‘Arrested Development’ Episode Reviews: Flight of the Phoenix / Borderline Personalities

In addition to our Arrested Development season 4 review, Splitsider will also be posting episode-by-episode recaps that will cover two episodes at a time. So if you aren’t one of the loyal, unemployed superfans without Memorial Day plans who plowed through all 8 hours of the new season in one sitting, and instead opted for a slower, more leisurely approach to screening the episodes, these weekly recaps should suit your old fashioned and increasingly obsolete lifestyle perfectly.

Those who have seen any of the new episodes will know that, in true Arrested Development form, the episodes become increasingly layered as the season goes on, with information from earlier story lines setting up jokes and plot twists in later episodes. Therefore, these recaps will be written from the perspective of someone watching the new season sequentially, hopefully free of any spoilers of what’s to come. That said, the subtle clues Mitch Hurwitz and his writers nested into the early episodes are fair game when it comes to speculation, which, as any paranoid fan of the densely complex series can attest, is as much part of the experience of watching Arrested Development as simply sitting back and enjoying it.

Flight of the Phoenix

What Happened: The first episode of the new season concerned itself with catching us up on Michael Bluth and the events that transpired in his life since the third season finale. To sum it up quickly: After Lucille is caught in her own seaward escape attempt from the feds, Michael returns to save the family once again, having been an expert in obscure maritime law since his days playing a prosecutorial Peter Pan. Michael quickly abandons his mother when he learns his parents didn’t use federal stimulus money to fund his Sudden Valley housing development project. A spurned Michael trades his shares in the Bluth company to Lucille 2, making her the primary shareholder in the company and freeing himself to build his development. When the housing market crashes, however, Michael’s poorly planned project goes belly up, forcing him to borrow money from Lucille 2 and move into George Michael’s dorm room at UC Irvine while taking online University of Phoenix classes. George Michael longs for privacy to work on software for his anti-social network FaceBlock, as well as to continue his relationship with Maeby, so after an uncomfortable tribal council vote, Michael is kicked out of the dorm. Michael flies to Phoenix — mostly so he can read an article about himself in an in-flight magazine — but returns to his mother’s wrecked home to help save his family once more. (Whew!) Also, all this takes place within the frame of Cinco de Cuatro — an anti-holiday conceived by a young Lucille (Kristen Wiig) and George Sr. (Seth Rogen) to ruin Cinco de Mayo — wherein a drunk Michael does something regrettable with Lucille 2 and then gets roofied by an equally ashamed GOB.

Our Thoughts: You have to hand it to Hurwitz and his team for making Michael’s journey from point A to point B such a densely packed storytelling cake, diving headfirst into how the Bluth family would be affected by the housing crisis, the recession, and the rise of Facebook… all in the format of nonlinear flashback. While the references to the gags from the first three seasons earned the biggest laughs (specifically, a brilliant revisiting of the oft-used “You’re a crook, Captain Hook!” scene), I was impressed the writers continued to expand the world of the Bluth family (i.e., Cinco de Cuatro — a ridiculously named celebration that plays on both Lucille’s racism and the Bluth’s ignorance of Spanish). Mostly, I enjoyed watching Michael crash his son’s Zuckerburgian college life, and the death of Pete the mailman was the episode’s finest moment. However, at a run time of nearly 30 minutes, I couldn’t help but feel that Arrested Development might have benefitted from its 22-minute network TV restrictions, especially when Michael’s voting strategy and the airport gags dragged so much. As for the cameos, Kristen Wiig is perfect as a devious young Lucille, while Seth Rogen and the Workaholics boys are far less crucial in their roles. The episode’s biggest weakness was that, as a Michael-centric episode, it deprived us of seeing the character interact with the the family as a whole. Apparently shooting schedules made it difficult to get the entire cast together at the same time, but since Arrested Development was widely hailed as one of the best ensemble comedies ever, one can only hope that the catchup and setup of the first episode will lead to multi-character payoff in later episodes.

In Case You Missed It…

  • Whenever the show flashes back to scenes from the previous three seasons, a watermark for “Showstealer Pro Trial Version” appears over the screen, as a reference to Netflix stealing footage from Fox. (If you were using the “trial version” of a program, you wouldn’t be paying for it.)
  • The Dr. Seuss rhyme structure of Young Lucille’s Grinch-y scheme was obvious enough, but for good measure, Wiig’s face is covered with green skin lotion.
  • The British reporter in the Boy George news story signed off with “Wee BBC 2.”
  • Michael says his phone calendar is “stuck in 2003.”
  • The lower-third text on the news story of Lucille’s capture: “Pursed Lips Sink Ship.”
  • The cable wires in the Sudden Valley development are severed by the community pool, which was Michael’s fix-all idea for saving space in the housing development in Season 1.
  • The cover of the gay magazine Attitude includes a feature on magician Tony Wonder.
  • Michael says “No talking!” to his son as an idea to reduce awkwardness during the roommate vote.
  • When Michael gets ousted as a result of the roommate vote, the sad Charlie Brown music plays as he walks away.
  • When Michael arrives in Phoenix, he passes a mural depicting locations from the first three seasons, including the stair car, Mexico, and the boat with the seal in the water.
  • Michael’s reaction to burning his hand on the Phoenix taxi cab door handle matches his reaction to burning himself on the Cornballer.
  • Borderline Personalities

