Noel Murray: Erik, I’ve been trying to figure out why it is that Maeby and George-Michael have been the all-star characters of Arrested Development’s fourth season, automatically elevating every scene they’re in, and anchoring what to my mind have been two of the season’s best half-hours. As I mentioned last week, maybe it’s that Alia Shawkat has such an inviting presence as Maeby, who’s as self-centered and vindictive as any Bluth, yet closer to the audience in terms of her awareness of the weirdness all around her. I would’ve put Michael Cera in that same category during the first three Arrested Development seasons, when George-Michael was arguably the sweetest and most grounded Bluth. In season four George-Michael is more of a creep—much in the way Cera has grown up from a fresh-faced, handsome kid to a gawky young man—albeit endearingly so. So maybe what makes Maeby and George-Michael so fascinating this year is that these two cousins are growing into their family legacy while still young enough to be optimistic about the terrible people they’re becoming
“It Gets Better,” like last week’s “Señoritis,” covers a lot of ground, and yet also like “Señoritis,” it’s a far more snappily paced and consistently funny episode than the fitful catch-ups from earlier in season four. That could be because Maeby and George-Michael’s stories are more tangentially related to everyone else’s, taking place adjacent to what the rest of the family is up to yet only occasionally directly connected. These two episodes feel fuller, much as GOB’s excellent “Colony Collapse” does.
“It Gets Better” is also helped greatly by its structure, which follows George-Michael through his university years, with FRESHMAN YEAR/SOPHOMORE YEAR/etc. title cards to mark the hero’s progress—or lack thereof. Much of the episode has to do with George-Michael’s journey toward being O.S.: Overtly Sexual, which is a path he finally finds his way to during his STUDY ABROAD: SPAIN, in which he does finally get to “study a broad.”
I think a lot of what makes “It Gets Better” so funny is that George-Michael’s college experience is just so damned familiar—for me, at least. George-Michael has the unexpected feeling of freedom that an open dining hall meal plan brings. (Pepsi in the morning!) He has the time to develop his skill at the games in the student union rec room. (“And that’s what we call only being behind by three!”) He experiments with facial hair, and a newer, “funnier” persona; and he falls into one of those casual, “love the one you’re with” relationships that happen all the time in a circle of college friends, and nearly always end in awkwardness and betrayal, as it does here.
As is the case with George-Michael’s own college life, “It Gets Better” gets thrown off-course when Michael shows up, at which point George-Michael becomes more actively involved with the season four plot, from Maeby’s showbiz shenanigans to GOB’s gothic assholery to Michael’s furtive romance with Rebel Alley—whom George-Michael recognizes from the American remake of Dangerous Cousins. (”I signed up for Netflix because of that movie!”) But by that time, “It Gets Better” has built up such strong momentum, and is so focused on George-Michael’s various quixotic quests—to be a mature lover, to woo his cousin, to project coolness, and to develop an iPhone app that will simulate the sound of a woodblock—that nothing really stalls it. If anything, each new curveball just makes George-Michael a funnier character, as he keeps swinging away, awkwardly.
And you know who deserves a lot of credit for how well “It Gets Better” and “Señoritis” work? The Narrator. I’ve read some complaints that season four is too Narrator-heavy, and I’d agree there are times when it’s seemed like the show leans too heavily on Narration to keep viewers up to speed, even when it’s unnecessary. But this season has also used The Narrator as the joke more often, in ways the first three seasons did only sparingly—by having him comment on the action, or clarify points, or call attention to the way the story itself is being told. This works especially well in “It Gets Better,” where The Narrator can quickly correct any misguided perception George-Michael might have of himself, or that others might have of him. (That goes back to this idea of how we mythologize ourselves when we’re young, and only later realize how pathetic we actually were.) And The Narrator is responsible for one of the funniest moments in “It Gets Better,” when he rambles on at length about what’s going through George-Michael’s head, while all the characters stare silently at each other, waiting for him to finish.
The Narrator is less of a factor in the Buster episode “Off The Hook,” aside from the good gag where he points out a Freudian slip Buster made, so that we won’t rewind too far to catch it and end up in the wrong episode. But “Off The Hook” is yet another taut, frequently hysterical Arrested Development, which again works so well because its lead character is mostly doing his own thing. (This might’ve been a virtue born of necessity, since Tony Hale reportedly wasn’t available as much as Mitchell Hurwitz and company would’ve preferred.) It’s also the most cartoony episode of the season—almost like a Tex Avery short, or a Frank Tashlin film—which follows Buster’s search for a replacement mother and his adventures in Army with more sight-gags and silliness than we’ve seen all year.
