Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Arrested Development heats up, and the “shit”s hit the fan

Henry Winkler (left), Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Bateman, David Cross, Michael Cera
Henry Winkler (left), Jeffrey Tambor, Jason Bateman, David Cross, Michael Cera
Photo: Saeed Adyani (Netflix)

The bleep is a trusted tool in Arrested Development’s belt, one whose applications have evolved with the show’s transition to Netflix. It’s harder to predict what will and won’t get bleeped in season five: Broadcast standards and practices still seem to generally apply, like when Barry complains that he has the “worst [bleep]ing clients” in “Sinking Feelings.” It’s necessary to complete the “I have the worst [bleep]ing attorneys” callback, but not all the “fuck”s in season five are bleeped equally. “Rom-Traum” gets a great joke out of Michael’s self-driving car, which he’s previously directed to “mom’s fucking cottage”—an un-sanitized distinction with a double meaning. Perhaps it’s only the humans, and not their computerized counterparts, who get the bleep?

“Shit” meanwhile, is getting a pass across the board. “Rom-Traum” is full of “shit,” spoken, euphemized, and implied: The “dog shit” Barry tries to get Michael to push while setting the trap for Lucille and George Sr., the “Hollywood BS” Michael references while talking with George Michael about Rebel, and the runoff from the portable toilet that gives that extra oomph to the maca root at Father B’s. And the Bluths are full of shit in “Rom-Traum,” too, their myriad lies, covers, and specu-lies piling up like so horse scat along a parade route, ready for the family to step in it when they step off for this year’s 4th of July parade (held on the 2nd of July, as a preemptive strike against any Cinco De Cuatro retaliation).

Barry argues in “Rom-Traum” that there are good lies and there are bad lies—and a good lie involves at least one head in a box—and this is an episode with a lot of quality lying. It feeds into the knotty storytelling style of Arrested Development, sending the men of the Bluth family (plus Barry) to the desert, where Michael’s looking for the stair car and Lucille II; George Sr. is trying to commune with the ostrich spirit that swapped his mojo with Oscar’s; and George Michael is trying to catch his father in the act with Rebel, whom he believes to be in Mexico, but is actually in Culver City. (It’s her character who’s in Mexico, which is funny because none of the Mexico action we’re watching is in Mexico, either.) It’s a merry mix-up that first puts the trio in contact with Tobias (wearing Marky Bark’s ostrich costume in order to forward some mail to Father B’s) and then with those handsome and intimidating ranchers, who are finally permitted to reveal their identities: They’re Romneys. Mexican Romneys, who’ve lived in this area since their great-grandfather and his 18 wives settled there. The Mexican Romney Family, or MRF for short.

It’s a long, long walk for a Mr. F. joke, but at least it’s payoff for one of the more baffling runners of the fifth season. And if you go back and watch the sign-burning sequence excerpted in “Rom-Traum,” that Rancho Romney sign has been there all along, so it’s a five-year-long walk. I go back and forth about whether or not I feel positively or negatively about this type of thing. On the one hand, it’s a defining trait of Arrested Development, and one that’s particularly suited to the streaming version of the show. On the other, I hate to see the show pay too much attention to long-term planning at the expense of episodic storytelling, because that’s how you end up with a domino-toppling slog like “Sinking Feelings.”

There has to be a balance, and I think “Rom-Traum” finds it. Part of that is in the variety of stories it’s telling, some of which are fairly far along (the Michael-George Michael-Rebel love triangle), some of which are just getting started (Buster in the clink), some of which are the spine of the season (the election), some of which are an amusing little diversion (Maeby as Annette). And then “Rom-Traum” gives us something to pay attention to right here and now, in scenes that need the narrator to speed them along (GOB coming clean at his “closet conversion,” Tobias gingerly stepping down that hill) and at least one sequence of elegantly constructed farce.

