As we begin our journey through the abbreviated third season of Arrested Development, we’re going to have to deal early and often with the big question surrounding season three: Does it represent a major decline in quality from the first two seasons of the show? My hypothesis, going in, is that the answer is “no.” Granted, I’ve only watched these episodes once prior to this re-watch, and my memory of my first time through is that they were decidedly weaker—to the extent that I wasn’t as upset by Fox’s cancellation of Arrested Development as I might’ve been had it come at the end of season two. But I also remember finding much of this season funny and clever, and I wasn’t even as bothered by the Charlize Theron guest-arc as some. Again, that’s what I remember. Now let’s compare memory to reality.
“The Cabin Show” (season three, episode one; originally aired 9/19/05)
The key words of Arrested Development’s season three première are “Don’t Buy,” which is what stock market analyst Jim Cramer upgrades The Bluth Company’s stock to, causing Michael, his family, and his employees to get a little giddy about the direction the company is heading. That’s what drives Michael to go visit his father in prison, to gloat over the upgrade, and there the man who looks a lot like George Sr. insists that he’s actually Oscar (“dot com,” he adds… as in the website imoscar.com, which he’s set up to proclaim his innocence). “No, don’t buy it,” Michael says at first, but when the inmate gives Michael his blessing to leave and go spend time with his son, Michael realizes that the man he’s gloating to is, in fact, Oscar.
This sets up the other major motif of “The Cabin Show,” which is child abandonment. Early in the episode, Lucille flashes back to news reports about Susan Smith drowning her children in a lake, which is what she’d like to do to Buster, to stop his snoring. Meanwhile, GOB gets an invitation from an organization called S.A.D., which reunites sons with their absent fathers, and there GOB meets the son he never knew he had, Steve Holt! But since GOB thought he was there to meet with George Sr., he gets confused, and fails to jump into the fatherhood role. (“I wish he could be my dad,” GOB later says of Steve.) Also, Michael keeps flashing back to all the times that George Sr. promised to take him camping in the family’s cabin in Nevada, only to leave him behind so that he could go off with a woman instead. (In the montage of Michael-abandonment over the years, George Sr.’s clothes change, while Michael has the same Grizzly Adams sleeping bag.) And in a looser version of the abandonment motif, Barry’s secretary feels left out when Barry goes off alone to Reno to consult with George Sr., and Barry himself feels abandoned when Michael fires him, leaving Barry to wonder whether he’s going to have to make money turning tricks—or at least kissing strangers for $50 bucks a pop, which is the going rate in Los Angeles.
“The Cabin Show” may provide something of a clue for what we can expect when Arrested Development returns next year. The early word is that creator Mitchell Hurwitz has something different in mind structurally for season four, in which each character is going to get his or her own episode until the entire family is brought together. And while that won’t be like “The Cabin Show” from a storytelling perspective, this episode does fill that same role of bringing fans up to speed on who everybody on the show is and what they’ve been up to since last we saw them. With Oscar serving time in prison for George Sr.’s crimes, the paterfamilias has lit out for Nevada, where he’s stolen Kitty back from Tobias (and taken his son-in-law’s place in the Blue Man Group as well). Everything else is more or less the same as it ever was, except that George-Michael and Maeby are still feeling awkward around each other after the sinking Model Home caused them to fall into each other and kiss in the season two finale. In “The Cabin Show,” they ultimately decide they should follow through on the kissing and see where it leads them, but Michael inadvertently breaks up the romance when he decides to stop abandoning his child and take George-Michael to the cabin (which they discover has already been hitched up to a truck to be hauled away).
So “The Cabin Show” is largely a reintroduction episode, but it’s a funny one, squeezing in classing Arrested Development gags like the slogan “Make The Biggest Little Mistake Of Your Life In Reno,” which later prompts GOB to lament, “I’ve made a huge tiny mistake.” And it’s an episode that clarifies once again who the Bluths are: They’re a family that tramples everything and everybody in their path to get what they want, and then decide they actually don’t want whatever it is once they have it. That’s a trait that Lucille has always ascribed to Lindsay—explaining why she holds on to the affectionless Tobias, whom she doesn’t really even like—but it’s also true of Lucille with her “I’m sick of Buster”/“Come back Buster!” shenanigans, and Michael with his inability to commit to any of his girlfriends, and even George-Michael and Maeby with their push-pull kissin’ cousin relationship. (When Michael tells his son, “I almost had Pop-Pop in Reno” as they drive out of town and away from Maeby, George-Michael sighs, “Me too.”)