Is “Off The Hook” too crazy, Erik, with its giant hands and Lucille effigies and deadpan government officials? For me it wasn’t, because I found it all highly clever (for reasons I’ll come back to later), and I also appreciated that the episode explained why Buster has been unusually eccentric this season, even by Buster-standards. But other people’s mileage may vary. How’s your mileage, Buster-wise?
Erik Adams: I think “Off The Hook” is just the right amount of crazy, Noel. And that’s always been the energy Buster brings to Arrested Development: In this outlandish world, he’s the closest thing the main cast has to a full-on cartoon. He’s a character of great extremes, given to the dramatics of his mother and earning his biggest laughs while Tony Hale is speaking in a whisper (“I don’t do everything she tells me”) or screaming his head off (as in “Off The Hook”’s many callbacks to the earlier season’s “I’M A MONSTER!” gag). As the center of the show’s most-elaborate, riskiest sight gag—and someone whose first name is the same as the actor to which that setpiece is an homage—Buster Bluth is tooled for a giant prosthetic hand and screaming juice benders. If you’ve found previous season-four episodes hilarious but not hysterical, it’s probably because a key ingredient of Arrested Development’s lunatic spirit could only be used sparingly.
For these reasons and more, “Off The Hook” contains the most belly laughs per minute of any season-four episode. At times it feels like a dispatch from one of the more breakneck installments of season two—right down to the Gene Parmesan cameo. But there’s more beneath the pileup of sight gags and slapstick, and I think that speaks to something Noel mentions above. “Off The Hook” is a thorough examination of why Buster has behaved so strangely in previous appearances, his fantasy life with the Lucille doll (Lucille 3? Or does the seal that took his hand count, making this monstrosity Lucille 4?) such a contrast to life with an actual sequestered Lucille. (Though, when it comes to comments about food, Lucille 3/4 can be just as snappily honest. To be fair, that pasta is severely undercooked.) Maybe we’ve just gotten used to watching the show do this, but I can’t help feeling that the narration in “It Gets Better” and “Off The Hook” fill in the blanks in ways that actually enhance the episodes.
It helps that there isn’t much repetition or reiteration this week. It also helps that there’s a good balance of showing and telling. Objects like Buster’s oversized prostheses and George Michael’s matador pants don’t require a lot of explanatory setup, and they’re largely allowed to do their job as illustrations of the characters’ uniquely poor decision-making. The Narrator’s most breathless season-four moments are difficult to take because Arrested Development has always been such a good visual communicator; look no further than the way George-Michael’s choice of shirts undermines his ability to appear truly O.S.
Not that the show has ever hidden the root of Buster’s problems far from sight. To quote Balboa Towers security guard Carl, “What she did to this boy…” She in question being Lucille—Bluth, not Austero, though the use of the pronoun makes for some appealing ambiguity. If you go along with the juice-box cartoon—the fourth season’s most blatant use of an ostrich to represent the Bluths’ head-in-sand tendencies—the guy’s willingness to be someone else’s footstool is the true psychological damage visited upon Buster by Lucille(s). This tempers all his childish selfishness with a dash of selflessness, to the point where he’s the world’s biggest pushover. In the space of “Off The Hook” alone, Buster is tramped on by his mother, his mother figures/lovers, Herbert Love, Army, his brother, and his brother-in-law. It’s there where he departs from GOB and Lindsay on the spectrum of Bluth egotism: Where his sister and eldest brother are also beat down by everyone around them, they have reserves of undue confidence that keep them afloat. All Buster has is his need to serve others, and it leads to his undoing here, as he knocks out one congressional candidate and is implicated in the other’s disappearance.
