“Sword Of Destiny” (season 2, episode 15; originally aired 3/27/2005)
The first two-thirds of Arrested Development’s second season is so tightly constructed that by comparison, the last third seems to be more of a mess than it actually is. Because of an unexpectedly curtailed episode order from Fox, Mitchell Hurwitz and company had to scramble and compress. Add in an episode that aired out of production order—that would be the first of this weeks half-hour’s, “Sword Of Destiny”—and at times the last handful of Arrested Development season-two episodes feel like a grab bag of disconnected scenes, characters, and in-jokes, held together by excessive interjections from The Narrator, some sloppy ADR, and, oh yeah, comedy. (Because however rickety Arrested Development can be, it’s never not funny.)
“Sword Of Destiny” stitches together three main storylines, connected by the overarching themes of amputation and substitution. In one story, Michael lands in the hospital with appendicitis, and gets carved into pieces by the operation-happy Dr. Frank Stein (played by Dan Castellaneta). As a direct result of the first story, Tobias ends up serving as a liaison between the Bluth family and its company of the same name. And while all this is going on, GOB is attempting a return to The Gothic Castle—a name that The Narrator says very carefully this time, to avoid confusion with a certain gay bar—by using Buster as a front for his new “sword of destiny” trick.
The Tobias story is the most bizarrely meta. On the surface, it’s just a reliable generator of visual gags: George Sr., his head wrapped in a towel (Osama Bin Laden-like), gives instructions to the Bluth employees via a mini-videotape (again, Osama Bin Laden-like), which Tobias then attempts to insert into a full-size VCR at a board meeting. Everything from George Sr.’s appearance to the way Tobias literally fails to measure up to his assignment is inspired, riffing on the news of the day and on the nature of these characters. But the crisis at The Bluth Company isn’t just precipitated by Michael’s absence; it’s also because they just had a 22 home (a.k.a. episode) order reduced to 18, which is messing up their blueprints (a.k.a. season arc). And one of the cost-cutting solutions a board member (a.k.a. network executive) comes up with is to move the entire operation to a different floor (a.k.a. time slot). “Sword Of Destiny” isn’t the most self-referential episode Arrested Development ever did—that one will come in season three—but it’s darn close. (I haven’t even mentioned the brief glimpse of a website plagued with pop-up ads for Family Guy which makes the content hard to see: shades of Fox’s on-screen “bugs” pitching upcoming shows at the expense of the current one.)
The Michael story is a strange one as well. He allows himself to be butchered by Dr. Stein—again, that’s Dr. Frank Stein, presumably with the middle initial “N”—because he wants to prove the point to his family that it’s okay to cede control to someone with real authority. But while he’s putting his life in the hands of a scalpel-wielding maniac, Michael misses the chance to teach his son how to drive the staircar, and misses the chance to videotape George-Michael’s “first hop-on.” Instead, George-Michael gets taught by Lindsay, who throws him right behind the steering wheel and in typically Lindsay-ish fashion tells him that driving is about “confidence,” not about, y’know, actually knowing how to drive. (She does however warn him to start braking in the staircar about a half-mile before a planned stop.) Through it all Michael lays in a hospital bed, so doped up that he can’t even tell when he’s urinating all over himself.
Ironically, it’s GOB who most needs a penis-numbing narcotic, to prolong his lovemaking. He’s already consulted a Chinese herbalist—who calls out “Tea for dong!” to his assistant—but while the “dong tea” is being procured, GOB spots the titular super-sharp sword, and starts conceiving of a way he can use it in his act. (When Michael sees a sword-carrying GOB on a Segway, he remarks that it appears his brother is “looking for dragons… in the future.”) There’s a bit of a Corsican Brothers element to “Sword Of Destiny,” as GOB buys dong tea yet Michael’s dong gets affected, and as GOB plays assistant for the one-handed Buster and ends up getting his own fingers hacked off on-stage. This episode is all about people trying to fill in for other people, and getting cut down to size in the process.
It’s also about Ben Stiller.
I’m honestly not sure where to place Stiller on the continuum of Arrested Development guest stars, though he’s probably close to Martin Short, if only because in this, his one and only episode—not counting his previous appearances as a still photograph—Stiller does his broader character shtick. Stiller has shown in movies like Flirting With Disaster and There’s Something About Mary that he can play natural and still be funny, but as the studly, bread-obsessed magician Tony Wonder, Stiller ratchets up the loony.
