It doesn’t take very long for Arrested Development to answer all of the questions raised by “Self-Deportation.” What’s brought everyone back together? Lindsay’s running for congress, taking over for the indisposed Herbert Love. Why were they in Lucille II’s penthouse? Because they’re making campaign promos, and the Bluths have had a key to the Austero residence ever since the 1992 Los Angeles riots, when the chickens roosting at the top of Balboa Towers convinced themselves civil unrest over the Rodney King verdict might just spill 40 miles down the coast. “They had every right,” newly minted political mama Lucille says, echoed, with decreasing degrees of sincerity, by George Sr. and Lindsay.
Who’s the woman in the neck brace? Why it’s the surgically enhanced host of O.C. Can You Say, Joni Beard (Lauren Weedman), a Beard by marriage who’s now a beard by arrangement for GOB. Is Tobias wearing a Michael costume? Not only that, he’s playing Michael, a desperate attempt to cling to his Bluth status that also counts as a bad Bluth impression (Has anyone in this family ever even seen a Michael?) of the sort Buster was doing a couple of episodes ago. Least pressingly: Yes, it appears Skip Church’s is still catering Bluth family gatherings.
“Everyone Gets Atrophy” feels like season five getting underway over the course of one long afternoon. After all the catch-up, here’s the mustard: A cockamamie scheme involving Lindsay’s congressional bid and an award for family of the
month year. And who in the world would honor these people as such, when all their apparent interest in the public good and one another’s happiness is really just an example of how hard it is to resist taking advantage of the vulnerable? Why, The Bluth-Austero Company, of course—though Lucille assures Michael it’s coming mostly from the Austero side.
It is, as Kyle Ryan put it in his overview of the fifth season, Arrested Development feeling like its old self again: The ensemble chemistry, the heads of the family dipping into the kitty (after the Kitty dips into her own reserves for the punchline to Rebel Alley’s latest on-screen spectacle), George Michael’s reignited feelings for Maeby, Maeby stoking those feelings for some Les Cousins Dangereux shock value. And yet “Everyone Gets Atrophy” prevents itself from going totally Total Regression by bringing these bad Bluth habits into 2018—or at least the early stages of the presidential campaign that made our 2018 reality possible.
Putting Donald Trump into the framework of Arrested Development is, to borrow a phrase that appeared earlier in the season, like shooting pescados en un barril. Ever since the president rode down his own ridiculous set of moving stairs, people have been juxtaposing his grotesqueries with those of the Bluths: Putting Lucille’s words in his mouth, recutting the show’s opening credits to feature the first family. The parallels between someone like Trump, Lucille, and George Sr. aren’t so much parallels as they are a real-ass monster insulated by wealth and privilege holding the opinions and committing the heinous acts of comedic fictional caricatures of the same—right down to the possibility of committing some light treason.
It’s not a whole lot of work is what I’m getting at, which is why I’m pleased to see “Everyone Gets Atrophy” bringing its figures of George W. Bush-era satire into the age of Trump in the way that it does. In 2003, dynasties and white-collar criminals still got away with shit that would’ve landed any of us in jail for the rest of our natural lives, but they didn’t command legions of loyal boosters (and/or emboldened bigots). Back then, John Beard reported the latest Bluth faux pas with a chuckle of schadenfreude; today, he’s flattered to have been objectified by a Bluth. To a mix of Maeby’s delight and dismay, she finds that the terrible sentiments she’s feeding her mother are actually turning her into an icon of fucked-up populism. If she wasn’t wearing that wig to begin with, the experience itself might’ve turned her hair gray: A growing number of ahistorical, anti-intellectual Americans are willing to tumble down the “We forget, but we never forgive” hole with Lindsay and her family.
The show eases into today’s politics, but it’s still a little shaky on contemporary TV conventions. If I have any gripes about the show’s previous Netflix season, they have to do with the rhythm and pacing, and how Arrested Development lost some of its defining pep in the anything-goes, no-commercial-breaks realm of streaming. That was bound to happen when there were fewer characters around to cut away to, but “Everyone Gets Atrophy” suggests that the more leisurely Arrested Development is here to stay. When Michael and George Michael run into each other at the elevator, it goes on forever, Jason Bateman and Michael Cera’s non-confrontational characters saying everything they can but “sorry”—“forget, but never forgive” in practice. It’s a game of tag that just drags, no matter how many Rebel flashbacks and quick cuts between Cera and Bateman are thrown in.
With all the time in the world on its hands, Arrested Development can do as many of these Rake Effect gags as it wants—and it’s done them effectively, like GOB’s stammering proposal to Ann in season four. But this one lets the air out of “Everyone Gets Atrophy” in a way that can only be recovered by a high-flying punctuation joke made possible by Search and Total Regression. (Though, it is a Netflix series, so there had to be a hallway fight in there somewhere.) Just as season five looks like it’s making progress, setting up a supremely weird arc for Maeby and introducing Kyle Mooney as Tobias’ partner in Bluth surrogacy, there’s a hiccup that pulls me out of it. To its credit, “Everyone Gets Atrophy” doesn’t dawdle with the “Who?”, “What?”, “How?”, and “Why?”s left over from “Self-Deportation.” But it could’ve saved some of the energy of its beginning and middle for the ending, too.
- The tedium of “Everyone Gets Atrophy”’s ending rankles because this is otherwise an episode densely packed with laughs—even the Michael-George Michael sequence gets a good one with the whole “We plan, god laughs” thing. Early on, Tony Wonder cramming into Sally Sitwell’s luggage looks like a lock for the episode’s best joke, but the show must get credit for finding a new way to injure Tobias: By having him perch on the arm of a chair that goes tumbling over when the other person on said chair stands up.
- GOB’s Graduate moments have picked up a new theme song: While reciting the lyrics to “The Sound Of Silence” in a moment of contemplation, The Bee Gee’s “I Started A Joke” plays on the soundtrack.
- Did you hear Ron Howard directed a Star War? “I haven’t seen my Darth since I hit him. He asked about Rebel.”
- Fernando, the friendly Wetzel’s Pretzels employee, turns hostile on George Michael and the Noahs due to some harsh words from their fellow Americans, though it’s hard to say if those words are Donald Trump’s or Lucille’s: “I’m sorry. I’m probably grumpy because I was out late last night, raping and murdering.”
- That can’t be Buster on the surveillance tape from Cuatro: “That guy has obviously has a giant rubber hand, and I have a giant melted hand that smells like Bounce.”