“Staff Infection” (season 1, episode 15; original airdate 3/14/04)
Another key piece of the Arrested Development mythology springs to life in “Staff Infection.” I speak of course of GOB’s chicken dance, which emerges slowly but inevitably throughout the episode, starting with GOB clucking a little at Buster and later erupting into full-body mockery as GOB adds a little clap and some shuffling feet. I sometimes wonder which elements in the grand tapestry of Arrested Development were carefully designed and which emerged spontaneously. I have to believe that Mitchell Hurwitz took one look at Will Arnett’s little poultry-inspired boogie and said, “Yeah, we need to see that again.”
Not that the moment was fully improvised, mind you. No, in an episode replete with references to farm animals, there’s no way that GOB calling Buster a chicken in the most demonstrative way possible was spur-of-the-moment. If anything, one of my problems with this episode is that it tries too hard to keep that Old MacDonald motif in play. Early in the episode, we learn that Buster once had a bad experience in a photo booth on Catalina when a sheep nosed its way in, and throughout the rest of “Staff Infection,” sheep imagery recurs: When Buster takes a job in the copy room at The Bluth Company, his co-workers call him “Bob,” which sounds like “baa;” those same co-workers get herded around by anyone in authority, even taking a bus called “The Good Shepherd” to Catalina because they assume it’s there to take them to lunch; and when George-Michael finds a folder of his schoolwork in his dad’s office, he wistfully holds a cutout/cotton-ball sheep he made as a boy. Between the occasional soundtrack bleats and the weirdly twangy soundtrack, “Staff Infection” grinds away to remind the audience of its theme. (And that’s not even counting the way that Buster and GOB’s sibling rivalry culminates in the two of them playing “chicken” with two huge construction vehicles.)
Also, I feel like the emotional core of “Staff Infection”—which has to do with Michael worrying that work is keeping him away from his son, while George-Michael worries that, to quote Annyong, “father no love him”—is a little overcooked by this point in season one. That father/son relationship is maybe the most important one in Arrested Development, but “Staff Infection” doesn’t add much new to the dynamic. (Though I did like how it showed George-Michael taking after his father by giving a pathetic little pep-talk about “powering through” at the banana stand to Maeby and Annyong.)
But I hope you know by now that when I say an Arrested Development episode doesn’t entirely work, I’m mainly saying that it’s not one of the best-constructed, funniest half-hours of television ever aired. It’s merely good. Because there’s still a lot of intricacy and well-sprung jokes in “Staff Infection,” including:
-Michael’s unconscious cruelty to The Bluth Company staff, which has him telling them to “take a 3” rather than taking five (which doesn’t even give them time to go to the bathroom), and which leaves them sheepishly (so to speak) asking Lindsay if they can have two toppings on their pizza because it’s Saturday.
-Lindsay taking a job as Michael’s secretary, and immediately sowing dissension among the staff, while making changes to the office’s decor to create a more relaxed environment. (“Doesn’t the lighting make you want to curl up and forget about the world?” she coos enthusiastically.)
-Tobias researching his role as “frightened inmate number two” by getting the local prison’s new warden—James Lipton!—to let him bunk with George Sr., at which point Tobias immediately interferes with his father-in-law’s attempts to convince White Power Bill that he’s stopped trying to convert his fellow inmates. (Tobias, to WPB: “Been a long time since anyone called me a tyke!”)
-Buster pitching in at The Bluth Company’s worksite and enjoying the colorful language of construction workers. (“One of the guys told me to take my head out of my bottom and get back to work!”)
-Lucille suffering the indignity of getting a Quantity Plus membership, and then finding no one at home to help her unload the car when she brings back a trunkload of bulk goods. She ends up going through her address book, looking for her previous hired help. (“Is Rosa still alive?”)
