a personal mentor. Tobias says he doesn’t know what type of actor he should be: “a De Niro, or a Regis, or a Pinkett-Smith.” (And he certainly doesn’t sound convincing reading the line, “And I’m the laaaaaast cop you’ll ever want to mess with!” as though he were auditioning for a part in Annie Get Your Gun.) But it doesn’t matter anyway, because Carl’s “acting” tips are mainly about buying cars at police auction and taking advantage of a “crazy loophole” that lets him make money by getting bumped from flights.
So maybe this is the ultimate message of “Public Relations:” if you’re rich and famous, be sure to take good care of your image lest you end up like Carl Weathers, who hears that Tobias’ wife has a job viral-marketing a new vodka at a high-toned restaurant and immediately asks, “Do they get free shift meals? Or a discount on select menu items?”
“Marta Complex” (season 1, episode 12; original airdate 2/6/04)
“I’ve made a huge mistake!” is one of Arrested Development’s key recurring lines, and in “Marta Complex” we learn that how, when and why you say it makes a difference. For example, when GOB first gets back together with Marta, he has a moment of chilling realization and mutters, “I’ve made a huge mistake.” But after some affairs and fighting, he returns to Marta again with a big, apologetic grin on his face, saying, “I’ve made a huge mistake.” Same line, different context. So it goes with GOB—and with the Bluths in general. They jump into things because it seems right, or because of a surface appeal, only to realize that the follow-through is too much trouble.
Case-in-point: at an anniversary party for Lindsay and Tobias, GOB gets the whole family to start chanting “speech,” even though no one knows who’s being asked to speak, or why. So after an awkward moment, Michael steps up. (“I’ll say something,” says Michael. “Typical,” hisses GOB.) And after Michael gives a rousing speech about how you “can’t really heal yourself until you stop living a lie,” just about everyone in the family makes a commitment to start changing their lives: George-Michael decides he needs to explore his feelings for Maeby, Buster decides he needs to get out from under his mother’s wing, and Lindsay decides that she needs to leave Tobias.
That’s a fine starting-point for an Arrested Development, but “Marta Complex” doesn’t click as well as the four episodes that precede it, largely because of its rickety A-story, involving Michael’s efforts to find out whether Marta has been cheating on GOB. The story starts well, with Michael ending his big speech by saying, “I love you all, Marta.” But then GOB’s suspicions about Marta make Michael angry, especially when GOB says that he overheard Marta on the phone saying that she really loves Hermano. Of course “hermano” means “brother,” which means “Michael.” But it takes the entire episode for Michael to find that out, so we get a lot of weak farce as Michael interrogates the people in Marta’s life, all of whom seem to have their own Hermano.
“Marta Complex” isn’t all a big whiff though. There are funny lines in the Michael storyline, including Michael telling GOB, “If anyone’s gonna go out with her, it’s gonna be one of us.” And Lindsay’s storyline has some good moments, like her telling Michael that she hadn’t forgotten Maeby in her plan to leave her husband. (“I was going to take her with me in the night. She’s part of the bolt.”) It’s even funnier when the Lindsay storyline intersects with George-Michael’s. Searching through a bowl of candy hearts for a sign that he should hook up with Maeby, George-Michael finds “No Way,” “It’s Wrong,” “Fat Chance,” and then, at last, “Maybe Tonight” (“What are the odds?” he says. “One in eight,” the narrator interjects.) Later, he comes across Maeby trying to throw stuff at Tobias’ head, but “the wind keeps taking it,” so she grabs the “Maybe Tonight” heart from George-Michael and bops her dad with it, though he thinks it was George-Michael who threw it. This makes George-Michael extra-anxious when Lindsay insists that she should be bunking up with Maeby and that George-Michael should sleep in a room with Tobias, whom George-Michael is sure now knows that he has a crush on Maeby. On the upside though, Tobias reveals that Maeby may not be his biological daughter… so there’s hope.
The best bits of “Marta Complex” though involve Buster, who fills a bedspread with his belongings and goes across the hall to move in with Lucille 2. But she rejects him, believing that Buster doesn’t really love her, he’s just rebelling against his mom. “This isn’t about my mother,” Buster insists. “Besides, it’s the only way I’ll get her to respect me.” But that doesn’t persuade Lucille 2; and neither does Buster’s argument that, “I’m leaving my mother for you. You’re replacing my mother.” But any post-breakup blues fade away when Buster casts his eyes on Marta, when she comes by to ask Michael out to dinner. “I’ve been dating an old lady,” Buster gasps. He too has made a huge mistake. And soon he’ll make another.
