I’d never say that Arrested Development took a while to find itself—in fact, I said just the opposite in my review of the first episode last summer—but I fervently believe that the show’s second season is dense and audacious in ways that even season one couldn’t manage. From the beginning, Arrested Development was a sitcom that built from week to week, such that viewers were more likely to appreciate the 10th episode if they’d seen the previous nine. But with the threat of cancellation always looming, creator Mitchell Hurwitz and his troops hedged their bets at times, working smaller plot and character arcs alongside the bigger ones. Some season-one Arrested Development episodes are practically standalones. There were times last year in this space when I was tempted just to post a list of my favorite quotes and say, “Remember how funny it was when that guy said that thing?” But I don’t think I’d be able to get away with that in season two. These 18 episodes are as complicated in their storytelling as Game Of Thrones.
I’m going to do my best to keep these reviews light—Arrested Development is a comedy, after all—and I’m going to go ahead and warn you now that there’s no way I’m going to list every funny line and moment in this season. (We have a comment section below, so please list away to your heart’s content, preferably without the “I can’t believe you didn’t mention… ” sentence-construction.) But folks, now that we’re here, there’s a lot to do and a lot to see. So let’s start unpacking, shall we?
“The One Where Michael Leaves” (season 2, episode 1; originally aired 11/7/2004)
Late in Arrested Development’s season-two première, Michael Bluth walks into his mother’s apartment and Lucille cracks, “Well, if it isn’t the boy who cried, ‘Phoenix.’” She’s not just talking about what happens in this episode. Michael promised to abandon the whole messed-up Bluth family and hightail it to Arizona in the first episode of the previous season, only to find himself back at home by the end of the half-hour. And that’s the plot of “The One Where Michael Leaves,” too. The episode begins with Michael and his son George-Michael driving off to Phoenix, free and clear, but then they get flustered and turn back once they realize that the family has no idea that they left, or even why. By the end of this half-hour, Michael will once again be back living in the Model Home, playing the martyr role for the sake of people who don’t really appreciate him. (But then Michael wouldn’t have it any other way, would he?)
So, in essence, “The One Where Michael Leaves” just repeats the pilot, reintroducing the characters and the premise to any new viewers that Fox might’ve picked up over a summer, when the buzz around Arrested Development’s first season had intensified (capped off by an Emmy win for Outstanding Comedy Series a couple of months before this episode aired). Of course, the story has moved forward a little since last year. George Sr. is out of jail, and is now a fugitive from the law, which means that his lookalike brother Oscar keeps getting stopped by the police and clubbed over the head. Michael’s older brother GOB is now in charge of the Bluth Company (and has replaced the desk in Michael’s old office with a pool table). And Michael’s sister Lindsay and her husband Tobias have decided to pursue an open relationship, even though the trained psychologist Tobias knows that any couple who believes an open relationship can work is just deluding themselves. (“Let the great experiment begin!” he shouts faux-enthusiastically when he hears that Lindsay already has a date.)
Of all the main storylines in “The One Where Michael Leaves,” my least favorite is Lindsay’s, which touches off what will be a string of humiliating near-romantic encounters for the character this season. The “date” she thinks she has is actually with a realtor named James (played by Ed Helms), who invites her to an open house, and has a different meaning in mind when he says, “I’m anticipating multiples.” (Even the cookie-smell in James’ home is a put-on, produced by an aerosol can.) Lindsay’s attempted sexual escapades do inspire some fertile comic business from Tobias though, as he spots a “feeling blue?” ad and ends up auditioning for The Blue Man Group. Tobias paints himself up—not for the last time this season, either—and eventually gets run over by the family lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn, who finds it difficult to see a dark blue dude silhouetted against a twilight sky.
