Even though this season of Arrested Development is already being split in half, this episode feels like the conclusion of part one of a two-part story, wrapping up several of the season’s biggest storylines so far around the “Family of the Year” awards ceremony. Yet it’s also the season’s most unpleasant episode, with scene after scene of nasty backbiting between characters.
This has never been a show you watch for good-hearted family feelings, but it has run on a certain kind of “live and let live” affection between characters — think of Tobias and Lindsay’s many earnest attempts to keep their shambling marriage together, or Michael’s paternal affection for Buster. The Bluths were originally predicated on the Bushes, who concealed their misbehavior with a mannered WASPiness. But as they’ve transitioned into Trump analogues, their interplay has become increasingly aggressive, crude, and desperate.
Gob’s a dummy, but he’s a showy self-promoter at heart, and he’d never give a speech about his dad that’s so catastrophically off-key and insulting. Though she’s unquestionably the meanest Bluth, Lucille doesn’t normally deliver lines as nakedly contemptuous as, “Lindsay, saying nice things about you is easy — the hard part is not sounding sarcastic.” And since when does optimistic-against-all-odds Tobias leave a scene grumbling that he “feel[s] like a fucking moron”?
This extra salt may be intended to offset the sweetness of Michael and George Michael’s long-awaited burying of the hatchet, which is elegantly conveyed through a few heartfelt scuba-diving signals. But even that brief moment of kindness is quickly interrupted by George Sr.’s underwater suicide attempt, as nakedly depressing a “joke” as has ever occurred in Bluthworld.
I’ll admit that I’m personally not into treating suicide attempts as comedy, regardless of context. But even for someone who is, it’s hard to deny that there’s a certain level of nihilism that’s seeped into the core of the show. Getting George Sr. out of jail once gave the Bluths a common purpose; without it, they’re just a bunch of depressed, resentful people being forced through the motions of praising each other publicly for a paycheck. I can’t imagine why a group of creatives reviving a 15-year-old show for the second time might end up choosing such a plotline.
Perhaps that’s why one of the strongest scenes of the episode is Lindsay’s sudden decision to pull a Michael and kick her whole family to the curb, after Lucille gives an uncharacteristically positive speech about her (actually written for Lindsay to give about Maeby). “I’ve been wanting to hear that [speech] since I was a little girl … It was my dream,” she says. “What a waste of a dream! It’s nothing, I can see that now.” The scene is clearly engineered to get the retired, green-screen-only Portia de Rossi out of the show as quickly as possible, but it’s also the most conviction or excitement any character has expressed this entire season … and it’s about running away and quitting.
To counter Lindsay’s departure, the back half of the episode tries to bring back the whole “rally ‘round the imprisoned family member” vibe, as everyone realizes that no one has been hiding Buster from anyone else, and they need to get him out of jail. (The logic they based those assumptions on was pretty thin to begin with, as George Michael points out. J. Walter Weatherman has broken this family.)
Yet when it comes time to meet one-on-one with Buster in the jailhouse, no one wants to do it: Lucille is still pissed about their fight at Cinco de Cuatro and Gob and George Sr. are increasingly convinced that he might actually have killed Lucille 2. (Lucille 1 doesn’t buy it, arguing that she’s “probably somewhere with a brand-new chin, sipping steak through a straw.”)
So it’s Michael, once again, who takes on the burden, and finds that Buster has handled jail surprisingly well, aside from the whole issue of having to have his metal hand strapped down “because people were using it to do tattoos while [he] was asleep.” The case against him is less promising: Lt. Toddler has footage of him attempting to use the useless FakeBlock to delete the security video of him and Lucille on the stair car, all while executing a choo-choo worthy herky-jerky dance to its dulcet fake-woodblock tones.
A guilty Michael gets Barry on the phone and promises his last $50,000 to spring Buster from the clink, only to discover through a series of miscommunications — all of them unsubtle and predictable — that he’s bailed out the imprisoned Barry instead. As if that wasn’t enough drama for one family gathering, Tobias has a revelation of his own: His acting protégé Murph is actually Murphy Brown Fünke, his “bastard son.”
It’s a bizarre new twist in what’s already been the season’s least essential plotline, and the family greets it with an entirely appropriate yawn (aside from Maeby, who’s understandably pissed, and characteristically receives zero sympathy from her dad). The episode concludes with Murph and Tobias being kicked out of the model home, but given how angry and listless the Bluths are coming across these days, they might be better off.
• Ron Howard teases that the family has once again reused its banner for Buster’s homecoming, but we don’t actually get to see said banner! Come on!
• One classic recurring joke does make it back: after Michael contradicts his assertion that prison is the only place attorneys can’t be recorded talking to inmates, Barry complains that he’s “got the worst fuckin’ clients.”
• Bless Gilbert Gottfried for the half hour he took to do that ShoeDini voiceover. “It’s not just a shoehorn, it’s a shoehorn on a stick!!!”
• I know the show is doing its best with the limitation of her retirement, but the Portia de Rossi green-screens are so awful and so noticeable that I wonder if they’re intentionally meant to showcase her lack of participation. It’s hard to believe that filthy-rich Netflix couldn’t afford better.
• Where does everyone think the banana stand went? Destroying it may be a Newport Beach tradition, but it’s also a Christmas one, and we’re only a couple of months past Cinco de Cuatro.
• It seems like the George Michael–Maeby romance might be heating back up, at least until he exhausts both tricks he learned in Spain. Earlier in the episode, he also manages to bed Rebel again, a streak that rivals Silicon Valley’s Jared in the “nerd who fucks” category.