“My Mother, The Car” (season 1, episode 7; original airdate 12/21/03)
“My Mother, The Car” is something of an oddity for Arrested Development: it’s a very small episode, concerned almost exclusively with the Bluth family dynamics and not so much with how any of this affects their adventures in the world at large. The episode is funny enough (though not as funny as “In God We Trust,” the all-timer that’s coming up next), but a little inconsequential in the grand scheme of the series. It’s even light on new additions to the mythology, outside one key piece of Lindsay’s wardrobe and the introduction of George-Michael’s new favorite movie: Les Cousins Dangereux.
Half of the title “My Mother, The Car” refers to Lucille Bluth and her messed-up relationship with her kids. The episode begins with Michael nixing her plans to throw a lavish birthday party for herself on the family yacht, which is about to be sold. (“You’re my third least favorite child!” Lucille says, to which Michael replies, “I can live with that.”) So Lucille changes course and gets Lindsay to suggest a surprise party to Michael. But when Michael drives his mother to the restaurant where the party is supposed to be taking place, none of the other kids or grandkids have shown up. Michael berates them all back home—where they’re actually watching the old sitcom My Mother, The Car, while lying flat on their backs, as people tend to do at the Model Home—and asks that they come to a second surprise party for Lucille, begging them, “Do it for me.” They all say they will. Of course, they don’t.
The second half of the title refers to Lucille’s horrible driving. (“Mom, you’ve already got two strikes on your record,” Michael reminds her. “You strike one more person and it’s technically a spree.”) She’s even been featured on the Fox show World’s Worst Drivers, with a laugh track, a wacky soundtrack, and the flashing word “Moron!” over footage of her terrible parking job. Nevertheless, Michael lets Lucille drive the family car back from the second failed surprise party, to make her feel better. Then she promptly runs into a guy on a Segway that she wrongly assumes to be GOB. And since Michael is woozy and disoriented from being clocked on the back of the head by one of Buster’s archeological artifacts, she tells the police that Michael was driving.
The rest of the episode has to do with the kids gradually piecing together the clues, Scooby Doo-style, and realizing that their mom was responsible for the accident. When they lay the evidence in front of her and insist that she stop manipulating them, she waits a beat and then fake-sobs, “I’m a horrible mother!” The kids too wait a beat and then hug her apologetically, lying, “No, no….”
Like I said: funny enough. But missing just a touch of zest, or a crazy twist to make the plot more Arrested Development-y. Similarly, the subplot involving Lindsay visiting her dad in prison and trying to elicit wolf-whistles from the inmates—by wearing her SLUT shirt, which will reappear later in the series—comes off a little soft, as Lindsay learns that the only reason the men aren’t leering at her is because George Sr. paid a fortune in krugerrands to keep them quiet. I’ll grant that this a more plausible diminishment of Lindsay than the usual Arrested Development assertion that she’s just unappealing to men, but it does seem off-model.
That said, I did like Lindsay reaching out for her dad, saying, “All I ever wanted was for you to spend money on me.” (Cue the guards: “No touching!”) And I liked George Sr. explaining that he’s had Lucille sneaking in gold bars in energy bar wrappers in order to “keep me from getting strangled in the shower, or worse.” “Stabbed?” Lindsay asked. “In a way,” George Sr. mumbles.
Right from the start, Arrested Development got in trouble with various “won’t someone think of the children?” watchdog organizations, because of all the incest jokes—Les Cousins Dangereux!—and the frequently filthy double-entendres. But I actually don’t think that the show gets enough credit for the quality of its dirty jokes. I watch a lot of sitcoms, and smut has become such a crutch for modern-day writers’ rooms that I’m rarely shocked or delighted by casual prime time references to forcible sodomy. Arrested Development on the other hand is funny on so many levels—puns, farce, running gags, more—that its writers’ attempts at raunch tend to be virtuoso. There are a couple of great moments in “My Mother, The Car” involving GOB turning the family yacht into his personal pleasure boat. In one, an elderly couple comes to look at the yacht, and GOB greets them with an escort ad in his hand, saying, “Well, they got the Asian right. ‘Hotties’ might be a stretch. Let’s start with the little one.” Later, when George-Michael comes by the boat to ask GOB for a favor, we hear an offscreen splash, see GOB toss a life-preserver overboard, and then a few seconds later see a woman in wet lingerie climb onto the dock and walk across the frame. Now that’s some well-choreographed comedy, folks.