“Off The Hook” is a tale of many transitions for Buster, but like the episode that directly precedes it, I think those all boil down into a single theme: Of males growing up (“I’m not a motherboy anymore—I’m a motherman”), attempts by the main characters to overcome their own arrested development. (Hey, that’s the name of the show!) But as it always is with Arrested Development as a whole, those rites of passage ultimately ring false. College and military service don’t prepare George Michael and Buster for the real lives they’ve been sheltered from all these years, and it’s telling that neither reaches the ostensible main goal of either institution. George Michael is swept up in the coming-of-age-movie portrayal of campus life, and doesn’t seem to receive an education of any kind; Buster never gets his chance to join Hero Squad, instead being the model soldier of an armed forces that treats war like a video game. A few beats of the George-Michael story remain, but Buster’s story ends just as it should with this type of buildup: The guy who’s been fakin’ it all along scrambling to undo the wrongs he did and didn’t commit, facing consequences with which he’s not equipped to deal.
But now I’m eager to hear your further thoughts on “Off The Hook,” Noel, and the deeper cleverness you alluded to above. Unless, of course, they’re the same things I mentioned, in which case I’ll see you in a strikingly David Fincher-esque conference room alongside my attorney, Mr. Lonny Feinberg of Feinberg, Feinberg, Feinberg & Feinberg.
NM: Well, I didn’t mean to imply that it was deeper cleverness—or at least not any deeper than the journey to manhood you’ve already covered. (Further examples of that: How Buster gets confused when Ophelia kisses him and no smoke comes out of her mouth, and how he looks at an Army recruitment poster with a hot babe hugging a man in uniform and says, “She certainly looks proud of her son.”) No, I was thinking more about how “Off The Hook” is such a powerful gag-generating machine, spinning off the never-ending nightmare that is a motherless Buster. As you note, he’s rarely been more like a character in a slapstick silent comedy than he is in this episode, except that this Buster is so pathetic he hits a pie with his face rather than the other way ’round.
The gags have a different feel, too. Sure, there’s some right-down-the-middle Arrested Development comedy with Lucille 2 getting her hair-dye on Buster’s forehead when she embraces him, and with Buster making the connection between the Mock Mother’s Pie and his actual mother both “serving three to five.” But all the scenes with deadpan soldiers and scientists studying Buster while muttering their observations is a style of dry, absurdist humor that’s not completely foreign to Arrested Development but isn’t a mode they’ve switched on too often. (Plus, the idea that all of Buster’s Army adventures are happening at a mini-mall is both an excuse for great sight-gags and a sharp satire on the encroaching military-industrial complex.)
Both “Off The Hook” and “It Gets Better” also make great use of jump-cuts both to move the story along and for comic effect (as when George-Michael tries seduction-by-Segway and then abandons that plan in a matter of seconds). The jumps are essential to my favorite sequence in “It Gets Better,” in which George-Michael and his dad trade lies by voicemail about why they can’t see each other. Like my beloved “roommate vote” in “Flight Of The Phoenix,” the voicemail bit goes on so long—with its repeated lines and sudden elisions—that it evolves from another illustration of George-Michael’s “inbred instinct for lying” to a passive-aggressive argument about kids who feel forced into living a life they don’t want and fathers who worry about their sons getting too full of themselves. (When Michael’s describing the fictional plane crash that’s delaying him, he bets his son $500 that there’s some child behind the stick, sitting in his poppa’s lap, which is a hilariously gruesome image.)
It probably says something about the nature of this show and this season that we’ve both gone this long without mentioning one of the most significant cameos in the history of the series: Maria Thayer as Tracey Bluth, Michael’s late wife and George-Michael’s late mother, seen briefly in a commercial for George Sr.’s blazing hot metronome-for-babies, Babytock. It takes a second to register that it’s her, which makes it all the more poignant when she’s gone again. But that suits a season that’s been all about the members of the Bluth family failing to see each other. The Bluths aren’t always so good at noticing what’s past their own noses, which is how they can look at George-Michael standing under a congrats-on-your-graduation banner and sing him a rousing chorus of “Happy Birthday.”
