“Extended Pilot” (season 1, episode 1; originally aired 11/2/2003)
“This is Michael Bluth. He’s a good man.”
With those eight words, Arrested Development begins. Those eight words, plus one of the best opening sequences in television history. As Ron Howard narrates and on-screen captions helpfully illustrate, we’re introduced in a rush to Bluth family:
- George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor): The CEO of The Bluth Company, who turned a frozen banana stand into a diverse business empire, at the expense of family unity and personal ethics.
- Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter): George’s free-spending, self-absorbed wife, who emits little squeals of delight at the tiniest boon but spends most of her time expressing disappointment and dispensing criticism. She’s the sort of mother who publicly insists, “I love all my children equally,” then privately complains, “I don’t care for GOB.”
- George Oscar Bluth, a.k.a. GOB (Will Arnett): The oldest Bluth child, a self-serious, Segway-riding magician who stands resolutely against anyone who wants to belittle or infantilize his craft. “A trick is something that whores do for money,” he tells his brother Michael, when Michael uses that word to describe one of GOB’s illusions. When GOB realizes that he’s said this while surrounded by kids, he doesn’t even blink before he adds, “Or cocaine.”
- Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman): The “good man,” who’s been doing whatever his father asks since he was a boy, certain that his reward will be to take over The Bluth Company when George, Sr., retires. Michael even lives in the attic of the model home in TBC’s still-under-construction Sudden Valley subdivision, where he and his son hide their personal effects—cereal boxes, bike helmets, and the like—in the hollowed-out cavities of the home’s phony fixtures.
- George-Michael Bluth (Michael Cera): Michael’s son, who tries hard to be a chip off the ol’ block but has trouble interpreting what his father really wants. When we first meet George-Michael, his dad asks him what the most important thing in life is, and George-Michael cheerily suggests, “Breakfast?” when Michael’s actually looking for “family.” That tells you just about everything you need to know about this particular father-son relationship.
- Lindsay Bluth Fünke (Portia De Rossi): Michael’s sister, who’s a lot like her mom in that she’s spoiled and materialistic, though Lindsay’s also deluded enough to believe that she’s making a difference in the world by organizing for causes like the anti-circumcision advocacy group H.O.O.P. (Hands Off Our Penises).
- Buster Bluth (Tony Hale): The youngest Bluth child and the only one that Lucille takes any deep interest in. As a result Buster has turned out almost completely helpless. He’s spent most of his adult life taking college-level courses in arcane subjects like cartography, though when he’s asked to read a map in a moment of crisis, he stares at the paper and says, “Obviously, this blue part here is the land.”
The pilot episode of Arrested Development (available on the first season DVD set in a longer, unexpurgated version, which is what I watched for this column) is mainly designed to get across who these people are, along with the central premise and the style of the show. Between the on-screen titles, the narration, the quick insert shots, the brief flashbacks, and the rapid-fire dialogue, creator Mitchell Hurwitz and his team of writers, directors, and editors impart massive amounts of information in a short span of time. In the opening minutes of “Extended Pilot,” we meet most of the major characters during a retirement party for George, Sr., aboard a fancy yacht, and then we hear the kicker from Howard: that Michael is in unusually good spirits this evening because, “He’s decided to never speak to these people again.”
Despite some exaggerated claims by Arrested Development devotees—of which I am one, I hasten to add—the show was not entirely unprecedented. It borrows some from Christopher Guest’s mockumentary style (albeit without the first-person interviews) and from Wes Anderson’s films (especially The Royal Tenenbaums). The show also sports the farcical tinge of Fawlty Towers, the intricate referentiality of The Simpsons and Futurama, the chaotic eccentricity of the Bagthorpe series of children’s books, and the exaggerated-to-the-point-of-parody family melodrama of Soap. Hurwitz’s big innovation was to cram all of these elements together and to crank up the pace. He also—and this is something that I think Arrested Development doesn’t get enough credit for—made sure that the family relationships were clear and consistent, with just enough real emotion to keep all the zaniness grounded.
Hence the focus on Michael, seemingly the normal Bluth—although as we’ll find out over the course of the series, “normal” is a relative term when it comes to Michael. After the opening on the boat, we flash back to earlier, as Michael is making preparations for the party and for what he’s sure we’ll be a just and orderly transition of power. The trouble is that George, Sr., hasn’t officially told Michael anything about giving him the job, even though he has taken to calling his son “pard’ner” (which may be attributable to Dad’s “cowboy phase”). Nevertheless, Michael starts making moves to rein in his family’s expensive habits. He tries to have a conversation with Lindsay about the bill she’s been running up at the Four Seasons hotel, though he gets drowned out by Buster beating on a drum he learned to play in one of his classes. (“You can’t do that on the balcony, buddy?” Michael asks, to which Buster replies, “Mom says it’s too windy.”)