And though the people-as-sheep jokes are a little overwrought, it’s still funny to see the Bluth staff all follow each other into the elevator—“We’ve lost them,” Michael laments—and Lindsay haul Lupe’s family to construction site, assuming that they’re day laborers, and the construction workers put their objections to going unpaid aside when Michael says he’s going to throw them a party… eventually. Plus: GOB’s chicken dance. Can’t hate any episode with GOB clucking and shuffling and Buster bitterly saying, “That’s not how a chicken sounds. Chickens don’t clap.”
“Missing Kitty” (season 1, episode 16; original airdate 3/28/04)
“Missing Kitty,” meanwhile, brings back George Sr.’s oversexed assistant Kitty Sanchez, who’s been on sick-leave at the company, but comes back with conspicuously larger breasts, complete with nipples pointing in unfortunate directions. The AD mythology adds here are small but significant: We find out about “Girls With Low Self-Esteem,” the softcore Spring Break video series for which Kitty plans to expose herself. We also see Kitty lifting her shirt at any provocation, either saying “Spring Break!” or “That’s the last time you’re going to see these!”
Unlike the chicken dance, I don’t think that the recurring Kitty material in Arrested Development is the case of a funny bit showing unexpected legs. Maybe “Girls With Low Self-Esteem” was a one-off that the writers decided to bring back later, but Kitty herself is integral to the series’ overall plot. She knows all the Bluths’ secrets, thanks to her affair with George Sr.—which happened mainly on the family yacht, on a bed beneath ice chests full of damning evidence. She’s also crazy, and as George Sr. astutely notes: “Never fire crazy.” Michael, not fully understanding the extent of Kitty’s involvement with his father, does fire her in this episode, several times, but since neither she nor anyone else is convinced that Michael has hiring or firing power, she keeps sticking around. Not until GOB sinks the family yacht with Kitty on-board—as part of a televised magic trick—does Kitty get the message. And even then, she floats to the surface clinging to one of those ice chests. To be continued.
Overall, “Missing Kitty” seems snappier than “Staff Infection” to me, though it’s not as tightly woven. The largely unrelated B-story has Lindsay investigating why her Nana isn’t sending checks for Maeby’s birthday anymore, which it turns out is because Nana’s been dead for months and Lucille’s been hiding the inheritance. Lucille extends the lie by making up convincing anecdotes about Nana’s adventures on an around-the world cruise. (“She tried pesto for the first time… can you believe that?”) Eventually the deception is uncovered, but not before Lucille can pass the inheritance along to Annyong, thinking—incorrectly, as it turns out—that she’ll be able to maintain control of the money.
And in the even funnier and less relevant C-story, Tobias deflects the violent/amorous attentions of White Power Bill by putting his not inconsiderable skills as a therapist to work. (“Where does the hate come from, Bill?” “The Jews, I guess.”) But Tobias sensitizes WPB a bit too much, and the big racist kills himself, which makes Tobias the “Dorothy” who ended the reign of the prison’s “witch,” and makes his grateful fellow inmates “friends of Dorothy.” (A gratuitous gay joke, yes, but still clever in this context.)
But the main reason I like “Missing Kitty” so much is that it’s GOB-a-riffic. I love GOB’s enthusiasm at the end of the episode after he makes the yacht disappear, as he walks up to his visibly impressed family and says, “A magician never reveals his… I sunk it!” I love his inability throughout the episode to successfully complete a card trick that’s supposed to end with him lifting his shirt to reveal the trick-ees’ card painted on his torso. (Continuing the shirt-lifting motif of the episode.) But I mostly love George-Michael’s fascination with his uncle’s magic. Though Michael warns his son—right in front of GOB—that getting interested in magic is “a path to a lonely life when people mock you and you don’t even know it,” George-Michael is captivated by the scantily clad Spring Break girls who flock to GOB as he’s doing tricks, and he’s so jazzed at his uncle’s craft that he doesn’t even mind that GOB has a queen of diamonds on his chest instead of the four of spades. “I’m lovin’ the ride!” George-Michael squeals. I know how he feels.
