This season of Arrested Development has been a rocky ride, with moments of comedic brilliance wedged between long stretches of pointlessness. The show has never been truly unfunny — the cast is way too brilliant for that, and they’ve made some mediocre bits work. But “Emotional Baggage” is the first outing of the season that truly feels like an Arrested Development episode in terms of plotting, pacing and tone, even if, at a hefty 33 minutes, it’s another example of TV manspreading that could have used a little tightening.
The biggest difference here is that the characters actually have a task to perform: springing Buster from jail. It’s quite literally the oldest trick in the show’s narrative book (as evidenced by that “Welcome Home from Jail” banner that’s had the names crossed out four times), but it also provides sorely needed purpose to a narrative that’s been flagging. Everyone has something to do to make it happen, from George Michael’s quest for bail money to Michael and Gob’s attempts to win back the Bluth movie rights from Imagine.
All the emotional pain we’ve seen the past few episodes — Gob’s waffling over his sexuality, Maeby’s hiding out from her problems, George’s despair over losing Lucille — works better in a context where it’s actively hindering something the characters want to do. It doesn’t hurt that this episode just plain has more laugh lines, either; I think I audibly chuckled more than at the first five episodes combined.
The new seasons have struggled to keep running jokes alive without turning the show into a dated compilation of old references. Many of the plotlines in this episode strike that balance well. My favorite was Gob’s latest disdainful attempt to seduce Kitty for information, a season-one throwback that brought back two essential aspects of their characters that we haven’t seen in a while: Kitty’s weird sexual obsessiveness and Gob’s hoisted-by-his-own-petard arrogance. But the interaction doesn’t stay stuck in the past, giving a weird resonance to Gob’s emotional, “I can’t quit you” phone chat with Tony Wonder — after all, who can understand the destructive power of amour fou better than Kitty Sanchez?
Similarly, George Sr.’s attempt to counsel Buster on surviving lockup was the first time his masculinity crisis — a touchy plotline that’s sputtered as the writers aim to avoid further Transparent-related offense — really clicked for me comedically. With plenty of “no touching” callbacks, George lays down the law for Buster on attacking skinheads and steering clear of guards, only to get a big hug when he suicidally runs at one himself. The scene perfectly encapsulates the struggle of old-school men to get with modern times; in the world, as in the prison yard, “this place has changed.”
A lot of this episode is about the impact of generational legacy, and how little good advice one generation actually has to give to the next. Some of this is literal: As Murphy Brown expresses his dreams of becoming a computer programmer or vet, Tobias tries to convince him that those aren’t “real dreams” like acting. Other aspects are more metaphorical: Despite his father’s good intentions, George Michael can’t seem to escape the family legacy when it comes to pretending to be someone he’s not, or for embez … er, borrowing money, as Barry would put it.
I also loved how densely the episode layered jokes within itself, instead of setting them up to be addressed one or three episodes down the line. One of my favorite through lines involves dyed hair: Repulsed by Tobias’s pink mustache, Maeby encourages George Michael to dye his similarly to repel Rebel’s dad. (“What is one thing all women want? Their father’s attention,” she instructs him unselfconsciously.) Of course, the dye gets left in too long and ends up coming out “Howard red,” which endears Ron to George Michael even more. At episode’s end, Rebel asks him to dye it back because it’s like “kissing [her] cousin.” Cut to Maeby in her old-woman drag — with a wig in the exact same shade.
Of course, with Ron Howard and his entire real-life family in the episode, there have to be some meta jokes about the show itself, most notably the Bluth family’s entertainment transition from a movie to a streaming series. (Lucille: “We said no leaks, and now we’re streaming all over everyone?”) Poking fun at the vogue for true crime has been popular for a lot of shows, but I’m interested in seeing how Arrested tackles it, especially if it means getting to see bizarro stuff like Buster kicking Ron Howard’s ass for being a supposed skinhead.
• Gob finally realizing that George Sr.’s longtime nickname for a screw-up is a “G.O.B,” not a “geobead,” is a vintage Gob joke, as is Tobias’s utterance that the desert “makes one see what one wants to see … hey, is that two barrel-chested, strapping men on horseback approaching us?”
• Another chestnut: George Michael telling the Howards that he doesn’t like hot dogs … he loves them! (No word on whether that raucous laughter is their “happy” or their “uncomfortable.”)
• And “You don’t have the courtesy to wait until I’m disbarred??” is definitely a top-ten Barry line.
• Poor Maeby can’t catch a break when it comes to finding a father figure. And to think that Stan Sitwell even earned himself a coveted “bury me!”
• Though most of the Howards’ appearances are purely jokey, the advice Michael gets about parenting from Ron’s father, Rance, is actually kind of lovely and poetic. (It’s also a little sad, as Rance died late last year, not long after the episode was filmed.)