After the past few episodes, I was starting to believe that even if Arrested Development was never going to hit the heights of its early years, it was at least trying to create episodes that were satisfying in and of themselves, not just placeholders for baroque plots and running jokes. But “Premature Independence,” the half-season finale, is a mess. Like Gob and Tony Wonder’s ill-fated closet illusion, it’s overlong (a whopping 36 minutes), poorly plotted, creates more questions than it answers, and inadvertently draws attention to all of the aforementioned.
I wasn’t anticipating this episode would wrap up the Lucille 2 disappearance, which seems like more of a season-long arc. But I did at least think it would leave viewers with some new clues to ponder during the season break, instead of yanking the only one it had on the table, the staircar photo. While I did suspect the “one spiky, one bald” heads probably weren’t George Sr. and Lucille 2 — they’re George Michael and Maeby, attired in those wigs Michael bought the Imagine gift shop — I thought we’d at least discover something new about the staircar after the primos abandoned it, perhaps involving the Mexican Romney Family. (Though George Michael’s repeated insistence on the full name of his “Ron and Brian Go to Mexico” game is an episode highlight: “We were bored, okay?”)
The only new clue we get in this episode is that Oscar is back, pretending to be George Sr. to Lucille as the genuine article tries to find enough parking spots for his Winnebago. At episode’s end, Oscar makes off with Buster from the Second of July parade, potentially endangering his otherwise imminent release. As for where he’s taking him, no clue. I’m sure that question will be answered in the season’s second half, as will the mystery of what, exactly, Lucille paid off Buster to cover up back in 1982.
I’m fine with Arrested Development’s tendency to run slow on big plots; George Sr.’s Iraq case took three seasons to resolve, after all. But this episode exemplifies the season’s frustrating tendency to make every plot big, leaving viewers with little to enjoy episode to episode as the story gets overstuffed with references and asides designed to pay off in the future. It makes it hard to care about the characters, and harder for a casual viewer to stay up on everything at once. Do I need to keep an eye out for who Murphy Brown’s mom is, or the implications of George Michael’s ongoing Fakeblock lie? The show has always rewarded viewers who pay attention, but even having watched the season through twice, I’m struggling to keep track of the three dozen or so plates it has spinning. It lacks focus.
That’s a shame, because the show is still funny on a joke-to-joke level, and the cast is uniformly throwing heat, with amazing little asides like Maeby saying a tearful good-bye to Fox & Friends as she leaves the retirement home, Gob changing direction and giving Buster a fist bump when he sees he now has a black hand, or Tobias expertly hemming and hawing after Marky Bark’s mom offers him $500 to take Murphy Brown off his hands. (The scene occurs to the old “Oscar is Buster’s father” music cue — maybe Tobias isn’t Murphy’s dad after all?)
The deep-cut humor for the real heads is also impressive, reviving plot elements from season-two highlights “Amigos” and “Good Grief.” Gob’s closet-switch illusion is much like his coffin-switch illusion, Tony Wonder is buried alive the same way Gob was at George Sr.’s fake “funeral,” and this time, the falling funeral piñata attacked by candy-seeking kids is Lucille 2’s, not George Sr.’s. (Of note to those concerned about Tony Wonder’s fate: Gob also lied about having a trap door in the “Good Grief” coffin illusion, so Tony probably did escape death by concrete, even if he told Gob otherwise.)
Still, it’s hard not to notice how shoddy the craftsmanship on this episode is. The ADR is poorly mixed and noticeable in several scenes, and antic music is splashed all over the place in a futile attempt to give life to overlong scenes of heavy dialogue. I’m also not crazy about the decision to end the episode in a silent Keystone Kops style, which Ron Howard seems to imply was chosen out of necessity, not because it was funnier.
“Out of necessity, not because it was funnier” seems to be the case for a lot of this season, which has certainly had to contend with some challenges like the actors’ mismatched schedules and Portia de Rossi’s retirement. Given the amount of time and depth the show has put into creating new running jokes that viewers can’t even parse out yet, I want to give it the benefit of the doubt that it’s going for something bigger I can’t see. But in terms of showing viewers a good time episode by episode, it feels flimsier than Sally’s papier-mache staircar.
• Tobias briefly mentions having a brother named Robby. Sounds like we might get to see more of the Fünke side of the family soon?
• Based on that Two and a Half Men joke, I’m guessing Jessica Walter and Tony Hale really do get mistaken for Holland Taylor and Jon Cryer. Yikes.
• I thought Stan Sitwell might actually be a goner after that fall, but this show doesn’t seem to enjoy killing anyone but racist old ladies who choke on prosthetic thumbs. As Stan and Sally would say, I guess they have us by the short wigs.
• It was nice to see Maria Bamford again as DeBrie. (I cackled at her response to Lucille’s insult about feigning interest in drug dealers: “Yeah, you do see a lot of aquariums.”) With the unfortunate cancellation of Lady Dynamite, another Hurwitz joint, hopefully we’ll get more of her in the back half of season two.
• In case you’re already wondering when we’ll get new episodes, Netflix hasn’t said anything about when the back half of this season will appear. But given that the whole season’s already been shot, I wouldn’t be surprised if something drops on the Second of July.