Arrested Development: “Smashed”/“Queen B.”
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Arrested Development: “Smashed”/“Queen B.”

Noel Murray: Let’s talk Lucille, Erik. We’ve been working our way through a fourth season that some have said makes the Bluth family look far too unlikeable, but I think you and I actually find pretty much every major character on this show sympathetic, because the writers have always taken care to make the audience privy to all the disadvantages that have driven these advantaged people so batty. There’s one big exception though, and that’s Lucille Bluth: the woman ultimately responsible for her family’s misery. Even George Sr.—whose lack of affection or interest toward his children motivates them to behave as awfully as they do—is who he is in large part because of Lucille. He follows her lead, even though Lucille herself often has no real plan, beyond her fleeting impulses. Lucille has her human moments. She adores Buster (except when she gets sick of him), and lusts after both George Sr. and Oscar (except when she doesn’t). And she’s got a cutting wit. Still… on the whole, can we like this lady?

There’s a moment in “Queen B.” where Lucille seems like she’s about to spill a dark, possibly humanizing secret from her past, as she starts to tell her new “theralist” Tobias about what she found under her porch as a girl. But Tobias cuts her off, so we don’t get that “origin of Lucille” moment. Instead, the episode builds to another moment, in which Lucille misunderstands Tobias asking her to play The Invisible Girl in his Fantastic Four musical as him pinpointing the way she’s always used invisible force fields to keep her loved ones at bay. For a few seconds, Lucille is as vulnerable as she’s ever been on this show. It’s almost… touching? (Cue everyone: “No touching!”)

I don’t think “Queen B.” is that great of an episode, honestly. It’s another one of those season four half-hours that tries to cram too much in, and since it’s the only Lucille-focused episode of the season, it has to jump back to re-cover that same overly trod ground I was complaining about last week. “Queen B.” begins all the way back to when Lucille commandeered the Queen Mary, and then shows us her side of her house arrest, her trial, her life in a country club prison, and finally her transfer to Lucille 2’s rehab facility Austerity (seen in part in the episode that precedes this one, the Tobias-focused “Smashed”). “Queen B.” never finds a groove the way the likes of “Flight Of The Phoenix,” “A New Start,” and “Colony Collapse” do. 

But damned if “Queen B.” isn’t fascinating anyway, as an exercise in making Arrested Development’s one true villain into its heroine, however fleetingly. Personally, I’ve never been one of those who feels characters have to be “likeable,” per se. I’m okay with Don Draper being a self-absorbed alcoholic, and with Walter White making choices that alienate his family and his business associates, and with Vic Mackey strong-arming his fellow cops and breaking the law for what he feels to be a higher purpose. I’m not trying to be friends with these guys. I’m not going to vote for them. I enjoy watching them because they’re fascinating and complex, and they reveal things about human nature that I find to be both true and instructive.

I’d throw Lucille Bluth in that company. Lucille has always been a study in upper-class privilege run amok, embodying the attitude of entitlement that leads some people who have nothing to offer (not even wealth) to behave as though they’re the most deserving person in any room, often persuading working people and even actual rich people to cater to them. This is the attitude that’s allowed some shrewd folks in our financial sector to gamble and steal and get rewarded with taxpayer money instead of jail time, because they’ve snowed the system into believing they’re the “job-creators.” If she were real, I’d hate Lucille—this vulgarian snob who creates GOBs, not jobs. But on Arrested Development, I love her, because she’s such an on-point personification of the show’s social satire.

Plus she’s hilarious. I haven’t talked that much about the actual plot of “Queen B.,” because like I said, it’s overstuffed and rambling, really only settling in during the stretch where Lucille finds herself becoming the unlikely star of the reality series Real Asian Prison Housewives Of The Orange County White Collar Prison System. That’s where she manipulates China Garden’s aunt Olive (groan) into providing her with unlimited bread (double groan) to build the Bluth border fence, because, “Who better than the Chinese to help us build a wall?” (triple groan). The episode is filled with prime Lucille meanness though, whether she’s criticizing Buster’s breakfast-in-bed attempt because “this toast has hook-holes,” or she’s misinterpreting the “George-Michael” on the bottom of a clay ashtray as her grandson claiming one of her personal effects (and not, y’know, a young boy signing his name on the craft he made for his Gangie). She’s just so wonderfully terrible, our Lucille.