- In order to get some Saturday bonding time with his son, Michael has George-Michael pedal alongside him on his bike while he eats a cornball and drives the Staircar (which at top speed can barely outpace a bicycle). In typical Michael fashion, this sweet symbolic gesture flops miserably when Michael gets a call and has to veer off in a different direction, almost running George-Michael over in the process.
- Trying to get into character, Tobias asks Lindsay to say something that would frighten him. “[Bleep] me,” she replies.
- Lucille scoffs at the idea that Buster is a scholar, saying, “Playing with yourself is a scholarly pursuit?” (Later, when Michael puts Buster to work in the copy room, Lucille warns, “I wouldn’t go in there without knocking, Michael.”)
- Buster tries to ingratiate himself with the staff at The Bluth Company, greeting them with a wan, “Heeeey, co-worker,” and then reaching in for a neck rub.
- James Lipton tries to accommodate Tobias’ research by finding him a cell to stay in, but one’s already occupied by Steve Buscemi, and another won’t be free until Tuesday… “at midnight,” he adds, grimly.
- Lipton also has a script he’d like Tobias to get to Carl Weathers. It’s called New Warden.
- “No teaching.”
- The Bluth brothers don’t do so well as construction workers. Buster nails himself to a frame, while GOB finds it hard to maneuver his Segway over dirt-clods.
- Michael goes to the beach to relax, but ends up spending the afternoon fiddling with The Bluth Company’s construction plans, using sand castles and child labor.
- The incest theme persists, as GOB, thinking he’s talking to Kitty, purrs at how “sexy” Lindsay sounds answering the Bluth Company phones.
- GOB excuses his card-trick glitches to Michael, saying the trick is “new.” Later, in a flashback to the moment when GOB announced his disappearing-yacht stunt, we see that he was doing that same card trick a year ago.
- “If he makes it disappear, won’t he see me standing there?”
- “There’s only one man I ever called a coward. And that’s Brian Doyle Murray.”
- “That’s the seventh nipple I’ve seen today.”
- Tobias had some success with the video series Families With No Self Esteem, but only because video-stores misfiled it. All but 10 copies were later returned.
- Lindsay suggests to Maeby that they split whatever they get from Nana “60/40,” but they settle on a much fairer “55/55.” Send these ladies to congress!
- When George-Michael answers the phone at The Bluth Company, he doesn’t understand what his grandfather is asking. “Talk you off what, Pop-Pop?” (In that same conversation, George Sr. gives his grandson a message to pass along to Michael in response to Kitty’s firing, but George-Michael can’t say it aloud. “If I clean it up, it’s not really a sentence.”) From then on, when George-Michael answers the phone he makes sure knows that, “This is George-Michael speaking, not Kitty!”
- In a flashback, George Sr. reaches under a blanket to grope Kitty and complains that there’s “nothing to hold on to down there… you’re like a boy.”
- George Sr. mentions how he once fired his own twin brother. Still got a few more weeks before we meet Oscar in person, though.
- Among the Bluth secrets that Kitty knows is that GOB cries after sex because he doesn’t think Michael appreciates him.
- I wonder if there’s some writerly self-criticism in “Missing Kitty” when Annyong says his “name” for the umpteenth time and Lucille says, “Yeah, that’s not getting old.”
- “Missing Kitty” is another of the out-of-order ADs. During the original airing, these episodes were separated by the two-parter with Julia Louis-Dreyfuss: “Altar Egos” and “Justice Is Blind.” We’ll get to those next time.
- The best “on the next” in “Staff Infection:” The Bluth employees are found in the wilderness by a rancher, who herds them onto a truck with his sheepdogs.
- The best “on the next” in “Missing Kitty:” When Michael wonders how anyone remembered him eating with Kitty before she disappeared, the authorities explain, “She showed her knobs in a steakhouse, sir.”
- Off again next week. And then we wrap up season one over the last three weeks of August. Going by so fast!