“S.O.B.s” (season three, episode nine; originally aired 1/2/06)
Last week I mentioned how ballsy it was for Arrested Development to throw in a catty comment from George Sr. about Michael’s wife’s cancer, without bothering to explain the joke to anyone who’d never seen the show before. Now comes “S.O.B.s,” which is so steeped in self-reference that a viewer could watch every single episode leading up to it and still not get all the jokes, because a lot of what the episode is actually about was happening outside the frame, at the time it was made.
This wasn’t unusual for Arrested Development, of course. The show frequently riffed on contemporary politics and popular culture in ways that’ll likely be increasingly baffling to new fans as the years slip by. The writers also added jokes about their shifting time-slots, their network competition, and the other shows that their castmembers had been in. There are some who have never been sold on the brilliance of Arrested Development, and they often point to this tendency toward winking at the audience as the show’s key weakness. And they’re not entirely wrong. There is something undeniably smug about the way that Arrested Development’s writers congratulate their viewers for knowing so much about their creation.
Still, while I acknowledge that some might be turned off by “S.O.B.s,” I can only report my own reaction to this episode, which is as follows: I thought it was hilarious the first time I saw it back in 2006, and I laughed just about as much watching it for a second time this past week.
“S.O.B.s” does test the limits of post-modern dicking-around, I’ll grant. The episode was a response to Fox more or less telling Mitchell Hurwitz and company that they were out of second chances, and that barring a miraculous uptick in the rating, these final five episodes were going to be the last for the show on this particular network. And so “S.O.B.s” has Michael openly commenting on what the Bluths will have to do “if we want a chance of keeping this family going past the next few weeks,” and it has him responding to the rumors that the Home Builders Organization might help, saying, “HBO’s not gonna want us.” “So it’s Showtime!” George Sr. responds, as way of suggesting that they put on a little show at a dinner party for potential donors to the Save Our Bluths campaign. Meanwhile, the episode pokes fun of every ratings-boosting gimmick of the mid-‘00s: 3D sequences! Performing live! Promos that promise shocking twists! Special celebrity guests! (And that’s not even counting how many times the characters throw around the words “desperate” and “housewife.”)
The main way that “S.O.B.s” acknowledges Arrested Development’s behind-the-scenes woes is through a plot that sees Lindsay begin helping out around the house, while GOB takes a job as a waiter at the country club. “This family’s finally becoming sympathetic and relatable,” Michael says approvingly. His siblings, though, find a way to Bluth it up. “You’re sort of doing it!” Michael says when he sees Lindsay cooking in the Model Home’s kitchen. But it turns out she’s only boiling a canned ham to make what she calls “hot ham water.” (“It’s so watery,” Buster enthuses, “And yet there’s a smack of ham to it!”) Plus, she’s making such a dangerous mess of everything that George-Michael has to follow after her and try to keep her from burning the house down, which makes it look like he has OCD. As for GOB, he only became a waiter by accident, in an attempt to make his mother laugh; and he’s mostly making his tip money by cooing seductively at the wrinkled old racists at the club. (“If you didn’t have adult onset diabetes, I wouldn’t mind giving you a little sugar,” he tells one old lady, to which she replies, “You could charm the black off a telegram boy.”) And while all this is going on, The Narrator is remarking on the parts of the episode that seem too emotionally complicated, versus the parts that have “a clear-cut situation with the promise of comedy.” (“Tell your friends,” he urges when one of the latter comes around.)
The larger point of all this is that Arrested Development was always going to be better at “complicated” than “clear-cut.” Even when the show tried to play the mainstream TV game, it’d come out twisted, as “S.O.B.s” points out when the Bluths suggest getting an Oscar-winner to back them (like, um, Charlize Theron?), or some other famous folk (like Ben Stiller and Zach Braff, both of whom have appeared on the show, but as fairly abrasive fellows). The big guest for this episode is Andy Richter, who plays “himself” as well as some of his four identical siblings—fun fact! Richter once starred in a sitcom called Quintuplets, though not as one of the quintuplets—one of whom is a teacher at George-Michael’s new new-age-y school, Openings. But when the Bluths worry that the new teacher is turning George-Michael too touchy-feely, George Sr. sends him a basket of poisoned muffins, reprising his persona as ‘70s L.A.-area boogeyman “The Muffin Man.” And even after everything settles down and George-Michael tries to have a moment of honesty with his father, it ends with him saying, “I love my cousin,” and Michael answering, “I love you too, son.”
