“Spring Breakout” (season 2, episode 17; originally aired 4/10/2005)
The first thing you need to know about Michael Bluth is that he’s a Bluth, which means he’s impulsive, weak-willed, self-absorbed, and destructive. But Michael’s particular pathology is that he also thinks of himself as a good guy: a savior, a hero. The genius of Jason Bateman’s portrayal of Michael is that he plays the man like an old-fashioned, idealized TV dad, who calls his son “buddy” and “pal” and “sport” (and, tellingly, his brothers as well), and is always willing to instruct and advise, though not without letting everybody know that it’s an imposition, because he’s just so darn busy, keeping the whole family afloat.
This week we wrap up the second—and best—season of Arrested Development, and before we bid it farewell, let’s take a moment to salute Michael Bluth, a character often misidentified as the straight man in the middle of a family of crazies, when in fact he’s just as cracked as the rest of them. Because here’s the first thing you need to know about Arrested Development: Nobody’s unspoiled. Why even our Narrator, in “Spring Breakout,” clears his throat a little to call attention to himself, Michael Bluth-style.
“Spring Breakout” continues the meta moves of “Sword Of Destiny,” not just by referencing the larger troubles the series was having—which the episode does when Maeby spends an afternoon paying attention to how teenagers talk and sighs, “Why are we even going after this idiot demographic?”—but also by acknowledging that Arrested Development is meant to be sort of a documentary. When Kitty returns and exposes herself (as Kitty is wont to do) the cameraman quickly throws a hand over the lens. And the brief snippet we see of the Scandalmakers episode about the Bluths is like an abstracted version of Arrested Development itself, with the staircar represented by a ladder in the back of a pickup, and with Tobias as George Sr. (telling the world where his father-in-law is by poetically saying, “Perhaps an attic shall I seek”).
But the biggest nod to the unreality of this reality comes via The Narrator, who starts out talking about the Scandalmakers episode—doing his job as the guy who explains things—and then gets sidetracked by the poor quality of the Scandalmakers narration. He just wants us to know: It ain’t easy, making sure that the people watching at home know all that they need to know.
Scandalmakers isn’t the only show-within-the-show in “Spring Breakout.” This episode also marks the return of Girls With Low Self-Esteem, and the debut of its Joe Francis-like main man Phillip Litt (played by Zach Braff). There’s Litt footage here of GOB making seven flubs at a magic show a year ago, and him accidentally crushing a bird to death shortly after that show—“You’re getting this, right?” Litt asks his cameramen—and footage of Litt getting co-eds to expose their breasts in exchange for hats, so that they can “get back at daddy.” And Girls With Low Self-Esteem inspires another show-within-the-show: Men With Low Self-Esteem. Appalled by Litt’s exploitation of women—though GOB thinks it’s just because she’s a “surfboard” up top—Lindsay decides to turn the tables by getting dudes to strip on camera. Tobias enthusiastically helps, saying that Litt’s series is “ripe for parody,” but Buster knows the score, saying that Tobias “just wants to see boys’ Linuses.”
And though it’s not a show-within-the-show per se, this episode gets yet another visual framing device when Michael arranges to have Lucille sent to rehab: a facility to which “Spring Breakdown” keeps returning, usually as seen through a four-quadrant security cam. This episode packs a lot into those four screens, including a Diana Ross lookalike trying to flee the “spa,” and a shot of Uncle Oscar about to get clubbed by cops.
The plot of “Spring Breakdown” has to do with Kitty’s attempt to get George Sr. to keep his promises to make her rich and her pregnant, as she uses her cooler of evidence to blackmail him into action, and as GOB attempts a cooler-switch while a sprung-from-rehab Lucille engages Kitty in a drinking contest. The key line of the episode is George Sr.’s lament, “Never promise crazy a baby,” but with Arrested Development, don’t assume that George is talking only about Kitty. Everyone on this show is crazy, including the hero, The Narrator, and the drunken old broad with whom George Sr. conceived most of this brood in the first place.