It’s weird that Lucille shares so much of her episode with Tobias, and that she dominates the final third of his episode, “Smashed.” But then “Smashed” is a pretty weird episode overall. So far it’s the season four episode that seems closest to what a regular Arrested Development episode would be, in that it only occasionally overlaps with the larger season four arc, and instead recounts what amounts to a new Tobias storyline: Tobias working at Austerity alongside Lucille 2’s brother Argyle Austero (played by Tommy Tune), helping DeBrie regain her confidence by letting her be Sue Storm again, in that aforementioned FF musical, with songs by Mark Cherry.

Once again, Michael Bluth wanders into an episode and commandeers it for several minutes, which works against “Smashed” to some extent, because otherwise this is one of the few episodes this season that tells one contained story. It’s an episode that presents a different side of Tobias, too. He’s still a fuck-up—as evidenced by the way he derail’s Michael’s “haircut meeting” with Ron Howard so he can secure the rights to The Fantastic Four, to mount a $700,000 “Broadway-level production” of the eight minutes of the musical the Austerity team has come up with so far. But this is a Tobias who’s actually doing something, not just fooling himself into thinking he’s doing something; and it’s a Tobias that other people listen to and believe in, even if his followers are just a bunch of drug addicts. “Smashed” isn’t one of the funniest Arrested Development episodes this season (though it has its moments), but Erik, do you agree with me that it’s one of the most involving, both as a piece of storytelling and emotionally (given how much of it focuses on poor, broken DeBrie)? And who’s your ideal casting for the inevitable Gangie 5: Liver Spots Of Doom?

Erik Adams: Well, Shirley MacLaine already donned the makeup and the sickle in Gangie 4: Facelift—why not take the franchise over the pond and hand the role to MacLaine’s recent Downton Abbey sparring partner, Maggie Smith?

I found my mind wandering a bit this time through “Smashed,” but that was largely confined to the Michael portions and the coda at Cinco. The long, weird hug between Tobias and DeBrie just feels like the perfect button for the episode, and it blows through scenes that dig deeper into Tobias’ personal disaster—which, though drawn out, does manage to bring the character full circle, blueing himself for the first time in five years.

To answer the second part of Noel’s question: What intrigues me the most about “Smashed” is how sad it allows itself to be. There are plenty of downer notes sprinkled throughout Arrested Development’s run—one of its most fondly remembered running gags is predicated on such a tone. But “Smashed” is a sustained tragedy whose engine is the stubbornness of its main character, who realizes too late that he’s dragging the hopes and aspirations of some recovering dreamers along with him. There’s a hint of that in the end of “Queen B.” as well, amid the same Cinco De Cuatro celebration where the Fantastic Four musical manages to make Imagine Generic’s The Fantastic Four look like the more dignified adaptation. It would seem that the Balboa Island boardwalk, the place where the Bluths scored their first major victory (which they had to steal from someone else, naturally), is also the sight of their greatest defeats and most crushing doses of self-reflection.

“Smashed” is also a wonderful showcase for David Cross, whom, in spite of the healthy cult of Tobias, never seems to earn the type of accolades for his performance that his co-stars receive for theirs. Noel, in talking about how much is stuffed into these episodes, we haven’t talked about how taxing this must’ve been for Arrested Development’s principal cast. Sure, the fractured shooting schedule probably meant that scenes within a single episode could’ve been taped months apart, but I’m in awe of how much “Smashed” asks of Cross—and how much he gives back in return. It’s a real emotional roller coaster for his character, from the highs of hitting it off with Argyle to the lows of leaving DeBrie in that pile of debris to the middles of that aforementioned hug, both parties unsure about their decision but in too deep to turn back.

Beginning with the “pirates” in the show’s pilot, Tobias has always felt most at home among outsiders like DeBrie and her fellow recovering addicts. (And, of course, his obliviousness has caused him to be branded as a very specific type of pariah, a designation he develops a hilariously compulsive manner of flinging around this week.) That puts him in a place to have a unique bond with GOB, which is revisited to delightful ends in “Smashed.” It’s not just the callback to GOB’s gross parmesan-cheese-and-mustard snack that makes this scene stand out, but the giddy energy between Cross and Will Arnett. There’s an understanding between these two that the show hints comes down to their shared passion for performing, but I think it goes deeper than that, to their basic insistence about living out impossible dreams. A tendency to be “hopelessly hopeless,” if you will.

