Noel Murray: We’re a week away from “Colony Collapse,” the season four Arrested Development episode that many consider one of the best of the new batch, but figuratively speaking, this week’s AD pair is as disordered as… well, I think you get where I’m going here. I said last week that I don’t dwell too much on how well these new Arrested Development episodes “work” per se, because that’s already been well-covered by the spate of whole-season reviews. It’s necessary to note the episodes’ overall quality, but there’s a lot more worth saying about the intricacy of the gag-construction, the nuances of the characters, and the sharpness of the satire. But this week, the structural flaws are too huge to shrug off too quickly. Even “A New Start”—on the whole a very good episode—is hamstrung to some degree by season four’s way of telling stories. And “Double Crossers” is a near-total disaster (albeit one with a few brilliant flourishes).
Let’s start with “Double Crossers,” which is an episode with so much going on—and so much of it disconnected—that it almost feels like a dumping ground for all the season four story-chunks that are necessary for the overarching narrative but that don’t amount to a whole lot on their own.
“Double Crossers” starts out as a George Sr. episode, picking up where “Borderline Personalities” left off by following the Bluth patriarch’s efforts to persuade rising conservative politician Herbert Love (Terry Crews) to support building a border fence on The Bluth Company’s southern California desert property. The problem is the property map was drawn by flop cartography student Buster, who misidentified the border and put the Bluths in Mexico—which means that George Sr. has to reverse course and try to get Love to flip-flop. Meanwhile, his brother Oscar feels a surge of lust that has him seducing both Lucille and Lucille 2, just as George Sr. finds himself impotent and weak, prone to burst into tears at a moment’s notice while wearing women’s clothing and wigs.
Then, in the middle of the episode, after George Sr. has a chance encounter with Michael at the Orange County Imagine office, “Double Crossers” detours for a bit and becomes about Michael and GOB catching up over drinks in Sudden Valley. This is a jarring break from the way the first five episodes have been constructed, and what makes it even odder is that because we’ve barely seen GOB up to this point, his half of the conversation is frustratingly vague. That’ll undoubtedly change after next week’s “Colony Collapse,” but probably not enough to retroactively change how sludgy and disjointed this episode feels overall.
So there’s that. The question is: Is there a point to this lengthy GOB/Michael interlude landing in the middle of a George Sr. episode? The answer is yes, because Mitchell Hurwitz and company always have something extra going on, even if it’s just a pun or a playful motif. Here we have two sets of brothers, each in a transitional phase, as George Sr. and Oscar ostensibly trade places, and Michael and GOB explore a new dynamic in their relationship. That’s your “double” in “Double Crossers.” As for the “cross,” look to George Sr.’s cross-dressing, and to the giant crucifix sticking out of GOB’s car (which in its unwieldiness also “doubles” Michael’s Ostrich-car).
To be honest though, what I found funniest about GOB’s crucifix is that it resembles an enormous, erect penis. I know that’s sophomoric on my part. But I’m also pretty sure that “Double Crossers” means me to laugh at GOB’s cruci-cock. The most consistently hilarious elements of this episode are the copious dick-jokes, from Dr. Norman trying to cure George Sr.’s impotence by manipulating a gland that the Hopi Indians swear can stimulate sexual desire (Cue George Sr.: “That’s my penis.”) to GOB and Michael bonding over several sixers of Mike’s Hard Lemonade. As the episode contrasts these two sets of brothers, it also evaluates each of them by one crude metric: Who can get it up, and who can’t?
“A New Start” is much more intricate—and even poignant—as it considers Tobias in all his goofy glory. Shocked to learn that his in-laws believe he’s a closeted gay man (“it’s kind of a running joke,” Lindsay says), Tobias goes on a quest to find himself, and ends up shadowing Lindsay’s adventures in “Indian Takers.” He travels overseas. He dabbles in the real estate market. And while Lindsay runs off with a man who can’t see her face, Tobias runs off with The Invisible Girl.