In fact, GOB’s kind of the MVP of “My Mother, The Car.” (Or Will Arnett is, I should say.) He makes plans to take the yacht to South America, and when he accidentally blurts out the scheme to Michael, his brother asks him if he was going to South America and GOB deadpans, “I don’t think so.” And while he’s on the phone with Michael, the boat-horn honks and GOB mutters, “I think that was on your end.” Though this isn’t one of the best episodes of Arrested Development, it does continue the evolution of GOB as one of the greatest sitcom characters of all time. Here’s this vain, selfish bumbler with a flair for the dramatic that extends to a deep feeling of hurt over real and perceived slights; and yet he can be surprisingly loyal too, as when he stands with Michael against their mother and declares, “We’re brothers! And we kinda like each other!”
“In God We Trust” (season 1, episode 8; original airdate 12/14/03)
I love lawyer gags. One of my favorite episodes of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia has Charlie acting as an attorney, interjecting, “Objection!” and “I’ll allow it!” And two of my favorite Arrested Development characters are Barry Zuckerkorn (played by Henry Winkler) and Wayne Jarvis (played by John Michael Higgins), two attorneys with very different approaches to their jobs. According to nearly everyone but Michael, Barry is “very good,” though they’re mainly saying that because “He’s Very Good” is Barry Zuckerkorn’s slogan. In truth, Barry is a terrible person and a terrible lawyer. He’s incompetent and impolitic; he lies, cheats and steals. When Barry calls the Bluth family together for a conference, he spends the first 25 minutes on the phone, says, “I’m going to round it up to an hour,” then clandestinely pops a Danish into his briefcase and says he has to go. When he tells the Bluths that he’s going to get George Sr. out on a bond for an afternoon so that he can play God in a living recreation of Michelangelo’s The Creation Of Adam—a family holiday tradition—he jokes that, “If you wanna play Eve, you gotta get in line behind like five homos,” then apologizes, saying, “I have one down at the office, and I mean, it is like every day….”
Wayne Jarvis, meanwhile, is a consummate professional. He once sued Barry for calling someone a “homo”—in fact it was Barry’s secretary, James Alan Spangler (played by Sam Pancake, who kind of has an Arrested Development name)—and he values his clients’ time so much that he refuses to engage in small talk. When Lindsay and Michael ask him for advice on a legal way to humiliate their mother, he walks out of the room in disgust. When Michael later lures Lucille into a meeting with Wayne by saying there’s a big bowl of candy in his office, Wayne pipes up off-screen: “I have a responsibility to tell you that there’s no candy in this office.” Wayne’s always willing to duck behind a couch or a garbage car if his clients don’t want him to be seen—“What a pro,” Michael sighs—and when he takes Lucille on a date and her kids asks what she’s doing with him, he’ll make sure she knows that legally, she doesn’t have to answer that. Lawyer gags… I’m tellin’ ya. Comedy gold. I don’t know what it is. Maybe it’s the self-seriousness of legal dramas, which shades so easily into parody without even changing any of the dialogue.
When I say that “My Mother, The Car” felt “small,” it’s mainly in contrast to “In God We Trust,” which is a more ambitious episode in nearly every way. It features more characters, more locations and more plot, anchored to a weird premise—that “Living Classics” pageant—that keeps paying comic dividends in unexpected ways. For example, when Buster says he no longer wants to play Adam in the recreation of the Michelangelo painting, Tobias tries to step in, but is blocked by George-Michael, who likes the way the Adam bodysuit makes him look muscular in front of Maeby. (“Kickin’ bod,” she says.) What George-Michael doesn’t realize until it’s almost too late is that the Adam suit also has a frontspiece: a tiny, peanut-shaped piece of foam genitalia. So when George-Michael appears in the painting, he covers his shame with cutoff jeans, just like the “never-nude” Tobias’. And when the crowd boos, Tobias stands up in the crowd, raises his corn-dog high, and declares, “There are dozens of us! Dozens!” (Of course the crowd is also booing because George Sr., who’s supposed to be playing God in the painting, isn’t there when the curtain opens. “Where is God?” one person asks. “There is no God!” another shouts.)
Really there’s so much going on in “In God We Trust” that it’s impossible to track it all. As mentioned, this is the episode where Lindsay tells Michael that her husband has a psychological condition that prevents him from ever being completely naked. (Hence the cutoffs.) It’s also the episode where Michael confesses to Lindsay that he’s in love with Marta. (“Mom’s housekeeper?” a clueless Lindsay asks.) For all the pageant and legal business, a lot of the episode consists of people trying to get Michael drunk, because he’s more amenable to suggestions when he’s drunk. Whatever the motivation, it’s kind of touching to see Michael and Lindsay bonding and sharing secrets, even when it turns out that behind the scenes, Lucille is working to sow seeds of dissension between them, by telling Lindsay that Michael had called her “a stay-in-bed Mom.” (When Michael hears about this from Lindsay, he points out that this doesn’t sound like something he’d say. “That sounds like mom… or Bruce Vilanch.” Nevertheless, it’s kind of true; later, Lindsay tries to get over her annoyance with Michael by meditation, and she ends up taking a two-hour “angry nap.”)