This is just the way Arrested Development bends. No wonder then that even the embodiment of the “best” of the Bluth family, Michael, has to admit that this show he’s on just can’t be fixed without losing what makes it great. “Maybe,” he says, “We’re not that likable.”
“Fakin’ It” (season three, episode 10; originally aired 2/10/06)
After the interlude of “S.O.B.s,” Arrested Development jumps into season three’s last big story arc with “Fakin’ It,” and also returns in a big way to season three’s major motif: namely, fakin’ it. This is the season of surrogates and tiny towns, and to that we now add Mock Trial With J. Reinhold, a TV series starring actor Judge Reinhold as an actual judge—and a series which, while its still in its rehearsal stages, the Bluths appear on in order to practice their strategy for George Sr.’s upcoming trial. The levels of fakery and mockery there are almost too dense to penetrate, especially one you add in Michael’s decision to serve as his father’s defense lawyer, inspired by how well he did as a boy in the school play The Trial Of Captain Hook. (Cue the cute kid: “Yoooou’re a crook, Captain Hook, judge, won’t you throw the book, at the piiiiiiirate…?”)
“Fakin’ It” is noteworthy for the introduction of “N. Bluth,” the name that Michael discovers on the witness list for George Sr.’s trial—a name that will figure more in the episodes to come. This episode also brings in Jan Eagleman, the Bluths’ new attorney (played by the always-welcome Carrie Preston), and brings back GOB’s puppet Franklin, who’s been re-dyed as black (and jokes that he hopes he’s not the “N. Bluth”). The very funny running gag with GOB and Franklin throughout “Fakin’ It” is true both to GOB and to the “shoddy replication” theme, as GOB gets the idea to cheat at ventriloquism by sneaking audio recordings into Franklin, except that GOB doesn’t bother to make his own recordings, he only swipes others and then fits the act around them. (Also, his lips still move.)
Further fakery in “Fakin’ It:” Buster pretends to be suffering from what his doctor calls “a light to no coma,” so that he won’t have to testify against his family. (“I just pray it’s one of those things where he’s unconscious throughout the entire trial,” Lucille says loud enough for Buster to hear. “And when it’s over, he wakes up and gets a big toy.”) And while George-Michael usually can’t stand to be around the old and/or infirm, he agrees to participate in a hospital program that stages mock weddings to entertain Alzheimer’s patients, because he’ll get to kiss Maeby at the end of each ceremony. (“Would I have to touch the old people?” he asks the doctor. “Just their hearts,” he’s told.)
But here’s the thing about George-Michael and Maeby’s fake wedding: It’s not so fake. After Maeby bails on it the first time—in a cheap imitation of The Runaway Bride, a movie she claims to dislike—George-Michael participates in a mock bar mitzvah instead, and comes home with some mock wisdom from the Torah to persuade Maeby to give it another go. Only this time, the officiant isn’t in on the gag, and he marries them for real. Similarly, Wayne Jarvis returns in “Fakin’ It” to inform Michael that, per the Patriot Act, any evidence presented at a fake TV trial can be used in a real trial, subject to the interpretation of the presiding judge or executive producer. (“In our case, Judge Reinhold is both,” Michael sighs.)
I should interject my standard Arrested Development review disclaimer here that I’m probably reading too much into all the overt phoniness in this episode and this season. I’m sure it was all generated off the cuff, as the writers were tossing around funny ideas, and any thematic connections were just the result of the natural, organic riffing of funny people sharing ideas around a table. Still, when Judge Reinhold’s show features the musical stylings of famous American Idol fake-singer William Hung (and his band, “The Hung Jury”), it’s hard not to think of that joke as more than just a clever pun. And when the Bluths appear on this not-yet-a-TV-show in front of a Judge who’s not a judge, and they present themselves as a good, loving family, it’s hard not to see this as an extension of the pretense from “S.O.B.s,” only now for Judge Reinhold’s benefit instead of ours. It’s a difficult trick Arrested Development pulls off, creating characters who remain true to who they really are even as everything around them is so obviously just a show.