“A New Start” sports a wealth of top-notch Tobias slapstick and double-entendres (including the title, which refers both to Tobias’ attitude and the personalized license plate that reflects that attitude: ANUSTART). We can get more into those later. Right now I want to marvel at the relationship between Tobias and DeBrie Bardeaux—who’s played perfectly by oddball stand-up comic Maria Bamford—and how funny and sad it is to watch their whirlwind romance end with the two of them in tattered Fantastic Four costumes, with DeBrie selling her body for drugs and Tobias cornered by John Beard on John Beard’s To Entrap A Local Predator: Super-Creeps. It’s a dark, dark arc, and boldly so, because it’s ultimately about two dreamers who have salable skills—DeBrie’s a lawyer, while Tobias could be making six figures as an analrapist—and have tossed them aside to pursue their passions because they’ve been nurtured by a culture that’s convinced them they can do whatever they set their hearts to.
The only real problem with “A New Start” is something that’s been an issue with a lot of these episodes so far (especially “Double Crossers”). As much as this new season of Arrested Development has been pitched as a new kind of television, with a structure like a jigsaw puzzle, the individual episodes have still been pretty episodic, with The Narrator over-explaining the story so far, just in case a viewer happens to be tuning in for the first time. The result is a lot of repetition, with The Narrator and the characters telling us things we already know, from episodes we just watched. I can’t help but wonder how much better “Indian Takers” and “A New Start” would’ve been combined, with the Tobias and Lindsay stories intertwined throughout, thereby sparing us a lot of walking back and forth across the same ground.
What do you think, Erik? Were you as worn out by “Double Crossers” as so many other critics have been? And did “A New Start” make you laugh, or was it maybe too sad?
Erik Adams: Here’s how worn out I was with “Double Crossers”: My first time through the episode, I stopped with 10 minutes to go, intending to pick it back up later. Then a few days passed, and as the various parts of season four shifted around in my brain, I convinced myself that the episode ends with GOB and Michael’s game of chicken in the Sudden Valley entrance. So I was flummoxed to later find that the last 10 minutes of the thing jackknife into what’s almost a more traditional Arrested Development episode, as the GOB-Michael and George-Oscar storylines run parallel with each other, but don’t do much in the way of meaningful intersecting. It’s a game of chicken in its own way, as the episode charges headlong toward the type of thing Arrested Development used to do on a half-hourly basis—before pulling out of that daring nose dive to do what the show now does on a multi-episode basis. As with all things Bluth-and-chicken related, it’s just a little bit off.
I want to get to get back your question about “A New Start,” but I think the function served by “Double Crossers” merits further discussion. In their experiment with mapping the novelistic approach of post-Sopranos TV drama onto a comedy and gearing toward binging, Hurwitz and company were bound to produce an episode like this. Unfortunately, it’s a dud.
Noel, you mention that “Double Crossers” feels like a dumping ground; to me, it feels like a weigh station, a point for season four to pause, sort through the massive amount of story information it’s generated up to this point, determine what’s important, and then move forward. The quality dramas of the past 15 years take this sort of respite at least once a season—Mad Men just did it with its latest visit to the Bluths’ home state—and I think this is just Arrested Development’s stab at an episode like that. It’s a failed experiment, but it’s one that serves a purpose.
“A New Start,” on the other hand, is an experiment with a greater degree of success—a quantity with which Tobias is less than familiar. It’s the best example we’ve seen so far of Hurwitz’s originally stated intention for these new episodes: To craft standalone character studies that catch the viewer up on the last seven years of the Bluths’ lives, the better to lay the groundwork for that long-promised movie. He eventually went back on that statement, which is fine, because we wouldn’t have 15 new Arrested Developments if Mitch Hurwitz never allowed himself to change his mind. Still, I’m glad a smidgen of that original vision survives in the form of “A New Start,” because as tragicomic as it is, it serves Tobias in a way the original series never could.