- While waiting for the interview at Milford, Michael sees another father grilling his son with flashcards for words like “water,” and mutters, “He’s not getting in.”
- Among the changes instituted by the younger Milford are “talking sessions throughout the day” and a special “talk room.” Nevertheless, Michael bristles every time George-Michael pipes up, saying, “Save it for the talk room, son,” and insisting to the interviewer that it’s the “first thing he’s said all day.”
- Lucille reluctantly orders the Ike & Tina Tuna at Klimpy’s, but when the waitress asks if she wants “plate or platter,” Lucille stands firm: “I don’t understand the question and I won’t respond to it.”
- Lucille looks through Lupe’s purse every night to make sure she’s not stealing, asking, “Is this your onion?” and questioning the ball of foil she wants to take home for her son.
- Jessie insists that Michael is the most likable Bluth because there are very few intelligent, attractive, straight men in this town. (Cue Tobias: “Well that certainly leaves me out.”)
- One of my favorite lines in “Public Relations” is all in the delivery. It’s when Buster is surprised to hear that George-Michael has a job, until George-Michael explains that he’s talking about the banana stand. Tony Hale sounds amusingly un-Buster-y as he says, “I thought you meant like a plumber or something, and I was like, when did that happen?”
- Similarly, Hale has some of his best Buster business in “Public Relations” after Jessie suggests that the best thing he can do for the family is to stay out of sight, since the public finds him odd and off-putting. So we get some great visual gags—just a few seconds each—of Buster wearing a patterned shirt that matches the wallpaper in his mom’s apartment, and poking his head around corners. (Can always tell a Milford man. Buster was so good at being neither seen nor heard that he stayed two extra semesters at Milford, and nobody noticed.)
- Speaking of great recurring gags, few things are funnier than sputtering technology used for comic effect. In the aftermath of George Sr.’s conversion to Judaism, he’s been teaching seminars in prison (and releasing videotapes) under the name Caged Wisdom. He calls in to the family meeting with Jessie via videoconference, but the feed keeps breaking up, and the choppy transmission makes it sound like George is talking about masturbation. Making matters worse, he’s in the middle of a class, so periodically the family hears their patriarch shouting, “Some of my students are arguing the significance of the shankbone on the seder plate… but we do not wag our genitals at each other to make a point!” (Cue Michael: “Thought-provoking.”) And: “Hanukah can be spelled so many ways! Oh God!”
- Lucille gets off a good piece of sarcasm when Jessie says that George Sr.’s conversion has made him more sympathetic: “Yeah, who doesn’t love the Jews?”
- George-Michael is proud of himself for getting a homeless person away from the banana stand with a balloon. Later, the headline in the paper below the news about the Bluths reads: “Bum Gets Balloon.”
- At Lindsay’s viral marketing job, a customer offers her “$2000 dollars to touch me,” but just then she spots her husband with his new pal, and the customer nervously whispers, “You’re married to Carl Weathers?”
- More Carl Weathers goodness in “Marta Complex,” as Tobias asks for more acting advice and Carl explains how he hangs onto his per diem by selecting items from the craft service table. Pick the right stuff and, “Baby, you’ve got a stew goin’.” (Later, when Buster finds Carl at Lucille 2’s apartment, Carl says it’s all very innocent: “Just two adults gettin’ a stew on.”)
- George Sr., after touting the joys of solitary to his wife, asks a guard: “Any chance that The Hole is available between 4 and 6?” Lucille: “I don’t even want to know what that means!”
- Buster, refusing a tissue from his mother: “I can blow myself, and you have interfered for the last time!”
- “I think that the world is about to fall in love with Frightened Inmate #2.”
- The best “on the next” in “Public Relations:” Buster moves to the kitchen. (Tony Hale, ladies and gentlemen.)
- The best “on the next” in “Marta Complex:” Maeby asks George-Michael if he wants to go to the movies. George-Michael quickly plucks one of her hairs and rushes out of the room, saying, “I’ll let you know when I get back from the lab.”
- I’m taking my first of two breaks next week. (The other one will be the first week of August.) Back in two weeks with “Beef Consommé” and “Shock And Aww.”