When GOB arrives at the hospital and hears that Tobias has been hurt, he sobs, “Oh, little guy. The tears aren’t coming. The tears just aren’t coming.” That line caps off an all-star episode for GOB, who has some of the funniest and telling moments in the première. Prime example: When GOB is shooting pool in his office, his cue keeps bumping the wall, so he has a Bluth Company lackey smash holes to give him some more space. And in a flashback, we see how GOB persuades the BC board to install him as the new boss by performing a magic trick in which he turns a $100 bill into 100 pennies. “You’ve only lost them $99 so far,” Michael sighs when GOB tells him the news. Actually, according to the narrator, GOB’s office-smashing (and other GOBly decisions) have already cost the company $45,000, and that’s just during his first three hours in charge. If you want a near-perfect distillation of what Arrested Development is, I’d pick GOB swaggering around a office dotted with holes. Every time his game changes, GOB only sees the immediate problem, and demands a little smasheroo.
Another indicator of what AD is? The way GOB’s office looks in the next episode: The pool table’s still there, but now there’s spackle on the wall covering the holes from the previous episode. There are serialized dramas less committed to continuity than Arrested Development. Very little gets dropped between episodes with this show—particularly in this second season, which ramps up the callbacks, running jokes, and foreshadowing. “The One Where Michael Leaves” isn’t just a reintroduction of the show’s world, it’s a reintro of the style: The quick flashbacks (not just GOB’s “100 pennies” presentation, but also a montage of all the times that Michael has said, “I’m out of here!” to his parents and siblings); the use of mixed media (here exemplified by the the traffic-light photos of George Sr. escaping from the hospital in the family’s staircar); the doubling-back on scenes to show them from a different perspective (as when Lindsay meets James on the Model Home staircase while Tobias is heading to the kitchen, calling for a “family meeting” with their daughter Maeby); the smash-cut gags (like when Michael goads George-Michael into sitting on his lap while he drives, and the scene immediately jumps to them being pulled over by the cops); and the absurd, possibly improvised physical comedy.
My favorite examples of the latter involve Tobias, who writhes around and falls off the bed while he’s discussing his relationship with Lindsay, then later tries and fails to throw a peanut into his mouth while he’s talking to Michael. What makes the peanut scene even funnier is that Tobias is covered in blue paint at the time. What makes it funnier still is that the paint job is patchy. Even funnier? Tobias tells Michael, “I just blue myself.” Funniest of all? In the background of the scene—in this episode and for many episodes to come—there are splotches of blue paint on the wall.
“The One Where They Build A House” (season 2, episode 2; originally aired 11/14/2004)
It takes some moxie to attempt to recreate one of Buster Keaton’s most famous gags, as Arrested Development does in “The One Where They Build A House,” which climaxes with the Bluths’ new model home collapsing at its ribbon-cutting ceremony, and Buster (not Keaton, but Bluth) standing directly under a falling façade, surviving because he’s standing in line with a big window. But then this episode is big on bold slapstick moves. For example, throughout “The One Where They Build A House,” GOB and Michael resolve differences by playing Rock Paper Scissors, and at the end of the episode, Michael grabs a fake boulder to smash GOB’s oversized ribbon-cutters. (This whole event, the narrator laments, gets “covered by the paper.”) The key to good farce is to set up the silliest bits early, so that when they’re sprung, they’re both delightfully surprising and weirdly logical.
Beyond the ever-more-intricate layers of self-reference in Arrested Development’s second season, this year is marked by more pointed political commentary. The whole model-home fiasco—set in motion when GOB throws pennies at the BC board again and boasts that he can slap together a house quicker than Michael has promised—becomes a slap at then-President George W. Bush when GOB is lowered onto the construction site in a hardhat, in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner. GOB also gives a Howard Dean-like “yaaaah!” shout a couple of times while he’s talking up this project. Meanwhile, the family is dealing with press inquiries into the revelation that George Sr. (now hiding in Mexico with his mistress, Kitty) did business with Saddam Hussein. And in the previous episode, Lucille impulsively enlisted Buster in the Army when she was accosted by a Michael Moore-like documentary filmmaker, which in this episode leads to Buster getting cleared by Army doctors, even though he’s clearly unfit for service. That’s why Buster stands under the house in the first place: He’s looking to get injured, so he can get out of the military.