“Righteous Brothers” (season 2, episode 18; originally aired 4/16/2005)
As good as Arrested Development is at weaving together dozens of storylines and characters without dropping a stitch, the show was never as good at coming to an end. As I recall, the season three finale is strong, but the “we’re not sure if we’re going to get picked up” mid-first-season “finale” is a bit pat, and the actual season-one finale is decent but filled with strange (albeit funny) Atkins-diet jokes. And now here’s the season-two finale, which again feels like a not-always-cohesive mix of callbacks, tie-ups, and filler.
But remember what I said last week about Franklin? There’s no Arrested Development episode that doesn’t make the leap from “good” to “must-see” when Franklin makes an appearance. And the two big Franklin scenes in “Righteous Brothers” are two of the best of the series. The first depicts GOB recording a song for his new CD Franklin Comes Alive, including these lyrics:
GOB: It ain’t easy being white
Franklin: It ain’t easy bein’ brown
GOB: All this pressure to be bright
Franklin: I got children all over town
(Cut to: An empty, spinning chair where the African-American recording engineer used to be.)
In the second, GOB washes Franklin, and the puppet is bleached white, which prompts GOB to change the puppet’s voice from stereotypical “ghetto” to British uppercrust, saying, “You’ve ruined the act, GOB.” (“On the plus side you can take him to lunch at the club now,” Michael says. “That’s the exact kind of joke he would’ve loved!” GOB sobs.) The casual racism of it all—combined with GOB’s belief that he’s going to “maybe just heal the country a little bit”—continues the Franklin winning streak. The puppet says so much about who GOB is, in ways both sad and kind of sweet.
Also, has anyone else noticed that there’s been a strange “creepy doll” theme in the second half of season two? It’s most notably represented by the dolls George Sr. plays with in the attic over the past few episodes, though Franklin certainly qualifies as a creepy doll as well. And by the end of this episode, even some of the humans will become like dolls and puppets. GOB knocks out George Sr. with the ol’ Franklin ether-kiss, and then he pretends out loud that his dad is saying nice things to him, as though George Sr. were a ventriloquist dummy.
Then GOB finds the homemade card that he made for Michael—to accompany the Franklin CD that Michael said was his “favorite record, pal”—and holds it in front of his face right as the traffic camera catches him, which leads old Bluth nemesis Wayne Jarvis to believe that Michael is driving his fugitive father around. And the brother-confusion continues at the end of the episode when George Sr. finally turns himself in, then pulls a switcheroo by shaving Oscar’s head and sending him to prison in his place. (The wispy hair on the side of “George Sr.’s” head as he’s being hauled off is an early tip-off that something’s amiss.)
Like I said, there’s a fumbling-for-an-ending aspect to “Righteous Brothers” that keeps it from being one of the classic Arrested Developments. Chalk it up to the reduced episode order, which makes this finale feel like a big finish and just an ordinary episode, all at once. Certainly with more time, Mitchell Hurwitz could’ve made more out of the biggest development of “Righteous Brothers”: the collapse of The Model Home after months of Bluths running water through detached pipes. Aside from some good slanty-furniture gags and a bit of misdirection implying that George Sr. had been crushed, the big sinking doesn’t provide much oomph. (The collapse in “The One Where They Build A House” is funnier.)
The writers do though—maybe—get a good inside joke out of the reduced episode order, when they have Maeby supervising an edit of the American version of Les Cousins Dangereux, which keeps getting cut from 71 min to 63 to “the best 52 minutes you’ll spend all day.” And spinning off the Dangerous Cousins theme, this episode gets a lot of mileage from the show’s long-running incest theme, including The Narrator reassuring the audience that a smooching George-Michael and Maeby are “not biological cousins” (just as the narrator in the American remake of Les Cousins Dangereux does), and Lucille mishearing an incarcerated Michael’s rant that the next time he sees GOB he’s “got a nice hard cot with his name on it.”
Of course, like The Narrator says, incest in Arrested Development isn’t really incest; it’s all misunderstandings and misspeaking and misidentification. Ultimately, it all speaks to a larger theme in the show, as defined by Lucille when she’s talking about Lindsay: “She wants what she can’t have.” So it goes with all these Bluths. They covet, so they acquire; and then they’re disappointed, so they covet again. It’s the show’s willingness to go along with the Bluths—and even empathize—as they feed their selfishness and greed that makes Arrested Development so very good. Like Les Cousins Dangereux, it’s a “relative” masterpiece.