Also, Buster did grow up to be Captain Hook, y’know. Because on Arrested Development, life often imitates art, which in turn—nearly always—is itself imitating other art.
- I’m not sure which is the best banner newspaper headline in “S.O.B.s.” Is it “Bob Loblaw Lobs Law Bomb!” or “Movie Execs Doing ‘Snow’ Again?”
- Both of these episodes are ripe with inappropriate Tobias lines, including him saying, “Hear hear! In the dark it all looks the same!” after George Sr. shrugs, “He, she, what’s the difference?” and him unconvincingly describing sex with a woman as involving “the clatter of her breasts.” Really, there are too many dodgy Tobias comments to cite them all, but here are my three favorite: Tobias casually dropping the name of a Village People member, expecting everyone to get the reference; Tobias walking into the Model Home’s secret room and surreptitiously tossing away a plastic baggie when he sees the space is already occupied; and, most of all, Tobias saying that it’s time for him to “take off my acting pants for a moment and pull my analrapist stocking over my head.”
- When Tobias worries that George-Michael might have “The O.C. Disorder,” Michael reflexively says, “Don’t call it that.”
- George Sr. spends most of these two episodes stuffing his face, whether he’s stopping by the hospital because there’s a shrimp deal at the Red Prawn restaurant next door, or he’s telling Buster that no one left him any food, just “soup and a half sandwich and a whole sandwich for me.”
- Lucille hasn’t cooked for her children since the say that Rosa’s mother died. “You gave us cereal in ashtray,” Buster recalls.
- Evening news teasers from the late 1970s: “Would you like some foam in your coffee? It’s called a cuppakeeno, and wait’ll you see what it costs!”
- At Openings, students either get an “L” for “learning,” or, if they “fluctuate” in their learning, they get an “F.” (Cue soundtrack: “Mis-tah F!”)
- When George-Michael takes a break from studying, he tells his dad that he’s “taking three.” No time for five, I suppose.
- There are certain kinds of visual gags that never fail to make me laugh. One is the well-timed insert shot of an intercom speaker, which occurs in “S.O.B.s” when George Sr. laughs uproariously at the thought of GOB working as a waiter. Another is any shot of a puppet silently reacting to something, which happens in “Fakin’ It” when GOB takes a look at the plans for the Model Home and has Franklin crane his neck downward to take a look, too.
- Franklin’s T-shirt: “George Bush doesn’t care about black puppets.”
- There’s an unexpected nod to Blue Velvet when Wayne Jarvis muses, “Why do there have to be puppets like Frank?”
- Buster’s doctor knows that his patient his probably a faker, but since he’s fully insured, he recommends that the Bluths “see how this plays out.”
- George-Michael’s fumbling-yet-eager agreement to take his mind off Buster’s medical troubles by kissing his cousin in a mock wedding is an epic piece of Michael Cera babble. (“It’s a great day. For being sad.”)
- Michael tells GOB that he doesn’t want to turn this mock trial into some kind of… mockery? (“I was in trouble like three words into that.”)
- Michael wants to show Jan Eagleman that the family is unified, but he also wants to prove that his father was wrong to doubt his legal skills. “I’ll make a fool out of him!” Michael says. “While sticking together.”
- George Sr., annoyed at Michael’s scattershot mock-defense, says that “This is the last time you’re gonna see this side of the courtroom ‘til your second wife divorces your freckled ass.” Man, George Sr. is mean.
- On the other hand: “Shrimpfest is over, Pop.”
- The best “on the next” in these two episodes: “All rise! Bud Cort is now in session.”
- That’s it for this year. We’ll be back on January 8th with “Family Ties” and “Exit Strategy.” And then we’ll wrap the third season on the 15th, with “Development Arrested.”