I don’t want to say that Arrested Development was equally critical of Republicans and Democrats back in November of 2004, because it’s primarily satirizing the can-do, damn-the-“experts” attitude of the Bush administration. This was an election year after all, and frustration on the left was at a peak, especially with an unexciting candidate on the Democratic presidential ticket. I’ll talk more about this next week—the mood of the times, and popular culture’s otherwise puny reaction to it—but for now, I just want to note that when this episode originally aired, I remember being stunned by how ballsy Hurwitz and company were being with their critique of the political hubris of the mid-’00s. And it’s important to note that the show doesn’t exempt Democrats from the skewer, even if it’s more eagerly going after President Bush.
Much like “The One Where Michael Leaves,” “The One Where They Build A House” lags a bit on the Lindsay front. While she covets a new diamond-dust cream—“I can actually smear diamonds on my face! A million [bleep]ing diamonds!”—she also pursues another romantic relationship, with movie star Thomas Jane, whom she believes to be homeless. (He’s actually researching a role in two movies: One a wacky family comedy called Homeless Dad, the other an edgy addiction drama called Junk, “from the director of Dangerous Cousins.”) Again, the best part of the Lindsay storyline is Tobias, who uses his blue-painted body to help him stalk his wife on her outings with Jane, camouflaging himself against tarps and trucks and vodka ads.
And again, GOB emerges as the ace of the episode. He gets suckered into buying a boat called The Seaward from sexy boat-show model Starla (played by Mo Collins), who confuses him with her talk about “firm offers.” Later, GOB hires Starla after he hears Michael talk about how the Bluth Company needs “a business model”—and later he admits, “I [bleep]ed the business model,” though the narrator claims he’s exaggerating—and GOB picks “Solid As A Rock” as the new BC slogan, not considering how that might make people think of Iraq.
Like I said, I’ll get more into what Arrested Development has to say about leadership legacies and decisions made in the heat of the moment next week, but let me take a moment here at the end to marvel at some of the subtle ways these two episodes express what will become the dominant themes of this season. The title of these two—“The One Where Michael Leaves” and “The One Where They Build A House”—describe events that aren’t properly completed, illustrating the Bluths’ half-assedness. Both episodes end with Tobias in the hospital (in the second episode because he smeared diamond dust cream all over his body), showing how these people fall into the same patterns of behavior. In the first episode, Tobias explains why open marriages don’t work, then jumps right into one; in the second, Michael tells GOB he won’t make important decisions via Rock Paper Scissors, but can’t stop himself from throwing up a (losing) rock every time GOB starts the game. And there’s a great match-cut after a montage of George Sr.’s ribbon-cutting ceremonies over the years, which ends with the present-day Michael in the same pose as his dad in the preceding photograph.
That’s our Michael: Making bold proclamations about who he is, and then acting like a Bluth anyway. He spends the entirety of “The One Where They Build A House” seething over the mistakes that everyone else is making, and yet his mantra throughout the episode—quoted in the newspaper in fact—is, “I have no problem with that.”
- These two episodes (and only these two) borrow the titling construction of Friends, which had gone off the air six months earlier. Now, I like Friends (or at least I did a decade ago; I haven’t watched it in years), but doesn’t it seem like the era when Friends was on TV and the era of Arrested Development were further apart? If you’d told me yesterday that Friends’ last season aired at the same time as Arrested Development’s first, I probably would’ve assumed you were confuzzled.
- Sometimes the pieces of foreshadowing and self-reference in Arrested Development get a little bizarre, as when Michael makes up the name “Dr. Blumen” when he’s calling home to see if anyone knows he’s gone. (That said, I love how Michael later gets righteously indignant after he returns home and asks if anyone called for him… y’know, about his health!?)
- Not foreshadowing, but the introduction of a good running joke: When Michael tries to tell his mom that she’s leaving, she runs her blender so loudly that he has to hold up.