As it happens, on the night of the party, George, Sr., announces that he’s actually handing over control of the company to his wife, which sets off the first big Lucille-squeal of the series. The squeal is quickly drowned out by loudspeakers and sirens, as the authorities board the yacht to arrest George Sr. as part of an ongoing investigation by the SEC. (“They have boats?” Buster asks, before passing out with an anxiety attack.)
Later, Michael goes to visit his father in prison and learns that his being bypassed for the big promotion wasn’t intended as a slight. George Sr. knew he was about to go down and didn’t want his son to be put in harm’s way. (He was also convinced that by handing control to Lucille, he was taking advantage of a legal loophole that won’t allow a husband and wife to be convicted of the same crime. When Michael tells him that’s not a real loophole, George, Sr., grumbles, “I have the worst fuckin’ attorney.”) That heart-to-heart between father and son isn’t the only moment of familial sweetness in “Extended Pilot.” Michael also has a warm moment with Lindsay at the end of the episode, when she says she knows he’s disappointed in her and even tries to cry to show how much his concern means to her—though she can’t quite get her face to do what she wants it to.
One thing that’s always impressed me about Arrested Development—and something I’m sure I’ll be noting here every week until you’re all sick of me pointing it out—is how Hurwitz and his writers cram so much into the tight space of a half-hour sitcom, largely by making those relationship moments direct and to-the-point, while still making time to carefully lay the groundwork for moments that pay off down the road. When we’re first introduced to Lindsay’s husband Tobias Fünke (David Cross), for example, he’s been confused by Michael’s off-hand remark about pirates and has shown up at George, Sr.’s retirement party in one of Lindsay’s blouses, dressed as a buccaneer. He ends up boarding a boat rented out by gay actors for a protest, which is a funny joke in and of itself. But that whole business also encourages Michael to take his son and leave this family once and for all, right after he’s found out that he’s not getting his dream job. Michael’s inspiration? A sign that reads “Freedom,” held by one of those gay boaters.
Of course, Michael doesn’t leave, though he does get a nice job offer from a rival company in Arizona, complete with a new home. (When Michael asks if he’ll have to live in the attic, his new employers assume he’s kidding.) Michael’s jailhouse conversation with his father convinces him that he should stay and help the family—as does the realization that George-Michael, who misses his late mother, could use a house full of crazy relatives.
It’s a good thing that the job of changing Michael’s mind isn’t left entirely up to his mother and his siblings, though. Their big idea to stop Michael is to invite him to an intervention, in which they plan to take turns explaining what they don’t like about him, sprinkled with frequent potshots at Arizona. What’s great about Arrested Development in general—and this first episode in particular—is that after spending just a few minutes with these people, we know they actually think this is the best way to get what they want.
“Top Banana” (season 1, episode 2; originally aired 11/9/2003)
Often shows with strong pilots take a few episodes to get back up to their early peak, but there’s no significant let-up with “Top Banana,” a second episode which proved the Arrested Development team could sustain a manic, digressive style from episode to episode, as well as showing that they were planning to proceed as an intensely serialized sitcom. “Top Banana” follows directly from what comes before, dealing with how Michael works to get the family’s finances back in order. He’s thwarted by his father, who’s loving being incarcerated—“I’m doing the time… of my life!”—and by his mother, who’s working behind the scenes to hide The Bluth Company’s assets and records both from the SEC and from her over-honest son. Meanwhile, in another follow-up from “Extended Pilot,” Tobias has been inspired by the gay actor friends he met on the boat to become an actor himself. So he goes out for a part in a commercial that Lindsay ends up getting instead.
Yet with all that going on, what I most like about “Top Banana” is the way it begins to establish that Michael isn’t as rock-solid a guy as the first episode would have us believe. One big blind spot for Michael is his son, whom he loves but subtly mistreats, either by giving him conflicting advice or failing to be attentive to what the poor kid is going through. Consider this exchange, when Michael decides to give George-Michael more responsibility at the banana stand:
Michael: “Welcome aboard, Mr. Manager.”
George-Michael: “Wow! I’m Mr. Manager!”
Michael: “Well, manager. We just say manager. And you can hire an employee if you need one.”
George-Michael: “Do you think I need one?”
Michael: “Don’t look at me, Mr. Manager.”
George-Michael: “Right. It’s up to me now. Mr. Manager.”
