Like a lot of great comedies, Arrested Development is only distinguished from being a massive tragedy by its jokes. The Bluth kids and grandkids are all, to some extent, struggling with abuse and neglect — with the notable exception of George Michael, who always has his dad at least attempting to protect him. As Ron Howard noted last season, “The heart of this thing is the father-son relationship,” and in older episodes, the pair would often get a sweet grace note before the final gags rolled in. But with that relationship on the rocks, the new season has more of a no-hugging, no-learning approach. The results are far more melancholy, recalling Mitch Hurwitz’s work on Flaked as much as they do the original show.
“An Old Start” features Michael dealing with his wife Tracey’s years-ago death from cancer, which was only mentioned in passing a few times in the original seasons. As he tells Tobias, he had to be strong for his son, and his parents did him the kindness of selling the family beach house where she died, which helped with painful memories. Of course, there’s no such thing as a Bluth doing a kindness, and Michael soon discovers that the house was never sold, and everyone agreed not to tell him. (It’s one of only two house rules, the other being not to leave towels on the floor.)
Michael isn’t as upset about the house still being in the family as he is about the lie, a dad-lecture chestnut that the episode repeatedly mocks. But even by Bluth standards, all the family members are lying to themselves. Gob is trying to project straightness (with Joni, his literal Beard) and business competence (spending a mint to move the Bluth-Austero Company to a floor with a better view… of the roof of a Rite-Aid). Tobias, having been dumped by Lucille as a therapist and “consciously uncuckolded” with divorce papers by Lindsay, is trying to find his place in the family by pretending to be any one of them that he can. Only George Sr., who’s despondent over losing his wife and his life’s work, is actually dealing with his feelings — and he’s an exhausted, weepy mess.
Amidst all the mopey men, the show’s women turn in some especially vibrant work. Maeby’s latest con is pretending to be Lucille 2’s septuagenarian sister in order to live in her retirement-complex condo for free. (“When people catch on, they either forget or they die!” she tells George Michael with excitement.) Alia Shawkat plays the role to the hilt, delivering sassy grandma bromides with big fake teeth and bigger fake glasses. Even Stan Sitwell can’t help but fall under her spell, especially after she convinces him that she lost her home and the condo paperwork in “Hurricane Cantina.”
Similarly, Jessica Walter’s delivery has never been more delightfully tart as she spars with Michael over the secret beach house. (“I hear I’m not the only one whose son has a nasty left hook” is an Arrested Development insult for the ages.) I’m less intrigued by her blossoming “early October-late November” affair with a rock-throwing surfer dude (played by Dermot Mulroney, of all people), but she certainly looks amazing while doing it.
The problem with that relationship plot is that I’m not entirely sure what Lucille wants out of it — or what any of the characters want for themselves right now. Previous seasons of the show set up jokes that were funny in and of themselves, then elaborately built on them. But now that I’ve made it halfway through the season, it seems like the episodes have been designed for viewers to find Easter eggs on the second go-round, often at the expense of clarity on the first one.
Why are we suddenly seeing so much of Murph, Tobias’s inept acting protégé? What on Earth are Michael and George Sr. referencing when they talk about Lucille’s boyfriend being blind and having no fingertips? Why is Stan watching a shoehorn infomercial voiced by Gilbert Gottfried? All of it seems to be part and parcel with the mystery of what happened to Lucille 2, which the show regularly teases with dramatic music and jump cuts while neglecting to make the point of why it actually matters. Even jokes and performances as good as these need some kind of structure to hang their hats on, but the point of the season appears to be as lost as the Bluths themselves.
• The writers deserve credit for making occasional subtle references to old jokes without leaning on them. The best one in this episode: Maeby dressing as Mrs. Featherbottom for her retirement-home scam, then looking in the mirror and realizing, “Oh my God, I’ve become my father.”
• Speaking of Old Maeby, I am totally down with making “dropping [someone] like a buttered cane” happen.
• Another great Lucille-Michael exchange:
“This house is full of painful memories. My mother died here, Gob was born here, and I’m sure you’ve also heard it was your father’s fuck pad.”
“Only from the next room.”
• David Cross has had kind of a thankless role this season, but he manages to get in funny bits, like when Tobias pats the bed and tells Michael to sit way too many times. (Also, did you catch the “Mock Trial with J. Reinhold” cap that topped off his George Michael costume?)
• Yes, Netflix really did buy the Near Misters Moments domain. (Sadly, they didn’t commit to the full website treatment; it just takes you to their page for the show.)