That’s okay though, because he’s still very funny as Wonder, as he cockily tosses around magician lingo—like calling the audience the “Howdy Doodats”—and dazzles GOB and Buster by reaching into parts of his body and pulling out bread, cookies, and a Subway Sub Club card. (The card, however, still needs three stamps for a free sandwich.) What I especially like about Stiller as Wonder is that he makes “magic” look like a bothersome grind, contingent on sloppy assistants, cheap showmanship, and waiting around for the right moment to strike. And so it goes with GOB and Buster too, who bop around the stage for their “sword of destiny” routine in front of an underwhelmed audience, then get applause when they actually cut each other’s body parts off. So that’s magic for you.
And that’s Arrested Development too, delivering an impressive performance, even when the seams show. Now, may I have the trick sword please?
“Meat The Veals” (season 2, episode 16; originally aired 4/3/2005)
“Meat The Veals” is another late-season-two Arrested Development episode that spins out of control, but who the hell cares? This is the episode that introduces Franklin Delano Bluth, which means it’d get a pass even if it were 20 minutes of unused 2 Broke Girls footage surrounding two minutes of inappropriate puppetry.
Here, in its 38th episode, Arrested Development reveals that GOB owns a dark-hued, afro-wigged hand puppet that he’s named Franklin, which he uses to deliver racially charged jokes in his act and at family parties. The only problem with Franklin is that he hasn’t been on the show all along. Way back in my first Arrested Development review, I compared the show to Soap, and now we’ve finally got the AD version of Chuck and Bob, with GOB and Franklin enraging friends and family by saying “some things whitey wasn’t ready to hear” (and “some things African American-y wasn’t ready to hear either”).
I don’t want to make too much of what is a relatively minor (and probably unintentional) theme in “Meat The Veals,” but the way the other characters react to Franklin reflects a least a little of the way the people on this show accept whatever reality they like. When GOB shows up with Franklin at Balboa Towers, the security guard (played by Mario Joyner) tries to give the puppet a tiny fist bump, while the camera zooms in for a Franklin reaction shot, as though the puppet were an actual little dude. And when George Sr. asks GOB to put ether on Franklin’s lips and then have the puppet kiss (and knock out) Lucille, GOB-as-Franklin says, “I ain’t kissin’ that ol’ bitch!” and George Sr. freaks out, strangling the puppet. It’s a gag that worked on Soap and one that still works: characters getting pissed at a puppet.
Meanwhile, as the Bluths and others are responding to Franklin as though he’s real, they’re also humoring Tobias’ pretense that he’s a British nanny, even though they’re never unaware that Mrs. Featherbottom is a phony. So long as he keeps cooking and cleaning—and hand-washing Lindsay’s delicates—they’re willing to let Tobias keep on playing this part, even if that means he grabs an umbrella and “Mary Poppins”es his way from the second floor of The Model Home, twisting his ankle in the process.
I wouldn’t say that Mrs. Featherbottom is Franklin-level hilarious, but the more I think about it, the more I’m sure it’s my favorite incarnation of Tobias. It’s funny visually—what with Tobias sporting a 5 o’clock shadow in Mrs. Featherbottom guise and a ridiculous fake mustache as “himself”—and there’s something both sweet and sad about the way Tobias can only show the affection he actually feels for his wife and daughter by couching it in a role.
Most of “Meat The Veals,” though, has to do with George-Michael deciding to get pre-engaged to Ann. (Cue George Sr., from the attic: “Her?”) Meanwhile, George Sr. has decided to win back Lucille by renewing their vows on their anniversary. (Cue GOB: “Her?”) And Michael gets tongue-tied when he finds out that Ann’s mother is young and attractive. (Cue Maeby: “Her?”)
The always-welcome Alan Tudyk plays Pastor Terry Veal, while the highly likable Ione Skye plays his wife, but the MVP of “Meat The Veals”—besides Franklin, of course—is Jason Bateman, who squeezes every bit of available comic juice out of Michael’s befuddlement with the youthful, vibrant, good-looking Veals. He gives a classic in-over-his-head speech to Pastor Veal about how religious nuts can be good, earnest people, prompting George-Michael to nervously interject, “What are you doing Dad?” (“I’m not sure,” Michael quickly replies.) And when Pastor Veal says that he’s fine with kids’ pre-engagement because he married his own wife young, Michael doesn’t miss a beat as he looks at the pastor’s wife and says, “Well, who could blame you? You gotta lock that down.”
Ultimately, Michael figures that if he can get the Veals to his parents’ anniversary party, get GOB to bring Franklin, get a second vodka into his mother and a second juicebox into Buster, then the Veals will see how terrible the Bluths are, and stop Ann from seeing George-Michael. Instead, Mrs. Veal shows up alone, and drags Michael onto the balcony to kiss him, begging him to take her to his secular world. (The pastor has not, in fact, locked that down.)