- Speaking of idealized TV dads, in “Spring Breakout” Michael entertains a potential investor played by Eight Is Enough patriarch Dick Van Patten. My generation’s “Tom Bradford” doesn’t get to do much though, outside of noting that Kitty’s exposed boobs are crooked, and singing the theme song to Sugarfoot.
- One of the best visual gags in “Spring Breakout” and the season overall: the spurting lighter fluid out of GOB’s hidden reservoir, which keep erupting every time a family member punches him in the arm or chest.
- GOB, aping Tony Wonder, calls Michael “such a Howdy Doodat.” Anyone want to bet that he’d never used that phrase before he met Tony?
- We get to see our first Lucille “chicken dance” in “Spring Breakout.” Jessica Walter does not lack for gusto.
- Lucille doesn’t see the sagging eye drawing on pill bottles as a “drowsy-eye alcohol warning,” but rather a “winking-eye alcohol suggestion.” Later, in a flashback to 10 years ago, we see George Sr. pick up a pill bottle and wink at it.
- In a different flashback in “Spring Breakout,” we’re taken back to one of the family’s attempts at an intervention for Lucille, which turned into a drunken party, complete with Buster playing piano (with his right hand only, even though he had both hands back then) and Michael wearing Franklin’s wig.
- More subtle place-switching in “Spring Breakout,” as Lucille uses Buster’s hook as an icepick and Buster drinks Lucille’s “emergency wine” like it’s a giant juicebox. (It was his first taste of alcohol since nursing, according to The Narrator.)
- GOB doesn’t like it when Buster call GOB’s escorts “whores,” and when Buster says that Lucille is prettier than any of them. Lindsay doesn’t like all the objectifying of women her brothers are doing. (“Just Mom and whores,” Michael shrugs.)
- The boys track George Sr. down when they hear his tell-tale howl, just like when he had the community convinced there was a wolf on the loose.
- Printed on one of the Bluth coolers: “H MADDAS.” Feel free to read that backwards.
- George-Michael doesn’t want to explain why teenage boys keep asking Maeby at the banana stand for “a banana and nuts,” saying that her dad will have to tell her about that. Cut to Tobias, walking the boardwalk, saying, “Let’s see some bananas and nuts!”
- With “Spring Breakdown,” for the second time this season, Arrested Development assembles a fairly huge crowd for an episode, which is impressive given sitcom budgets.
- “Surfboard! Stop tape!”
- A lot of callbacks to Arrested Development lore in “Righteous Brothers,” including Oscar getting burned on a Cornballer, George Sr. reminiscing about watching Soapdish in prison, and Michael gasping “no touching” when an angered Lucille shoves him against a wall.
- Kitty gets cleaned up in “Righteous Brothers,” thanks to a sponsor who used to be an actor on Night Court. (Here’s a hint: It’s not Bull, it’s not Harry Anderson, and he’s white.) Before she bids farewell, she gives Michael a more melancholy version of her usual “say goodbye to these.” On the upside: Tobias lifts his shirt so that Michael can welcome back those.
- Celebrity guests ahoy in “Righteous Brothers,” including Desperate Housewives creator Marc Cherry as himself—getting protested by Ann’s church—and a pre-Saturday Night Live Andy Samberg as a Blue Man Group stagehand.
- George-Michael’s protest sign at Dangerous Cousins: “This is a tricky gray area.”
- Oscar just wants to share his Pop Secret with Buster. (Really, he does.)
- The best “on the next” in these episodes: Just as Michael learned last season that there was $250,000 in the burned-down banana stand, now he learns that Lucille also stashed George Sr.’s frozen sperm—“250ccs of your father”—in the stand.
- And that’s it for the second season. But we’re not going to wait until next summer to get to the third. Give us a couple of months to recharge, and then look for reviews of the ever-tricky season three to start up in late October.