That’s how this family ends up celebrating when a TV pundit suggests that people not buy their stock. Yes, it’s an upgrade by their previous status, but it’s also classic Bluths to be thrilled by a negative. Just look at GOB, who gets upset that Michael never got to go to a cabin that GOB didn’t even know existed. He’s sure it was worse to not know about the cabin at all than to know about it and not get to go, but when Michel promises GOB a trip and then scratches it, GOB finds out that it is worse to know. But in the brief time when he’s anticipating a camping trip with his brother, he pulls Michael to his crying face, asking him to “taste the happy.” Which, being a Bluth kind of happy, “tastes kind of like sad.”
“For British Eyes Only” (season three, episode two; originally aired 9/26/05)
And here’s where one of season three’s biggest and most controversial arcs begins, though at the start, it’s not all that problematic. “For British Eyes Only” introduces Charlize Theron as Rita Leeds, a beautiful but not very smart woman whom Michael falls for while he’s conducting family business in an Orange County neighborhood known as “Wee Britain.” The extent of how not-smart Rita is will become a large part of why Arrested Development’s third season is so divisive, but since that’s not revealed in this episode, I’ll table my discussion of it until later. I will say this, though: As a satire of the “quirky girl” romantic comedy type that my pal Nathan Rabin has famously identified as the “manic pixie dream girl,” the conception of Rita is pretty damned ballsy. But is it effective as comedy? I’m looking forward to watching again to see how it plays on repeat.
If nothing else, the Rita storyline gives the Arrested Development writers an excuse to riff on British culture—both as it actually is and in the American perception of it—without having to concoct some kind of phony “the Bluths go to London” storyline. And in “For British Eyes Only” at least, the writers have a ball with this gag, from the way Michael misunderstands what “if you’re willing to lose 20 pounds” means to the way he gets struck in the head by an off-brand Mary Poppins that the neighborhood sends flying down the street at the same time every day. There are also James Bond jokes—the episode’s titles is sung like a Bond theme, repeatedly—dental jokes, BBC jokes, and an additional guest turn by Dave Thomas as Rita’s thuggish uncle. But my favorite Wee Britain-related bit involves Michael having to call one of those crazy-long British phone numbers to reach a place that’s just a couple of miles away. (Second favorite: Michael nervously joking with Rita that he’s not Jack The Ripper, and that when they go out on a date, “I shall drop you off alive, hooker or no!”)
My biggest complaint about “For British Eyes Only” is that is so overstuffed. I mean, even to transition from the events of “The Cabin Show” to the set-up of “For British Eyes Only” requires a rare “previously on Arrested Development,” in which we see that while Michael and George-Michael were at the cabin, George Sr. drove it away, then was stopped by his son, who arranged to have him put under house arrest, where now he’s busy servicing Lucille, sexually. (“Mama horny, Michael,” Lucille whispers.) That’s a lot of plot to pack in to the first couple of minutes.
Meanwhile, GOB attempts to mount a big escape illusion to honor his father being out of prison, but George Sr. commandeers it, hoping to pull a switcheroo that will enable him to escape while someone who looks like him takes the fall. (Still… how did the lookalike get there?) Then GOB begins to realize what it means to feel love for a son—it’s like the opposite of an erection, like his heart is getting hard—and he ditches his father so that he can perform the trick properly for Steve Holt! Helping out with the illusion: Tobias, who first uses permanent marker on his scalp and then what looks like stapled carpet samples in order to to look like GOB. Tobias also wears a chicken mask that makes it look as though he has a scrotum hanging over his lips.
But maybe it just seems like there’s too much going on because so little of it is directly connected to the (currently at least) more interesting Wee Britain storyline. The connections are more abstract, having to do with how Wee Britain presents a loopy version of the UK shaped by popular culture. That kind of limited, America-centric vision of the world leads to a lot of problems for the Bluths, whether it’s George Sr. taking a picture with Sadaam Hussein because he thought it was the Soup Nazi from Seinfeld or the prosecution going after George Sr. with the help of L.A. Law’s Harry Hamlin. George Sr. wants to counter with Andy Griffith, who for $10,000 will read the paper at the defense table and occasionally lean in and pretend to whisper something.