His wife may have been adopted, but Tobias is the true Homefill Bluth, the faker who never fit in among the family in spite of his penchant for excess and denial. That tended to push David Cross’ character down the Arrested Development power hierarchy, to the point where he rarely carried anything as substantial as Michael, Lindsay, GOB, or even Buster—his best-remembered contributions to the first three seasons are all runners, one-liners, and recurring gags. In doling out comedic punishment, the show has always been hardest on Tobias, which is part of what makes his irrepressible optimist’s streak such a winning characteristic. He’s as guilty of being a schemer as any true Bluth, but as the various Fantastic Four ploys in “A New Start” demonstrate, that scheming originates from an earnest source. It’s also a place of naïvety, but that’s what makes him such a hilarious subject of comic scrapes like the Super-Creeps dustup.
And what better star to hitch his wagon to than the Fantastic Four, a property that’s known tremendous success in one field, but just can’t seem to make a go of it in Hollywood? Tobias and DeBrie can’t even make it past the gates at Disneyland, a park owned by the F4’s current corporate parents. (Or perhaps that’s because the park is owned by the F4’s current corporate parents.) DeBrie’s background as the star of a Fantastic Four movie that was rushed into production due to an expiring option could’ve come off as residual inside baseball from “The B. Team,” but it provides a wonderful analog for Tobias’ hard-headed persistence—and not just because he ends up playing The Thing. (Though putting Tobias in Ben Grimm’s blue underwear is a great way to write a cut-offs gag without ever saying “cut-offs.”)
In the middle of a season that’s constantly repeating itself, “A New Start” does a stellar job of starting with the fundamentals of its main character, all the while deepening him and showing us the tender, caring side the acting obsession never allows him to show Lindsay or Maeby. In DeBrie, he finds a soulmate who shares his interests and whom he’ll never have to get physical with, thanks to the laundry list of STDs rattled off by Dr. Nelson Franklin. Like Lindsay, DeBrie is ultimately driven toward the lure of cheap thrills by Tobias’ single-mindedness—but that’s perfect for our favorite wannabe Blue Man/perpetual blue man. I don’t think “A New Start” is too sad—I think it’s just sad enough.
What do you think about where this episode leaves Tobias, Noel? You’ve written a lot about finding sympathetic shades to all of the Bluths—would you say that Tobias is the most sympathetic, save for perhaps George-Michael? And do you think he’ll actually stop talking in such a misleading fashion in the wake of his run-in with John Beard? Please give your answer in the form of a Bullpen Bulletins column.
NM: Well, here’s the view from Noel’s Soapbox: I actually find everyone in the extended Bluth clan sympathetic. I think they’re all awful, but that doesn’t mean I don’t love them dearly, because there’s such a humanness to their awfulness. Even to George Sr’s.
I’ve read some complaints about how George Sr. isn’t a sturdy enough character to anchor an Arrested Development episode—let alone two—because he was used so sparingly in the first three seasons. (His literal and virtual imprisonment drove the plot in a lot of ways, but it left the character with little to do.) I can see that point, but while I have problems with both of the season four George Sr. episodes, my problems aren’t really with their protagonist. After years of hearing about George’s shady business dealings, it’s good to actually see him in action at last, whether bilking millionaires in a sweat lodge or grinning like a loon while sycophantically agreeing with Herbert Love about Barack Obama-wama. (“It’s a crazytown name.”)
And though “Double Crossers” is a grind overall—boner jokes aside—there’s some resonance to the slow descent of George Sr. into a weepy mess, sobbing to Michael because he lost his favorite hat. (“It blew off in the CVS parking lot and this whole carful of black kids ran over it for no reason.”) It helps that George seems to be coaxed into his breakdown by the always-entertaining Dr. Norman, who asks him a series of “high-concept” questions about his impotence—“Any wishes you may have phrased badly?”—then suggests he jerk off in an MRI machine, after writing him a prescription for magazines, including the highly apt Señor Señoritas. (Ultimately, Dr. Norman reveals that George Sr. just has an excess of estrogen, and levels of testosterone “somewhere in the ‘baby’ range.”)
