“Is anyone else noticing that the family isn’t quite as we remember them?” Michael asks in the middle of this episode. He’s referring to the actors Tobias has hired to portray key Bluth family members in their absence, another of this season’s many meta-jokes about how difficult it’s been to put Arrested Development back to rights. However justified, criticisms of season four’s unusual structure often ignore the brutal reality that brought it into being: Everyone on this show is famous and busy now, and coordinating their schedules is impossible. While that hasn’t changed this season, it’s far more noticeable in this episode. Essentially it’s a Balboa Towers bottle episode, but with all the characters stuck in different parts of the bottle.
It begins right where the last episode left off, with Michael tricked into coming home (or across the hall from home, anyway) by Lucille. With one eye on the Trump campaign, she’s been skillfully manipulating each family member into place to get the border wall built: Lindsay running for Congress in Herbert Love’s stead, Maeby as campaign manager, George Sr. back by her side (so much for that divorce), and Gob as the new head of the Bluth Company. It’s not coincidental that Lucille’s summons undermines moments of personal growth for all four down in Mexico, allowing them to put off confronting their mommy issues, manipulativeness, struggles with masculinity, and true sexuality, respectively. I guess there’s a reason that the Bluths have “Always forget, never forgive” stitched in needlepoint.
Full-family scenes in the penthouse were some of the highlights of Arrested Development’s original run, allowing the cast to play wildly off each other. But this time, while the cast members are in the “same building,” they’re not in the same room. George Michael and Maeby are sectioned off from the rest of the gang in the other penthouse, while Buster is nowhere to be found (more on that in a minute). Most noticeably, Lindsay is in the room without actually being in the room — Portia de Rossi acts in cutaways and is occasionally (and poorly) green-screened in with the rest of the cast. There are still some moments that recall the best full-cast scenes of the original series, most notably a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it running gag in which different people repeatedly knock Tobias out of a chair. But without the everyone present, a lot of the energy and momentum gets lost.
The episode also lacks a clear focus, as the characters mostly take aim at each other without any animating energy around the goals Lucille has set for them, which revolve around awarding a Family of the Year trophy to themselves. (George Michael: “It still doesn’t seem like we’d get the votes?”) An extended gag in which Tobias fumbles through Improv 101 techniques as he imitates Michael is painfully unfunny, as are some tired jokes about Gob’s new girlfriend Joni’s terrible fake boobs. (She’s the ex-wife of newscaster/Bluth antagonist John Beard, but as Gob cheerfully notes, “she’s my Beard now!”)
Most of the best gags go to Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera, who continue to be the standouts of the new season so far. Returning to the U.S. after encountering a furious Mexican pretzel vendor pissed off about Trump’s “murderers and rapists” comments, George Michael falls into TOTAL REGRESSION! at the model home, firing up the Les Cousins Dangereux DVD and the Cornballer. After a simple but great Buster Keaton-esque silent gag in which he wears his muscle suit to the pool, only to have it get waterlogged in front of a cute girl, George Michael’s thoughts increasingly turn back to his crush on Maeby, especially after she suggests they make out as the family accepts its award.
That’s because Maeby is hell-bent on sabotaging her mother’s campaign, but waking up to the unfortunate reality that her machinations only end up making Lindsay more popular. Every Trump-esque misstep she coaxes Lindsay into — from mocking a Wee BBC reporter’s accent to speculating about grabbing John Beard’s butt on a hot mic — backfires. While none of these ripped-from-the-headlines jokes are screamingly original, there’s something about Maeby staging them as intentional acts of unpopularity that makes them much funnier. (After all, if Michael Wolff is to be believed, a lot of Trump’s own campaign associates were pulling for him to lose, too.)
The episode wraps up with the first reunion of Michael and George Michael since Punchgate, centered in a wobbly series of jokes about the phrase “man plans, God laughs,” Each awkwardly lies to the other about their respective breakups with Rebel, in a misguided attempt to make the other more comfortable, then begins reevaluating whether they should get back together with her. We may not be free of that groaner of a plotline quite yet.
Finally, we learn that all the Bluths, even Lucille, have completely forgotten about poor Buster. Going on Michael’s advice to turn himself in, tell the truth and skip calling Barry for legal help, he’s potentially implicated himself in her murder and landed himself in jail. Lucille and George Sr. continue to claim that no one knows where Lucille 2 has gone, which certainly puts the validity of that debt-forgiveness letter Michael received in doubt. Seems like all those “family self-defense” skills Michael and George Michael have been learning might come in handy pretty soon.
• Given that he directed it, I have little doubt that Ron Howard is telling the truth about George Michael’s twist-kick move appearing in Solo: A Star Wars Story. I personally haven’t seen that particular Star War, but Vulture’s resident expert Abraham Riesman speculates that [spoiler alert!] it might be the moment Emilia Clarke’s Qi’ra is revealed to know martial arts.
• Will Arnett hasn’t gotten the best jokes of the season so far, but he’s selling the hell out of everything he’s got. His line reading of Gob’s description of Joni’s show—“tits! teeth! public affairs! ass! some light interviews!”—had me in stitches.
• We get a quick update on Sally Sitwell, who’s fled town with Tony Wonder in her suitcase. Is anyone else still unclear on why Sally borrowed $100K to have her boyfriend pretend to be gay? Was it supposed to have an effect on Lucille 2’s campaign?
• Even if she didn’t get Michael’s movie made, it seems like Kitty was able to get something autobiographical on the screen. The film George Michael sees with his friends in Mexico features Rebel yelling “And say goodbye to these!”