There’ll be more about the multi-faceted brilliance of “In God We Trust” in the Stray Observations, because I want to get back to the Barry Zuckerkorn, who puts an apt cap on the episode. “In God We Trust” ends with George Sr. trying to escape, and getting thrown back in prison, where he asks Michael to call Barry to help. Barry then informs them that despite his promises, the family is going to lose the bond they put up for George Sr. (“I was way off about that,” he apologizes.) The good news though is that because he’s such a friend to the family, he’s willing to work for them even on a holiday. “It’s like any other day,” he insists. “Except I charge double.”
- Both these episodes advance the romance between Buster and Lucille Austero, which heats up when he accidentally barges into her apartment, tugging at his sweater-zipper and moaning, “I need you right now!” Later, he tries to sneak out of his mother’s apartment without her seeing, and she tries to catch him, in what amounts to a scaled-down, old-school “door gag” routine. (Also, I know I’ve mentioned this before, but Liza Minnelli is really on-point as Lucille 2. I love her gushing to Buster, “I’m foolish and I’m funny and I’m needy. Am I needy?”)
- These episodes also advance the story of Michael’s crush on GOB’s girlfriend Marta. At one point he even tries to stalk her, but it’s hard to hide from anyone when you’re driving The Staircar.
- GOB apparently has a side business making fake IDs. He makes a driver’s license for his mother, though he fades and airbrushes her picture so much that he has to check “albino” on the application form. And he agrees to make a passport for George-Michael so he can see Les Cousins Dangereux with Maeby. (George-Michael asks for the passport to be French, saying, “I like the way they think.”)
- The mock-doc roots of Arrested Development manifest during Lucille’s car accident, when the camera flips over and goes all static-y.
- While Buster’s at Lucille 2’s apartment, he sees his mother on the balcony next door, freaks out, and runs through a sliding glass door. When he tells this story to Michael, Michael shrugs, “Well, women love to laugh.”
- Both Lucille and Lucille 2 make use of the services of Dr. Miller, who treats every injury with the application of gauze. (Dr. Miller, by the way, is played by Mark Blankfield, who was groomed to become a big comedy star in the ‘80s but never really broke through.)
- More Will Arnett goodness in “My Mother, The Car,” as GOB decides not to swipe the yacht and tells his crew, “Turn this skiff around!” When a crewman notes, “We haven’t even left the dock,” GOB quietly asks, “But ‘skiff’ is appropriate, right?”
- “In God We Trust” takes place over Christmas, but Lucille’s housekeeper Lupe walks around the apartment in a Halloween sweatshirt.
- Lindsay and Tobias are appalled that Maeby thinks they’re self-involved. Their plan to fix this: Tobias will ask Buster if he can play Adam, and Lindsay will try to get money from mom.
- To woo Marta, Michael tries to learn Spanish from a “Spanish For Businessmen” series, but all he learns are phrases like, “Are you going to the complimentary breakfast?”
- “Well, if it isn’t the boy who lives under the stairs”
- For all his evident homophobia, Barry Zuckerkorn seems disappointed that not everyone is prison is gay. “It’s never the ones you hope,” he sighs to George Sr.
- Wayne Jarvis pledges to get the Bluth name back where it was, though when Michael adds, “Or higher,” Wayne hastily says, “I didn’t say that. Don’t hold me to that.”
- Example of the tightness of “In God We Trust:” When Lucille 2 asks Buster to take her to the pageant so she can “show you off before God,” he whispers, “or Dad” (who of course is playing God in the pageant).
- So many funny dialogue exchanges in “In God We Trust,” some of which don’t even have anything to do with anything in particular. As GOB is leaving Marta’s house, she yells, “Te quiero!” to him, and when he says, “English, please,” and she answers, “I love you,” he complains, “Great, now I’m late.”
- The padded George-Michael does exercises in front of Maeby, counting big numbers. When she says, “100? I had you at ten,” he mumbles, “It’s a running total… I did some earlier in the day.”
- In “In God We Trust,” Maeby tries to get her parents’ attention by pretending to run away to Portugal, which she believes is in South America. This becomes a running gag in the episode, as GOB comes to believe that it’s Michael who’s skipping the country. When he sees Michael running after George Sr., GOB shouts, “If you’re heading for Portugal, it’s due south.”
- No real good “on the next”s this week. “In God We Trust” doesn’t have one at all, and “My Mother, The Car”’s two aren’t that funny.
- Next week: “Storming The Castle” and “Pier Pressure” (a.k.a. the “big yellow joint” episode).