But you’re right Erik that Tobias in “A New Start” surges well past George Sr. in the sympathy department. He’s just so adorably, calamitously unaware: of how he sounds when he says that has “a bit of a stick up my bunghole;” or what it means to other folk when he laughs that he’d go down on Matthew McConaughey for 2000 rupees (about $36); or the impression he leaves when he dresses up as “Johnny Storm, the human flamer;” or how it looks when he gives away “Sue Storm” armbands that ape the Nazi “SS” symbol. The accumulated detail of Tobias’ tailspin in “A New Start” is pretty amazing: The way his and DeBrie’s Fantastic Four costumes look worse in every scene; the way it never occurs to him that a man walking around with a young boy might be the kid’s father and not his uncle or neighbor; and the way the sickly DeBrie, who has “all the itisis and a host of osisis,” offers expert legal advice as their lives fall apart. (“You can’t shoot us because it’s not a felony.”) There’s even a clever parallel as “A New Start” contrasts the “predatory loan” industry with To Entrap A Predator, subtly suggesting that maybe the news media was focused on the wrong kind of predator for too long.
I also like your suggestion that “Double Crossers” is a kind of pivot-point in season four. I did notice a lot of fleeting moments in the episode that seemed to point toward what’s to come: Not just GOB’s bees, but also Lindsay showing up at the Love rally in a red wig, stealing coconut shrimp for some unseen person, and the lights at Love’s rally flickering for no apparent reason, and Barry Zuckercorn calling from a hardware store where he’s buying a tiny ladder. (And what’s up with that “Go away, getaway” song Lucille 2 sings?) Whereas about half of “A New Start” shows us another angle on scenes we’ve already scene, much of “Double Crossers” takes us to places that we’re clearly going to need to revisit fairly soon—which is something to look forward to, I hope.
That includes the Cinco De Cuatro celebration, which clearly plays a larger role in season four than just as the starting point of Michael’s story. When I talk about taking a moment to admire Arrested Development’s comic density, I think first of Cinco De Cuatro, which has quickly grown from a strange little idea—a day to trash Cinco De Mayo party supplies—into a source for throwaway gags and odd bits of business, such as Dr. Norman dumping pharmaceutical contraband into the bay. Whatever failings season four may have, never let it be said that it’s lazy or wasteful. Every idea is developed at length and repeated—and not just double.
“A New Start”: B+
“Double Crossers”: C-
Time to come clean: After sampling “Colony Collapse”—which really is as good as everyone says it is—last week, I gave into temptation and blazed through the rest of season four over the weekend. I don’t intend on letting the experience of watching the whole thing spill over into this space, but I can say my outlook for the next few weeks is much, much brighter for having done so. [EA]
We’ve been talking about Arrested Development nodding to some of the shows that followed its lead, and now in “A New Start,” out of nowhere, the cast of Mystery Science Theater 3000 shows up to riff on DeBrie’s B-movie version of Fantastic Four. Which of us is going to write the For Our Consideration piece about how MST3K is the true, previously unrecognized spiritual godfather of Arrested Development? [NM]
Production on that MST3K clip was apparently undertaken without a working Crow (his jaw never moves!) but I do love the attention to detail it exhibits—if Imagine’s Fantastic Four was produced in 1992, it would’ve just qualified to be part of the Joel era. As for larger theories about the callouts to other shows being made in these fourth-season episodes: I like to think they’re a nod to all the different forms TV comedy can take (hence Joel and the bots), made while Arrested Development blazes a new trail itself. [EA]
Like Michael and George Sr., Tobias arrives in a new place for a new start and finds it to be intolerably hot. [NM]
Tobias is fine with tipping African-Americans, though they tend to throw his quarters right back at him. [NM]
Part of the fun of this fourth season so far has been the new set of callbacks and recurring jokes, from Dr. Norman’s girlfriend China Garden sharing the name of a restaurant in Fountain Valley to the Fünke family’s “miracle” Thanksgiving duck waddling off the dinner table. (“Throw oranges at it! Ow! Hot oranges!”) [NM]