“It Gets Better”: A-
“Off The Hook”: A-
- As some of you noted last week, although George-Michael no longer wants to be called George-Michael (or “Boy George”) because of the association with gay celebrities who pick up men in public restrooms, his new name “George Maharis” is shared by an actor who, yep, was once busted for having sex with a man named Perfecto (!) in a gas station men’s room. Maybe I’m unduly impressed by such things, but when I think about the level of planning and awareness that goes into setting up a joke like that, it makes it all the harder for me to be bothered by this show for having characters that aren’t “likeable.” There’s just so much else going on. [NM]
- George-Michael may have picked up an appreciation for the bondage comedies of Pedro Almodovar, and he may have gotten a Spanish woman pregnant the first and only time he had overt sex with her, but he still shares the Bluth weakness at the Romance languages, as evidenced by the way he says, “Ciao, Fathero!” while imagining the outcome of the roommate vote, and the way he mistranslates his Spanish lover’s pillow-talk. (“Cook… cooking at you?”) [NM]
- A totally unfounded theory, based on that long-pause gag from “It Gets Better”: Are George-Michael and The Narrator one in the same? The Narrator’s omniscience argues “No,” but George-Michael’s gleeful retelling of “Switch Hitter” argues “Maybe?” Of course, all of the Bluths are so fascinated with their own exploits, they’re probably each The Narrator to some degree. [EA]
- Michael tells Ron Howard that he used to think of himself and George-Michael as “twins,” which is exactly what the twin-staffed housing department at UC-Irvine thinks, too. (“Can’t wait to meet Michael, George!” one of the twins says, in a moment of double-foreshadowing.) [NM]
- On the other hand, Michael and “George” do have a lot in common, given the way the latter also purrs at his red-wigged Aunt Lindsay and says, “Gentleman, start your engines.” [NM]
- The picture of Michael that comes up on George-Michael’s phone when he calls is of Michael’s most “betrayed face.” [NM]
- GOB, meanwhile, is there as “Jesus Krist,” who George-Michael must have mistaken for “a real guy.” [EA]
- Look at banner, Noel! The most painful reminder of Buster’s previous two days without Lucille scream from the walls of the penthouse “WELCOME HOME MOTHER! BUSTER MADE THIS” and “THIS IS WHY I WAS LATE! HA HA! FROM BUSTER!” [EA]
- I can’t help but love how the newly all-gay Army is so well-versed in Sondheim. (But according to all accounts, Larry Kert was better than Dean Jones in Company.) [NM]
- One of my favorite jokes in “Off The Hook” is when big-handed Buster proves unable to operate a standard DVR remote, and one of his observers mutters, “I hope this guy likes the musical acts on Saturday Night Live.” [NM]
- Another important technical spec of Buster’s big hand: It plays “The Star-Spangled Banner” in demo mode. [EA]
- A lot of “old” Arrested Development callbacks in these two episodes: Buster saying, “Well that was a freebie,” after he destroys his Lucille effigy in a juice-fog; George-Michael and P-Hound referring to each other as “hop-ons” on the Fakeblock business; and when Buster runs past the harbor to get to his mother’s crab-shack trial, in the background the Queen Mary can be seen still listing in the ocean. [NM]
- Some good “new” Arrested Development callbacks this week too, including Buster saying, “I was tinkling!” (shades of last week’s “tinkling match” between Michael and GOB), and Lucille telling Buster, “I need to get away, get away… you’re hopelessly hopeless.” (“It’s like they wrote that song for my son,” Lucille says. Which, in the case of “Getaway” at least, is true.) [NM]
- And don’t forget the UC-Irvine kissing trial, which is where that oddly accurate digital model of George Michael’s kissing style came from last week. Oh, and also the Locker Hawker guy providing the dialogue for GOB’s drinking-bird epiphany. [EA]
- Alex Trebek? (I mean, “Who is Alex Trebek?”) [NM]
- “Off The Hook” marks the Bit Players From NBC Mockumentaries Week of our Arrested Development reviews, with The Office’s Zach Woods and Andy Buckley joining Phil Reeves in Army. [EA]
- Great Lucille zinger, on the subject of Buster’s big hand: “This looks like you’re pointing to a place that buys your gold.” [EA]
- I love how Buster’s increasing confidence in his role as The Blind Side Monster calls back to his brief spell as GOB’s assistant—but what I love even more are the huckster/sideshow barker layers it adds to the show’s satire of political pretenders like Herman Cain, who always appear like entertainers first and public servants second. [EA]
- Army’s (or perhaps Buster’s) idea of a motivational poster: “Even the most beautiful bird sometimes overshoots its nest.” [NM]
- This week in humorous AD signage: The plumbing truck stuck on the parking-garage overhang belongs to a “Dr. John.” [EA]
- Did you notice? Early in “Off The Hook,” the Showstealer Pro Trial Version finally expires. [NM]
- The best “on the next” in these two episodes: Barry gives sound legal advice to George-Michael when P-Hound sues him over the rights to Fakeblock. (“Take to the sea!”)