The Bluth family is not renowned for its strong memories. Even when they’re not intentionally trying to scrub something from their brain pans, they’re blanking on the name of their kid’s girlfriend or forgetting (multiple times) a surprise party for their mother. It’s a function of their shared narcissism, the inability to think about anyone but themselves for two seconds that is one of the hallmarks of the series. In Lucille’s defense, the drinking probably doesn’t help; in Michael’s, he’s been the recent victim of a forget-me-now, so it’s little wonder that, in “Self-Deportation,” he can’t recall how or why he was traumatized into always leaving a note.
Arrested Development, on the other hand, is built on total recall. The list of callbacks from throughout the series’ run is vast and intricate, with even the most throwaway lines and gestures eventually mutating into beloved running gags. It’s one of the reasons the show remains so eminently rewatchable: The joy of going back to the very beginning and noticing, say, all the moments Buster’s life-altering injury is foreshadowed in off-hand remarks and seal allusions. It’s also something that made the fourth season’s Rashomon-style format so intriguing, setting up a conflict between the Bluths’ myopia and the series’ omniscience greater than any single contradictory line from the narrator.
And it’s for that reason that it’s more than a little disappointing to see, two episodes in, the fifth season work so hard to wave away certain chunks of the fourth. It’s not exactly retconning, but it does smack of Mitch Hurwitz and company scrambling to cover up some less-than-compelling threads on the way to dealing with the “fateful consequences” of the remix. Surely, in later episodes, we’ll learn about what transpired in Mexico between Michael’s Search indoctrination and his return to the penthouse, but for now, “Self-Deportation” is a last little bit of throat clearing before The Narrator can start telling the next chapter in the story of the wealthy family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice but to keep them together—even though he just spent a few weeks teaching a class about how to defend himself from those people.
It’s both a bit of a cop-out and a bit of a relief. Even if it weren’t an unfortunate reminder of Jeffrey Tambor’s alleged behavior on the sets of Transparent and Never Again, I wasn’t looking forward to multiple episodes of the Georges Bluth’s sexual walkabout, a well of over-compensation that’s already getting dry by the time they mistake a bush and a trashbag for comely hitchhikers. Even in its better sequences—Lucille and Tobias’ therapy session, Buster creeping Michael out with the melted giant hand (it’s literally one of two things the Army warned him about when it gave him a hand—and we see the other thing later in the episode)—“Self-Deportation” feels like it’s driving toward narrative dead ends, before taking an abrupt left turn into the big group greeting at the end of the episode. It’s brief, but it’s brimming with clear-cut situations with the promise of comedy: What’s brought everyone back together? Why were they in Lucille II’s penthouse? Who’s the woman in the neck brace? Is Tobias wearing a Michael costume? Is that a sign for Skip Church’s Bistro in the background, and have the tables been properly galvanized to protect against the weight of the Skip’s Scramble?
I’m going to die on the hill of season-four apologia, but I will make this concession: Arrested Development needs more ensemble moments like the one at the end of “Self-Deportation.” The ensemble gives the show strength and stability, and to see all those characters gathered in one place is worthy of Lucille’s Gene Parmesan surprise squeal. I hesitate to dwell on a scene that’s so short, and takes so long to get to, but given the way “Self-Deportation” rushes through everything else, it’s the scene that matters the most.
Without it, what we’re looking at is a loose and busy collection of Bluths moving toward the same destination, but never quite arriving. They’re all running away from something, but if they’d learned anything from the last decade of their lives, they’d know that even a Milford man can’t hide from his problems forever. In “Self-Deportation,” Arrested Development starts looking for a new start that acknowledges ANUSTART but maybe lets some of the stuff that happened around that joke slide. Maeby muses aloud about fresh looks and new directions, George Michael plants his flag in a foreign land that isn’t too far from his native one (in multiple respects), and the state of Lucille II’s place suggests a fresh Bluth scheme is underway.
And there’s still the matter of that apartment’s owner, unseen on screen and represented only in phone calls (which, the second time around, sound a lot like a robocall) and the letter that forgives Michael’s $700,000 debt. At first glance, the letter is another easy resolution to a thread that had grown too knotty for its own good, but look a little bit closer and there’s still some wit to it. The letter at first refers to the “Bluth-Austero Company,” before Lucille II works in a subliminal dig with a quick “Austero-Bluth Company.” And then there’s the text of the final paragraph, which references the history of debts, insults, personal slights, sexual advances, larceny, and tender something (a few words are hidden by Jason Bateman’s shoulder) between the Bluths and the Austeros. It’s so easy to forget for Michael and his family, but Arrested Development rarely does, unless forgetting will help it move in the “positive direction” alluded to in the debt-forgiveness letter. Considering the wheel-spinning in the first two episodes, and the potential in the final scene of “Self-Deportation,” I hope that’s some foreshadowing that comes to fruition.
- Arrested Development makes its entry into the realm of Donald Trump commentary when Lucille is on the verge of a genuine breakthrough, only to find another horny real-estate developer taking credit for one of her ideas. Though she has to admit: Asking Mexico to foot the bill is “a clever twist.”
- Anyone else getting an “Emil in the toxic waste at the end of Robocop” vibe from Buster’s melted hand?
- A highlight from the premiere that I forgot to point out: Maeby and George Michael going over their gangy’s colorful sayings, like “A friend in need is no friend indeed,” “Forget, but never forgive,” and “They should take the rapists and murderers and put them all together on an island and the murderers can be raped, the rapists can be murdered, until you only have either two rapists or one raped murderer [or “two rapists”—George Michael has heard it both ways], but who cares about him?” In “Self-Deportation,” Lucille and Tobias are working through that third bit of wisdom, before Lucille puts her signature touch on an old therapy aphorism: In her hands, “Hurt people hurt people” becomes the instructive “Hurt people, hurt people,” an improvement on her own “Make people cry, make people cry.”
- Belated congratulations to Buster Bluth, winner of the Milford Academy’s 1982 Least Seen On Campus honors.
- They’re putting out an APB for the youngest Bluth: “Aww, Poor Buster. That’s nice.”
- Michael’s grocery bags are full of bananas.
- A new Mr. F. has taken the sweat-and-squeeze compound as their own.
- Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera have matured into quite the capable double act: “You worry too much.” “Yeah, that keeps me up at night, actually.”