Michael: “Manager. We just say…”
George-Michael: “I know, but you just…”
Michael: “Doesn’t matter who.”
Not only does Michael send mixed signals to his son—who only wants to please his dad—he also refuses to take responsibility for the screw-up. Making matters worse, less than five minutes after he gives George-Michael the responsibility to hire his own employee, he orders his son to hire his cousin Maeby.
Maeby Fünke (Alia Shawkat) was introduced briefly in the pilot as a fetching teenage girl desperate to rebel against her parents. She has trouble with this because her folks are too eccentric and too wrapped up in themselves, so she tries to get their attention by kissing George-Michael at the retirement party, which no one in the family notices, given everything else that’s happening on the yacht. Instead, Maeby only arouses her cousin, who immediately feels ashamed and guilty—feelings that multiply exponentially when the Fünkes move into the model home at the end of “Extended Pilot,” and Maeby moves into George-Michael’s room. Even “good man” Michael doesn’t see how this new living arrangement torments his son. Instead, when he forces George-Michael to hire Maeby, he says, “You stay on top of her, buddy. Do not be afraid to ride her, hard.”
As we’ll see repeatedly this summer, Arrested Development loves its sexual double-entendres. And the writers usually find a way to make them relevant to the plot and not just hilariously filthy. For example, at the start of “Top Banana,” Michael goes to visit George, Sr., in prison and meets his dad’s soon-to-be-paroled cellmate, T-Bone, who is described as “a flamer.” Later, Michael tracks down The Bluth Company’s records to a storage facility that’s on fire, and hears the police on the scene say that it’s arson: “Definitely the work of a flamer.” Suddenly realizing what his dad really meant by “flamer,” Michael engages in a little detective work… by walking up to T-Bone and asking, “You burn down the storage unit?”
It’s easy for Michael to find T-Bone because George Sr. has given his former cellie a job at the banana stand, where the ex-con actually proves to be a more conscientious employee than Maeby, who dips her hands in the melted chocolate—“I can’t tell you how many health codes you’re violating,” George-Michael groans—and takes money from the till throughout the day, always throwing away a banana each time she swipes a dollar, to keep the inventory square. (When she offers to take George-Michael to dinner, she grabs a wad of cash and tosses a whole bunch of bananas in the trash, in one fluid gesture.) Still, the hiring of T-Bone irritates Michael, who feels like George, Sr., is trying to run every aspect of The Bluth Company from prison.
This strikes Lindsay as amusingly ironic, since she’s just gotten that acting gig, which pays a thousand dollars. “I’m making a fortune at my new job, and you don’t even have the job you thought you did,” she smirks at Michael. In reality, though, Lindsay spends well more than a grand in the 24 hours between when she gets the job and when she’s supposed to show up for work. Also, she oversleeps and misses her call-time. In the Bluth family, follow-through is much less important than the illusion of responsibility. See also: GOB, who complains that Michael isn’t asking him for help with the family business and then gets so insulted when Michael suggests he put a letter in the mail that he walks down to the beach and tries to hurl the letter into the ocean, in a funny montage of futility. (Later, GOB gripes to Michael about how he takes advantage of all those in the family who are “busting our ass, delivering your mail.”) Even Michael’s not above this Bluth trait of wanting a situation to look right to outsiders, even if it doesn’t match reality. He waxes nostalgic in front of George-Michael about his own boyhood stint at the banana stand, saying, “I used to love it there.” Cut to a quick flashback to 1980, where a chocolate-stained Michael is slumping miserably behind the register.
Since George-Michael doesn’t know that his dad’s not being totally honest, he’s especially mortified when he sees his Aunt Lindsay and his grandmother eating in the same restaurant where he and Maeby are playing hooky. (“They’re grown-ups; they’re allowed to have fun whenever they want,” he frets. “We’re kids; we’re supposed to be working.”) He’s even more upset when he realizes that Maeby’s trash-a-banana plan is costing the stand double, since The Bluth Company paid for those bananas. So he panics and decides to burn down the banana stand for the insurance money. (Cue T-Bone: “I’m gonna get blamed for this.”)
Of course, what George-Michael also doesn’t know is that there’s no insurance money to be had, because GOB threw the premium check into the ocean. Then again, GOB didn’t know there was a check in that envelope because Michael didn’t tell him. And Michael doesn’t know that when he rebels against his own father by helping his son burn the stand, he’s also burning the several hundred thousand dollars in cash that George Sr. had stashed in the walls. (All his dad ever said was, “There’s always money in the banana stand,” in a cryptic fashion.) George-Michael’s not the only Bluth who should be sighing, “I’ve got no right to be called Mr. Manager.”