“Meet The Veals” ends in general mayhem, with George Sr. dragging the drugged Lucille to the Veals’ church, where he has a fight with Oscar, while the pastor slugs Michael for “pounding that sweet piece of Veal,” and a horny Ann asks George-Michael to have sex with her. It’s all a bit noisy (though seeing Jeffrey Tambor fighting himself is cool), and doesn’t live up to the great setup of the previous 15 minutes.
But the episode is saved by Franklin, who ends up getting handcuffed and detained by the local police, who are convinced he’s behind the disturbance. Because that’s just where we are in society, as filtered through Arrested Development: We even racially profile puppets.
- Tony Wonder is having a tough time naming his new magic video. Use Your Illusion is taken. So is Use Your Illusion II. (He should’ve tried Chinese Democracy; as of 2005, that was up for grabs.) Instead it’s going to be Use Your Allusion, so all the tricks need to contain some kind of allusion. But don’t do Poe. Tony’s doing Poe.
- Here’s some of the copy in the briefly seen news article about Tony Wonder: “Tony Wonder wows his audience as he emerges from a giant sandwich… There was one disgruntled ex-magician who was seen doing some sort of chicken-type dance at fevered pitch.”
- “Sword Of Destiny” marks the last appearance of Starla, who leaves the series so she can recover from getting bitten by Quincy Jones’ rabid dog.
- I still contend that Lindsay hasn’t been given enough to do this season, but the way she casually hangs up on one of Michael’s clients at the start of “Sword Of Destiny” shows she still has a comic role to play.
- Lindsay hangs up on Michael’s client so she can get Tobias a job as Michael’s assistant, but it’s not long before Tobias is taking off his “assistant skirt” and putting on his ass-masking Barbra Streisand/Prince Of Tides pantsuit to psychoanalyze his new boss.
- GOB gets his sword and his dong tea from a shop called Ancient Chinese Secret. (Cue everyone: “Ancient chinese secret, huh?”)
- Once again, GOB fails to produce a fireball from his sleeve, and attempts to save face by saying, “Still… Where’d the lighter fluid come from?”
- Dr. Fishman (a.k.a. Dr. Literal) returns to give the family the news about Michael’s condition, but they’re used to his style now, so that when he says, “It’s too late for me to do anything for your son,” Michael mutters, “Let him keep talking…”
- In homage to Dan Castellaneta’s most famous character, Dr. Stein utters a quiet “D’oh” at one point.
- Buster is disappointed when Tony Wonder bumps into a chair in the middle of a trick. “I was really hoping for a graham cracker,” he says.
- Tony, after Buster grants an irritated GOB “magic sanctuary:” “I second the sanctuary, but with the clause of silence.”
- Mrs. Featherbottom corrects herself after offering Michael “a banger in the mouth,” saying that she realizes in America we call it “a sausage in the mouth.” (“We just call it sausage,” Michael says.)
- Michael, after Lucille asks what he’s doing tomorrow: “Having my day ruined with whatever you’re about to ask me to do.”
- Maeby is reading a script at one point called Operation: Hot Mother.
- Speaking of Maeby, she’s another example of the characters on Arrested Development creating their own reality, what with the “Marry me!” joke she throws out whenever anyone at her movie studio suggests she looks young. Of course, she’s caught up short when a studio reader (played by future Big Bang Theory nerd Simon Helberg) says yes to her proposal. And when she has to pretend to actually be young at Balboa Towers, Maeby has to modify her joke to “Babysit me!”
- Lindsay keeps her mom’s engagement ring on her middle toe, or “roast beef” according to The Narrator.
- Right after Lindsay says that Michael’s constantly saying no to George-Michael is driving his son to Ann, George-Michael walks in and asks his dad to drive him to Ann’s.
- Buster thinks he sees Oscar kissing his hook at night, but he’s actually using it as a roach-clip (while “Big Yellow Joint” plays in the background).
- Michael, trying to get off the phone with GOB: “No, I don’t want to talk to… Heeeey, Franklin.”
- George Sr. to Lucille, while groping her in the back of a limo: “Just let me see ’em!” (Meanwhile, GOB is mortified in the driver’s seat because the partition won’t go up and the radio doesn’t work.)
- Ann has pre-dawn mass, and then mass. Ann’s got a great deal of mass.
- The best “on the next” in these episodes: GOB gets his severed fingers reattached by Dr. Stein, though the mad doctor switches GOB’s middle finger and index.
Next week: We wrap the second season with “Spring Breakout” and “Righteous Brothers.”