    What Happened: Having tricked his twin brother Oscar into taking the fall the moment the feds swarmed Lucille, George Sr. convinces Michael to return to his wife’s defense, and meets with Stan Sitwell to sell off the remainder of his stock for legal funds. George Sr. spots blueprints in Sitwell’s office for what he thinks is a monument to George W. Bush, but learns from Lucille is actually a project to construct a wall on the US-Mexico border. George Sr. finds his twin brother eating at the club with a few friends: Heart Fire (Mary Lynn Rajskub), an aura specialist who communicates via thought, Dr. Norman (John Slattery), a disgraced  anesthesiologist, and China Garden (Karen Maruyama), Norman’s loud-speaking prison pen pal turned lover. George Sr. learns that Oscar and his hippie friends are living near the Mexican border, eating a hallucinogenic plant called maca. George Sr. offers to buy the land from the government, which Oscar takes as a sign of brotherly love, but is really a scheme by George Sr. and Lucille to steal Sitwell’s border wall project. To cover their tracks, George Sr. and Lucille pretend to be going through a divorce, which reignites their sex life. The recession causes the government to freeze the project, however, so during a sweat lodge session, George Sr. comes up with another scheme to raise money: “Sweat and Squeeze,” in which he uses his self-help seminar experience to trick CEOs into paying for spiritual enlightenment by wearing them out in a sweat lodge and tempting them with lemonade, with Oscar doing the “sweat” part and George Sr. handling the “squeeze.” The scheme dries up over time, and the twin brothers chew on maca and hallucinate an ostrich-like Native American warning them of changes to come. Barry Zuckercorn encourages George Sr. to court a right-wing politician named Herbert Love (an opponent to the pro-immigrant Lucille 2, who is also running for office) to restart the border wall project. While George Sr. heads to the rally, he convinces Oscar to pretend to be him with Lucille, whose sexual interest in George Sr. has faded. Oscar learns from Zuckercorn that George Sr.’s true aim in buying the land near the border was to build the wall, not to be a good brother.

    Our Thoughts. Like “Flight of the Phoenix,” this episode suffered from the problems of too much setup and character estrangement. Whereas with last episode, at least Michael’s A-to-B story threads felt inspired (a recession-stricken father moving in with his college-age son), the plots in this episode felt empty and contrived, like short-term schemes that never amounted to anything. Sure, they were cleverly plotted schemes (I appreciated the recurring bit of using Oscar’s lemons), but the emotional impact on the characters was mostly nonexistent at this stage in the game. Also, while before we at least got to see Michael bond with his son, here, the bulk of the character bonding took place between George Sr. and his twin brother Oscar (in other words, Jeffrey Tambor interacting with himself… which actually proved quite entertaining). I was impressed with the expansion of the show’s running bits, in particular the body-swapping between George Sr. and Oscar, and the absurdly specific world of maritime law, and the gradual reveals of the Bluth family members listening in on the argument between Michael and his parents. But this episode was far more setup than payoff, and the threads of George Sr.’s political maneuvering and maca hallucinations will likely ripen in a future episode. Good thing we can watch them all immediately.

    In Case You Missed It…

  • The workers installing the waterproof cameras from the mercantile lawyers appear in the next scene holding a hose with water trickling out of it.
  • Heart Fire’s thought communication fails to get the bartender’s attention: “I’m choking on wasabi.”
  • When Heart Fire searches for a sweat lodge on the lap top, Google’s logo is blurred out. Similarly, when George Michael tells his father about looking up his name online in “Flight of the Phoenix,” he mentions running “a something search.”
  • Dan Harmon appears as a greeter for George Sr.’s seminars.
  • The in-flight magazine Altitude’s feature on George Sr.’s seminars feature him in the same clasped hands pose that Michael was in.
  • The Mexican child whom Lucille 2 adopts to appear more pro-immigrant has the same silly orange wig worn by the characters in the Spanish-language soap opera from Season 1.
  • The retraction page in Altitude’s endorsement of George Sr.’s seminar is, unsurprisingly, filled with hidden jokes, including an unsatisfied testimonial and a letter to the editor by someone named “Fat in Ohio.”
  • What did you think? Any subtle jokes I missed? With this being an episode-by-episode recap, we ask that you please limit your comments to plot details from the first two episodes of Season 4.

    We’ll see you next week with recaps from the next two episodes!

    Erik Voss is a writer and performer living in Los Angeles. He hosts the Evil Blond Kid podcast and performs improv on the Harold team The Cartel at the iO West Theater.

    ‘Arrested Development’ Episode Reviews: Flight of the […]