Judy Greer (left), Will Arnett
Photo: Saeed Adyani (Netflix)

Now that’s more like it.

After “Sinking Feelings” made tying up loose ends its main priority, “Emotional Baggage” re-centers Arrested Development on the most important thing: breakfast family. The “welcome home” party for Buster that actually welcomes Barry home doubles as a chance for the Bluths to circle their wagons and plot their next moves, and the episode that follows feels more crisp and energized because of that focus on the family. A new Bizarro Bluth brood is introduced in the form of Rebel’s parents and siblings, and while GOB’s finding that he no longer shares that magical connection with Tony Wonder, the show considers some other male bonds that were never that strong to begin with.

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The Bluths have a new common enemy in District Attorney Lottie Dottie, a.k.a. Lottie Dottie DA (played in a campaign lawn sign—which she’s really sorry about—by Frances Conroy), who’s up for re-election and likely to prosecute Buster with extreme prejudice. Lucille is concerned about keeping a lid on the latest family scandals, so she dispatches Michael and GOB to Imagine and commands Tobias and Murph to find Lindsay—character pairings that only promise to deepen the Bluths’ woes. You’d think by now that she’d know better than to trust her children with such important tasks, but Lucille’s never been the most attentive parent.

Nobody in this family is. In his relationship with Murph (full name, as revealed in “Sinking Feelings”: Murphy Brown), Tobias is proving himself a true Bluth by pushing the boy not toward the path Murph would choose, but by bulldozing every mention of veterinary medicine in favor of the actor’s life. It’s a special type of Arrested Development bad dad-ing, combining Tobias’ world-revolves-around-showbiz nearsightedness and Michael’s deafness to the wants and needs of his son. Murph, who somehow has less spine than George Michael, just goes along with it—maybe he’s just happy to spend time with his real father? (So he has a lot in common with Lindsay—and absolutely nothing in common with Lindsay.) We’ve seen very little of Murph up until this point, but it’s a role suited to one of Kyle Mooney’s comedic specialties: Mumbly doofuses ground underfoot by the rest of the world. He brings a sweetness out of the character whenever the vet stuff comes up—more vulnerabilities that the Bluths will be tempted to take advantage of.

While Tobias is off doing that, Maeby’s relationship with Stan goes from creepy to less creepy to full-on creepy again thanks to all the fatherly affection and attention the Sitwell patriarch pays Annette—the kind Maeby never got from her own father. It’s either one or the other from the bad Bluth dads, or neither: When George Sr. goes to visit Buster in prison, it’s under the pretense of showing his youngest son the ropes, but the sequence of events eventually turns to self-preservation, all the way down to calling his own “no touching”s. Michael, meanwhile, cares so deeply for George Michael that he’ll lie about his feelings for Rebel out of concern for his son—but if he were more alert, he might be able to pick up on the fact that George Michael is lying right back to him. And they’re each worried about those lies being found out.

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I’m starting to struggle to make sense of those lies and the motivations behind them, probably because I’ve been numbed by all the scenes where Jason Bateman and Michael Cera square off and babble at one another about nothing. I’m much more interested in what the lies are making George Michael do, the George Maharis charade that continues even though he wishes it wouldn’t. It’s a confusion and an anguish that Cera plays well, and the show keeps finding inventive ways to get him there. Or maybe Maeby’s just fucking with him: The Mr. Brash idea backfired in “Sinking Feelings,” and in this episode, her idea for making a bad impression on Rebel’s folks also washes out.

“Emotional Baggage” presents the Howards as the things that the Bluths are not: Happy, accommodating, laughing even when things get uncomfortable. It’s a dynamic that mystifies George Michael and defuses his not-all-that-formidable-anyway strategy of breaking it off with Rebel by offending her parents and siblings. Like the Sitwells or the Veals, the Howards are a comedic study in contrasts for Arrested Development, their age- (and Ron-) appropriate bounce house and self-catered barbecue (quoth Ron’s apron: “Howard you like your burger?”) held after an exclusive Bluth party where the food is specifically tailored to one family member who’s far too old for a giant candy bear carving table. His hair inadvertently dyed a pale imitation of Ron and company’s, the episode casts George Michael between these poles of Arrested Development family relations: Too considerate to be a Bluth, too conniving to be a Howard.

Some nasty words from Bryce Dallas Howard (as herself) about her half-sister demonstrate that there’s no such thing as a perfect family, but still, nothing George Michael witnesses around that kitchen island is anything he’d recognize from his own life. (Maybe Rance dictating shot choices to his son via chair squeaks would seem familiar.) Even Rebel’s legal woes are nothing compared to a banner that’s been repurposed for the prison release of four separate family members. Bluth family dysfunction is on full display in “Emotional Baggage”: Children’s names fashioned into slang for fucking up; Maeby chasing another kiss from George Michael; a sham of a marriage whose latest improprieties are sending George Sr. running toward the open arms of the penal system. The final word on the topic belongs to that pregnant pause between Michael and GOB on the drive over to Imagine, when they realize the only mother figure they’ve ever had in their lives is… their mother. And what a tragedy that is.

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But it’s a tragedy that pays. Just as Maeby discovered that misdeeds and faux pas only improved Lindsay’s congressional chances, the sins of the Bluth family are an asset in this 2018 version of 2015. True-crime is no longer the stuff of chintzy Scandalmakers episodes—it’s the kind of thing an Academy Award winner like Ron Howard is interested in making into a multi-part documentary event, and he’s got the readymade paperwork to prove it. Being bad at being a family has never worked better for the Bluths, and that goes for unscripted content on Netflix as well as the scripteds.


Stray observations

  • GOB has always been my favorite Bluth, so it pains me to say that he just isn’t doing it for me this season. He’s either stuck on Tony Wonder and pretending like he’s not stuck on Tony Wonder, and that’s leaving the character looking a little, well, stuck. (And with the exception of “same,” I’ve never been as amused at the prospect of a GOB-Tony pairing as Arrested Development seems to be.) So the LM sequence in “Emotional Baggage” is greatly appreciated, if not for the weird chemistry Arnett and Judy Greer share, then for the break-up call from Tony (still, hilariously, zipped up in a suitcase) that gives GOB a little kick in the pants. I’ve looked ahead at the synopses for the next two episodes, so I know he’s not suddenly over Tony, but I am grateful to “Emotional Baggage” for advancing the story, giving Arnett and Ben Stiller one last chance to speak in unison, and putting some poignancy into a phone call where one end of the conversation is represented onscreen by a piece of carry-on luggage.
  • If you’re looking for evidence of Solo messing with the production of Arrested Development, then you’ve probably found it in Ron Howard’s green-screen conversation with Michael.
  • Callbacks in “Emotional Baggage” include: GOB reacting violently to mentions of his parents’ sex life; Maeby insisting she and George Michael should kiss again to “teach them a lesson;” GOB’s cellphone ringer, which is still “Getaway” by Mark Cherry.
  • GOB takes a wild stab at what Lucille means when she says that Rusty tickles her fancy: “Mom really has him fancy whipped.”
  • Maeby and George Michael have a lot of balls in the air at the moment: “My fake identity is none of your fake identity’s business.”

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