- FYI, my plan is to cover just the first season of Arrested Development this summer, at a pace of two episodes a week, with two weeks off. (July 13th and August 3rd, for those keeping track at home.) If you’d like to watch along, the whole series is available on Netflix’s “watch instantly” service. Season one is also available on Hulu, with the complete series available on HuluPlus.
- I know the episode is actually called “Pilot,” not “Extended Pilot,” but since “Pilot” isn’t really a title (except on Lost, where it’s actually relevant), and since I’m really writing about the longer version here, I went with the longer name. This won’t ever be an issue again.
- I took a quick look at the non-extended pilot and noticed a few big differences. For example, GOB tells the kiddies that whores do tricks for “candy,” not cocaine.
- Because the average Arrested Development episode is dense with running gags, easter eggs, and callbacks, I suspect this “Stray Observations” space will be almost as long as the main review most weeks. Here, for example, is probably the best place to note the goofy little subplot in “Extended Pilot” involving the gay community’s efforts to be allowed to use the facilities of the local yacht club to set out to sea and get married in international waters. (Hence their protest chant: “We’re here, we’re queer, we want to get married on the ocean.”) As a callback to that, at one point in the episode George-Michael worries that kissing his cousin might be against the law, and when Maeby assures him that it’s not, George-Michael says, “I know for certain that the yacht club would have a problem with it.”
- GOB is a member of The Alliance Of Magicians, whose official photo features the membership—flanked by a clown and an overweight man in a wizard costume—standing behind a sign that reads, “We Demand To Be Taken Seriously.” The Alliance is especially upset about TV specials that reveal the secrets of magicians, which means GOB gets in trouble—and booted out of the Alliance—when a local news crew commandeers his “Aztec Tomb” illusion and explains on the air how it works.
- Lucille is worried because her fox fur is missing a foot, but Michael reassures her that no one will notice. “You’re going to be splattered in red paint… that’s gonna distract the eye.”
- When Lindsay boasts of the good work that H.O.O.P. has done, Michael adds that they’ve “saved enough skin to make 10 new boys.”
- GOB takes 20 bucks from the banana stand and in exchange gives George-Michael a Monopoly game set with several pieces missing. Later, when George-Michael is packing up the attic to move to Arizona, we see that he already has three Monopoly sets.
- When GOB offers to perform The Aztec Tomb at the retirement party, Michael declines, saying, “I just remembered: Dad’s retiring; he’s not turning six.”
- When Tobias announces that he’s realized something about himself, Lindsay’s certain that he’s about to announce that he’s gay, not that he’s decided to be an actor. (To which Tobias mutters, “No, I’m not gay, Lindsay… how many times… must we have this…”)
- Throughout “Top Banana,” Michael keeps encountering family members who are laying horizontal around the house, to the extent that he begins to worry that there’s been a carbon monoxide leak.
- Another brilliant stylistic move by the Arrested Development crew: using different kinds of footage in the cutaways and flashbacks. Example: When GOB explains that his dove just up and died in the middle of a show, we get a cut to security camera footage of a pet store, where we see GOB buy the bird, stick it under his coat, walk straight into a glass door, and then walk back to the counter to ask, “What’s your return policy?”
- George Sr. has an ecstatic reaction to the ice-cream sandwiches he gets in prison, which proves to be a tip-off later on when Michael overhears his mother on the phone, saying, “Then why don’t you marry an ice-cream sandwich?!”
- Lindsay won the Best Hair award in her high school, and gets her acting job from her male Best Hair counterpart, Roger Danish (one of the first of many great AD names).
- Anytime anyone pooh-poohs Lindsay’s acting job offer as no big deal, there’s a cut to Tobias crying in the shower. (Note that he’s always wearing cut-off shorts in the shower, too, for reasons that will become clear later on.)
- In one of those for-the-hell-of-it bits of AD wordplay, this episode has a lot of talk about “fire” and “fur” (including a “fire sale” and a “fur sale”).
- As longtime AD-fans know, each episode ends with an “on the next” teaser that functions more as an epilogue to that episode. Each week, I will identify the best “on the next” gag from each episode, as follows:
- The best “on the next” in “Extended Pilot”: George-Michael sits forlornly on his bed and listens to Maeby as she takes a shower and sings Britney Spears. (“I’m not… that… inn-o-cent!”)
- The best “on the next” in “Top Banana”: GOB goes back to the pet store to protest their dove-return policy and leaves with a rabbit; one week later, we see him unceremoniously dumping a dead rabbit into the ocean.