- One of my favorite unheralded season-one lines is when Michael cuts George-Michael off with a curt “doesn’t matter who” in the middle of their “Mr. Manager” back-and-forth. He does that again here, saying, “doesn’t matter what” when they can’t agree on whether George-Michael should’ve told the family about Phoenix or not.
- How many different answers has Michael given George-Michael to the “You know what we say about family?” question over the past year? The poor kid is so mixed up that when his dad asks him that question this week, he repeats something Michael said earlier about Aunt Lindsay’s nose job. When Michael says that “we don’t need them” is the actual answer, George-Michael mutters, “Yeah, okay… the new one.”
- Another note about the nose: Michael excludes Lindsay from his comment that the Bluths are “a bunch of greedy, selfish people who share our nose,” and then reveals to George-Michael the truth about his aunt’s rhinoplasty. But as we’ll later find out, there’s another reason why Lindsay is different from the rest of the family.
- Just so you know, Lucille has a rape horn. (Though who would want to “r” her, Buster wants to know?) In the second episode, when Lucille is photographed on the beach embracing Oscar in the surf, she shrugs off the moment of passion, saying, “I didn’t have my horn.”
- I like the idea of a kegel-exercise video called EZ Keglin, and I love the idea that it’s hosted by a woman named Joyce Keglin, but the scene where Tobias is watching the video and (apparently) doing the exercises comes off as a little too weird to me. I don’t have any major problem with the “Tobias is a gay man in denial” jokes on this show, but I am a little put off by the show’s conflation of “sexually attracted to men” and “behaves like a woman.” It helps that Tobias is just generally an odd duck, but I find the show’s understanding of “gay” to be a little muddled and stereotypical at times.
- According to the local news, there have been a lot of seal attacks lately. Just FYI.
- The same literal-minded doctor—Dr. Fishman—who confused the Bluths in the season-one finale by talking about how he’d “lost” George Sr., confuses then further by saying in the season-two première that Tobias “looks like he’s dead,” which he further explains to mean, “He’s got blue paint on him or something. But he’s gonna be fine.” (A furious Lucille shouts, “We want this comped!”)
- Welcome at last to the real Ann (played by Mae Whitman now instead of Alessandra Torresani)! She’s only referenced in the first episode—when Maeby calls her “Bland,” and notes that under her school picture it says “not pictured”—but she makes a full-blown appearance in the second episode, eating a “mayon-egg,” which prompts Michael to call her “Egg.” (Michael then compounds this by saying he’s not sure George-Michael should buy his girlfriend the diamond dust cream, to “get her all glittered up for Easter.”)
- Apparently, the Bluth family and their immediate circle just really sucks at Spanish. When Kitty wonders if her craving for eggs—eggs again!—has something to with her ticking biological clock, she mentions to George Sr. that they’re “out of prophylacticos.” And when George Sr. is being arrested in Mexico, he insists that they really want his “brothero.”
- Buster has genitalia that looks like a lobster tail, but without its shell. And he refers to his testicles as his “Charlie Browns.” I’m trying to not to picture any of that.
- My favorite little recurring visual gag in “The One Where They Build A House” involves all the places where GOB stashes drinks around his office. (In the pockets of the pool table, for example.)
- Two funny little Thomas Jane-related items in “The One Where They Build A House:” I love that Les Cousins Dangereaux is re-named on the American poster for the director’s next film; and I love the way that Lindsay in the background of one scene wonders whether her homeless boyfriend has an apartment.
- A lot of big, slapsticky moments in these episodes, but is any of them as funny as GOB’s inability to work the office phone? (So you press “star” and “2” at the same time, or… )
- Double entendre of the week: When Michael tells GOB to “get rid of the Seaward,” a passing Lucille snaps, “I’ll leave when I’m good and ready!”
- The best “on the next” in these two episodes: Dr. Fishman strikes again when he tells Lindsay, “You look really hot,” meaning that she has a fever of 104.
- Next week: “¡Amigos!” and “Good Grief.”