I refer to the “Rom-Traum” border crossing, one of the comic highlights of season five and an excellent use of the bullshit the Bluths are constantly selling to one another. Confined to their cars and their cell phones and supposedly traveling in opposite directions, there’s little escaping the geographic truth for George Sr., Michael, and George Michael. But the script sure makes them try their damnedest. It’s a neat contraption of a scene, with the phone calls making their way back through the line of cars, thus subjecting the conversations to traveling complications like the ice cream vendor. George Sr. and Michael, desperate not to get caught by their son, share some of the same lies, but those lies mutate in the process, as they would in a game of telephone: George Sr.’s bell-ringing Salvation Army Santa becoming a little Danish girl, for example. I like the sweaty, creepy way Michael Cera plays George Michael’s grilling of Michael; I love that nobody can put the awkward name of the restaurant Pea Soup Andersen’s in the right order—and that Michael just keeps on making up abbreviations for it.


The plot peaks a little early, losing some of its tension when everybody’s in the wide open spaces of Father B’s. But by then, “Rom-Traum” has other things to attend to: The identities of the Romneys, the deed Tobias signed while posing as George Sr. (“Oscar!” “That’s a bit much, I don’t think I deserve an Oscar, but…”), and solving the mystery of George Sr.’s personality shift. Turns out Lucille had replaced his Viagra prescription with a “generic” that was actually estrogen supplements, eerily similar to something Maeby was previously day-plotting for Stan.

And to think, earlier in the day George Michael was saying “The minute you start talking about neutering your romantic partner, you’re into shit that even Gangee wouldn’t do.” But, c’mon: At this point in the game, no amount of shit is off-limits for the Bluths.


Stray observations

  • So Barry wasn’t just spitballing about the spiky head and the bald head in the stair car: The traffic cameras show what appears to be Lucille II in the front seat alongside someone with no hair on their head. Could be Oscar, could be Stan, or it could be Sally. My money’s on Sally, since her conversation with Stan suggests that she’s not all the way up on the latest advances in hair glue. “You can eat soup again!”
  • The prison has developed a new solution for dealing with Buster’s robotic hand, seen briefly in “Emotional Baggage” but more clearly in “Rom-Traum”: An oven mitt made of bubble wrap. This should last until another prisoner (or Buster—let’s face it, it’ll be Buster) starts to pop the bubbles.
  • Callbacks: The Howdy Doo Dat gets a new, inquisitive counterpart in the Willy Wonee; George Sr. declines Michael’s offer of a hop on; Maeby, astonished at the prospect of her uncle stooping to sleeping with his son’s girlfriend, says that even her parents aren’t that selfish—until she remembers Lindsay’s courtship of Steve Holt, which she brushes aside with an “Eh, but he’s family.”
  • Speaking of that un-bleeped dirty word, George Michael isn’t sure it applies to the Howards: “I mean, they’re such a nice—I don’t want to use the word ‘family’ because they all like each other.”
  • And if I may put in a request for future callbacks: I hope Maeby either keeps acquiring nicknames around The Spotted Palm, or that “Buttons” becomes a running gag.
  • Laguna Closet Conversion—now a subsidiary of The Bluth-Austero Company—is located next door to a former 90 Minute Teeth.
  • Did you spot the “We forget, but never forgive” needlepoint at the cottage?
  • Riding to Mexico, Barry is made up like the anti-Fonz: In a suit, wearing a helmet, riding a motorized bicycle.
  • Pronunciation is a tricky thing in the Bluth family: Michael: “I couldn’t be more proud of what you’ve been able to do with the Fakeblock thing. But with this kind of success, it puts a target on your back. People are going to think, ‘Oh, here comes the next Steve Gobs. They’re gonna want—“ George Michael: “Jobs.” Michael: “Jobs, for sure, but they’re also gonna want money.”
  • Maybe there’s hope for the next generation of Bluths after all: George Michael: “We’ve got to stop the lying in this family.” Maeby: “Tell me about it. You tell one little story to get a place to live. Next thing you know, you’re sorting through your roommate’s pills to figure out which one will kill his sex drive.”

Managing editor, The A.V. Club