Not to give too much away, but that meeting between Tobias and GOB is building toward an excellent joke in the episodes to come. Noel, you’re so good at reading Arrested Development, I wonder if you’ve already sussed it out. I also wonder if we’re in agreement about these episodes underlining Tobias’ tragic insistence, which leads to him taking to the sea with a bomb—and not the one that has Emmett Richter donning a Heat Miser wig to play Johnny Storm. And I realize I’ve gone this long without commenting on Lucille, so I’ll say this: Her moment of clarity when Tobias is attempting to recast his mother-in-law as The Invisible Girl leads to the most startlingly poignant moment in all of Arrested Development. (Against the warning of every prison guard in Orange County Penal System, I’ll go ahead and say that it’s touching.) While we’re praising performances, let’s have a hand for Jessica Walter, who’s been TV comedy’s voice of black-hearted, pickled wit for so long now that it’s easy to forget that an emotionally wrenching realization like this is in her wheelhouse. 

NM: My assumption is that Sudden Valley is going to become a colony for registered sex offenders? That would make sense, given its lack of proximity to schools (and its lack of Internet). If so, I’ll be curious to see whether any of the residents are actual sex offenders, or if, like Tobias, they’re the victims of “merry mix-ups.” Because that’s been a nice touch, in this show about rich people who don’t have any money, to follow the misadventures of a sex offender who never has sex.

I think we’ve established by now that this fourth season has hardly been a smooth ride. Still, I’ve often said that the edge Arrested Development has over its imitators is the extensiveness of its detail and its callbacks, which are so impressive that I probably see connections that were never intended (like, perhaps, that one in the previous paragraph between Tobias’ sexlessness and the Bluths’ wealthlessness). Even when an AD episode is fitful or less-than-hysterical—and I’d say this week’s pair qualify on both counts—I still marvel at how the story can wind its way organically toward a funny bit of chiasmus like DeBrie going from “the safe harbor of a drug-free zone to the free-drug zone of an unsafe harbor,” or a bit of wordplay like Tobias seeking “any Storm in the port.”

Sometimes, the density is evident in the running gags, such as Tobias having to preface every new conversation with, “I’m a registered sex offender.” Sometimes, it manifests as little touches like the front desk at Lucille’s country club prison, where the staff is so chipper and informative that The B-Word From The C-Ward (or is that The C-Word From The B-Ward?) complains, “You sound like the end of Cymbalta commercial.” Sometimes it’s all about the winking drop-in gags, like the quick shot of the famed Orange County Imaging (not Orange County Imagine) when The Narrator makes a reference to one of Lucille’s old cancer-screenings.

But sometimes all the repetition and unexpected linkage has a curious resonance. You’ve mentioned all the favor-swapping before, Erik; this week I noticed how much of the action this season has been about Bluths getting other Bluths to sign away rights, be it to their shares in the company or to their likenesses and life-stories for Michael’s movie. The follow-up to that is that these characters then get declared “out”… of the movie, of their marriage, et cetera. Even when the Bluths try to help each other, they’re so petty and wary that nothing really comes of it aside from more hurt feelings. See also: the amusing little joke about the Bluth family slapping their names on Lucille’s belongings, which pays off when Lucille finds a campaign sticker for Lucille 2 stuck to Oscar’s butt. It’s the capper to Lucille’s comeuppance in “Queen B.” (And you’re right: Walter really sells the pathos of it.)

Maybe we’re focusing too much on the emotional underpinnings of these two episodes. But like I said up top, it’s the solid construction of these characters and their foibles that keeps them from being so jerky that they’re unwatchable. Or at least that’s the way I feel about it. There are a few TV critics I respect and admire who think this season goes too far and ultimately ruins the Bluths. Me, I take comfort in a certain immutability to this family, from 2003 to now. It’s like what Michael says about the red-wigged, right-wing Lindsay: “Other than the looks and the political beliefs, she’s the same woman.”