There are plenty of old callbacks too, including a couple of good ones in “Double Crossers,” when George Sr. tries to embrace the border patrol and hears, “No hugging!” and when GOB shows up talking about his “bees” and George Sr. assumes he’s saying either “beans” or “beads.” [NM]
The funeral for James Carr has a sign-shaker, as all good real estate endeavors do. [NM]
In the background at the Carr funeral, I spotted a procession of mail trucks, presumably headed to the ceremony for Pete The Mailman. Meanwhile, in “Double Crossers,” GOB knocks over a cross-festooned mailbox that was actually intended by Michael as a memorial to Pete. Also, Michael suspects the infestation of vultures in Sudden Valley could be because “they might just smell Pete.” (Or maybe it’s just that Sudden Valley attracts predators.) [NM]
Oscar doesn’t mean what Lucille thinks he means when he says that it’s “good to be out of that sweaty ol’ hotbox.” [NM]
Sign on a table at Lucille’s country club prison: “Drowning an inmate in the lap-pool is a bummer.” [NM]
Movie poster at Orange County Imagine: Señor Princesa. (Perfect for the whole “Double Crossers” motif.) [NM]
Classic Arrested Development background gag: GOB knocks a corner off a granite kitchen countertop in a Sudden Valley home, trying to open a Mike’s Hard Lemonade; and later we see him and Michael drinking in the living room, where the fireplace mantle also has a busted corner. (The Narrator refers to this as “a few more drinks and a little more depreciation.”) [NM]
In the Arrested Development universe, the daddy issues extend even to Ron Howard’s illegitimate daughter Rebel Alley, who flashes some resentment at her pop while he’s directing her in a PSA about shoplifting. [NM]
We need more examples of Rebel’s acting work. The Terence Malick and Woody Allen parodies in “Double Crossers” are spot-on. [NM]
I was racking my brain trying to figure out the significance of Rebel’s name, which is only partially explained by that bit about Bryce Dallas and Paige Carlyle Howard being named after the places where they were conceived. I could’ve just done a something search and completed the other half of the puzzle: The maiden name of Dallas and Paige’s mother is Alley, so it’s also just a play on that. The Malick wink, meanwhile, traces back to the gossip that Tree Of Life star Jessica Chastain is Howard’s real-life illegitimate daughter. (She isn’t.) [EA]
Joke that didn’t register until this week: Lindsay and Tobias swap partners at C.W. Swappigans. [NM]
That’s funny, because it only just dawned on me—after glimpsing all the lava lamps over Marky Bark’s shoulder—that Swappigan’s is a TGI Friday’s-style restaurant that gathers its TGI Friday’s-style decor through the trades made by its patrons. [EA]
Yet another detail gleaned from watching these episodes with headphones on: Michael named at least one of the streets in Sudden Valley after his late wife, Tracey. [EA]
Another classic bit of Tobias obliviousness: Opting to remove the first two-thirds from Eat, Pray, Love, then treating the book as a stack of napkins. [EA]
So the reality show that’s being filmed at the Indian airport is almost definitely titled Cowboys And Indians, yes? [EA]
That’s Beck Bennett, star of AT&T’s popular “It’s Not Complicated” campaign, as DeBrie’s Straight Bait co-star. Trying to explain that scene to Bennett’s kiddie co-stars, however, would be very complicated. [EA]
Herbert Love tends to draw a rambunctious crowd: “I had to duck a woman’s pump and a mini pizza.” [EA]
The characters of Arrested Development apparently only know one graphic designer: The same basic elements make up the logos for The Bluth Company, The Michael B. Company, Father B.’s Compound, and Lucille 2’s congressional campaign. [EA]
Dr. Norman’s a perfectly written punchline machine, but he’d be nothing without John Slattery’s delivery. The hasty way he says “It’s not the mac, your body wants the maca—it’s not the maca” gets me every time. [EA]
The best “on the next” in these two episodes: On To Entrap A Local Predator Tobias tells John Beard why he’s meeting his “daughter” in Sudden Valley: “I wanted to show her daddy’s Thing.” (That’s almost as bad as earlier in the episode when he arrives at the house and shouts, “Daddy needs to get his rocks off!”)