And I can’t emphasize this enough: No one is making fun of Andy Griffith.
- One thing I will say for Arrested Development’s third season: It pushes the dirty jokes to a whole new level. (And this from a show that gave us “put in her brownie” and “get rid of the Seaward.”) In these two episodes we get: Lucille saying, “It’s hard to find someone willing to go into that old musty old claptrap;” Lindsay handing Michael photocopies of something that is definitely not a Volv-o (which is the car that she ultimately decides she doesn’t want because it’s too “boxy”); Michael telling his son that he should “pop a tent in front with your cousin Maeby” (because it’d be “a good chance to rub off on her”); Tobias working at Swallows Family Style Erotic Restaurant, where his boss tells him that “tuna melt’s up, and flip the cushion in the grind room” (which annoys Tobias, because now he’s going to smell like a tuna melt); Lucille and George Sr. using Buster’s prosthetic hand for sex; and Tobias saying of his acting career, “I can just taste those meaty leading-man parts in my mouth.” I confess: Sometimes I think all this a bit much—not because I’m a prude but because I feel like the writers are too preoccupied with thinking up double-entendres to attend to rest of their duties. (But I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t laugh out loud at every single one of those jokes.)
- Michael wonders why his mother seems more villainous than usual and asks if he she’s sober. “Michael, it’s 8 a.m.!” she gasps. “So it’s not that,” he muses.
- Actually, the problem is that Lucille stopped taking her post-partum drugs because she heard “some kind of scientist” on The Today Show warn about them. (That scientist’s name? Tom Cruise.)
- Oscar, at the end of his rant about the hellishness of life in prison, drops this disturbing tidbit: “They cover it with soap, and you’re supposed to thank them, like they’re doing you a favor.”
- Unfortunately for Oscar, “You’ve got the wrong twin!” is something the cops hear every day. (Or in the case of quadruplets, “You’ve got the wrong pair!”)
- Speaking of “wrong twins,” in GOB’s yearbook, we see pictures of Stacy and Tracy Barroga. Tracy’s nickname is “Stacy,” and Stacy’s nickname is “Tracy.” (Also in the yearbook: Eve Holt!)
- Lindsay’s ringtone is the Arrested Development theme song.
- When Lindsay complains that Tobias has run off with “a bleached-blonde whore,” Michael mutters, “Well, he’s got a type.” Then in the episode that follows, Buster talks about how much he loves turtles for their “leathery little snapping faces,” which again prompts Michael to comment that he “has a type.” (Another Bluth who has a type: Maeby, who seems to direct all her romantic attentions to kissing her cousins, from George-Michael to Steve Holt!)
- Lindsay notes that Michael and his wife weren’t even speaking to each other before she died. “A lot of that was the coma,” Michael explains.
- Lindsay doesn’t get to buy a new Volvo (or even a new vulva), but Michael does let her drive the cabin-truck. There’s no satellite radio, but there’s a banjo in the closet. The only Arrested Development line that my wife and I say to each other more than, “You’re gonna have hop-ons” may be, “You will get some live-ins.”
- Michael to his dad: “You’re a regular Brad Garrett.” (Fun fact: Brad Garrett beat Jeffrey Tambor at the Emmys that year.)
- As pointed out in this episode, having a photo taken with Sadaam Hussein certainly didn’t hurt Donald Rumsfeld’s career.
- I can’t express how delightful I find the narrator’s line, “He ate a whole thing of candy beans.”
- Originally, GOB’s illusion was going to protest his father’s incarceration, and he was dubbing it a “protest-acular.” Tobias was very eager to be a part of this “prostate-icular.” (No wonder the maid calls him “Mr. Gay.”)
- GOB wanted to call his illusion “Free Bird” but couldn’t get the rights, so he renames it “Free Chicken,” which brings a crowd expecting something other than a little trick.
- Has anyone in this family ever even seen a chicken?
- The best “on the next” in these two episodes: Barry dresses as Tobias and Tobias dresses as Kitty to make Lindsay jealous, after which Barry whispers to Tobias, “That’ll be $50.”
- Next week: “Forget-Me-Now” and “Notapusy”