Grades:

“Smashed”: B

“Queen B.”: B-

Stray observations:

  • Speaking of connections that were probably never intended, I’m not going to say that this season’s multiple and varied use of the phrase “noodle-stab”—and the gag of a sharpened noodle-cake going limp when hit with hot water—is an extension of my pet impotence/erection theme. But I’m not going to say it’s not either. [NM]
  • As far as the visual jokes from this season go, the smash cut to that ruined noodle knife is right up there with the Tony Wonder magazine spread from last week. It has a great second beat, too: Lucille using the ramen-seasoning packet to temporarily blind her attackers. [EA]
  • Take a look at Fantastic Four onomatopoeia, Noel! There’s “stab,” along with “fist” and “poof” for good, double-entendre measure. [EA]
  • Another random (possibly unintended) connection: Both Buster and Gene Parmesan have gotten carsick this season. [NM]
  • Speaking of Buster, I’m looking forward to seeing his episode in a few weeks so I can find out if there’s a reason why he’s acting extra-weird this season or if Tony Hale’s just lost the handle a little. [NM]
  • I don’t remember seeing as many split-screens in Arrested Development as there are in “Smashed.” (Seriously, it’s like a Brian De Palma film.) Does it serve a thematic purpose? Or is it just another way of covering up this season’s crazy shooting schedule? [NM]
  • I’d guess at the latter: Split-screens also figure prominently into the giant-house sequence in “Indian Takers,” a joke I read partially as a riff on the shooting schedule. Either way, it’s a more elegant solution than the season’s various instances of teleportation-via-chroma-key. That bit of TV magic finally grows distracting during “Queen B.”—the fake shadow behind Lucille during her “A villain I’ll be” solo kind of sucks the power out of the sequence. [EA] 
  • Lucille refers to Lucille 2 as “that sterile cuckoo bird.” That’s a good one. [NM]
  • Incest theme ahoy! Argyle Austero says of The Fantasticks, “My sister and I played the young lovers.” (Incidentally, Liza Minnelli apparently has done The Fantasticks before, but I couldn’t find any record of Tommy Tune having done the same.) [NM]
  • Cross-episode linkage abounds, as Tobias looks off in the distance then says, “That red-haired lady can’t throw her wad at that guy,” obviously referring to Lindsay in “Red Hairing.” (Also, in the background at Cinco I spotted an ostrich piñata and a parrot piñata. So many birds this season.) [NM]
  • Gene Parmesan works at Chicken Dan’s. That’s a new way to work a “chicken dance” into the show. [NM]
  • And if you’re in the mood for some nods to the broadcast seasons: There’s Gene Parmesan’s very, very welcome cameo, as well as Tobias auditioning for the role of Dr. Gregory House, muttering something about “graft-versus-host.” There’s also Tobias stumbling at his attempts to sing along with Argyle’s Fantasticks excerpt, which may or may not be meant to echo Michael faking his way through the Sugarfoot theme with Cal Cullen. [EA]
  • The logo for “Imagine Generic” is pretty awesome, with the words “water drop sound” written at the bottom. [NM]
  • Last week I noticed (but didn’t mention) that there’s a touch of hard-rock guitar for a second during the opening credits of the GOB episode “Colony Collapse.” That appears to be a recurring thing: In “Smashed” there’s what sounds like a bit of horn-blare in the opening, and there’s some slight musical variation in “Queen B.” too. [NM]
  • Arrested Development has always used little music stings and cues well, but the crew’s been working overtime this season, with all the “cooo-in-ci-deeence”s and the “and as it such so also as such is it unto you”s. And now, when Argyle calls himself “Mr. Fantastick,” we get a bit of “Mis-tah F!” [NM]
  • Not only has Ron Howard filled his office with multiple Opies in season four, he also admits to calling all of his barbers “Floyd.” If the Andy Griffith Show movie isn’t greenlit, Imagine might have a shot at opening a franchised chain of Mayberry-themed amusement parks. [EA]
  • DeBrie is honest to a fault: Tobias: “Have you been drinking?” DeBrie: “No, it’s pills!” [EA]
  • Continuing the theme of characters conflating other characters: Without Lindsay to boss around, Lucille directs all her digs about weight loss at the nearest blonde, eroding all of the confidence DeBrie has managed to build up through The Fantastic Four. [EA]
  • Programming note: We’re taking next week off, because, like George Sr. says while he’s driving past those “miles and miles” of “wall,” we love America! We’ll return on July 10 with “A New Attitude” and “Señoritis.” [EA]
  • The best “on the next” in these two episodes: Tobias and Lindsay’s matching suitcases come back into play again, as the explosives meant to blow up The Love Boat end up on in the wrong place. 

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