Friday, November 6, 2009

The Top 10 Arrested Development Episodes

[Warning -- contains spoilers]

When it comes to TV comedy, I, like any good elitist, tend to cite British programs before American series. Hell, one of the few good American sitcoms of the decade is a remake of the infinitely more complex Office. Arrested Development, however, is the sole proof one needs to prove that the States can produce comedy just as good as our mates across the pond. It is, without question, the funniest show I have ever seen, stuffed to the rafters with pop culture, satire, callbacks and the sort of absurdity I didn't think American programs could get away with. Everything about it, from its cast to its unerring scripts to Ron Howard's dry, inviting narration, was simply perfect.

What other show could present the gag-inducing, horrendously overplayed "will-they-won't-they" conceit between two cousins, and then press the incest angle so much that eventually the writers just went full-on meta and cast Jason Bateman's real-life sister as a possible love interest? To take on the dysfunctional family and truly create the maddest, most intentionally unlikable cast of characters ever put on television? They broke the fourth wall so many times that eventually you just accept this insane world as a part of ours, no matter what terrible magic tric- excuse, me, illusion, GOB was practicing or how incessantly Tobias utterly and completely failed to comprehend his uselessness. Multiple watches are necessary, not simply to catch wonderfully subtle moments (such as Henry Winkler a.k.a. the Fonz "jumping" a dead shark or pretty much every line of dialogue and visual gag of Charlize Theron's arc, in retrospect), but because you'll be laughing so hard that you'll miss even surface-level gags.

I originally planned to review the series my usual way, then I decided to write about all three seasons with one post because I had no idea how to tackle a season by season review of this brilliant program without just listing off the jokes I liked. Of course, I soon realized that a giant review would consist of the same thing, albeit even more ridiculous as attempting to corral what I loved and loved even more about the series would devolve in Chris Farley Show-esque obsequiousness. So, I've settled on paying tribute to this masterpiece of programming by funneling my "remember how funny this was?" sentiments into their natural format: a list of my favorite episodes and the reasons why I love them. So break out the Cornballer, put on your copy of Franklin Comes Alive and join me to reminisce about the finest moments of a show that, in all honesty, has 53 best episodes.

1. Good Grief (2x04)

I don't know that any one episode of any one sitcom contain half as many laughs as "Good Grief." After Ice the bounty hunter returns from Mexico and tells the Bluths that George, Sr. is dead, the family decides to hold a wake. Naturally, GOB seeks to turn it into a magic trick, while everyone lies to Buster, fearing that the news would shatter someone who is already fractured. Meanwhile, Anne dumps George Michael, only for Michael to finally accept her enough to invite her to the wake. To try to summarize but a few of the dozens of jokes packed into its 20 minutes would only result in me searching for a copy of the script to post, but kudos must be given to Tobias' asinine "John Wayne" speech, George Sr. hiding in a spider hole like Saddam Hussein, Buster's beyond-inappropriate military outfit and Michael goading George Michael, who knows that his granddad is still alive, into giving a eulogy at the wake. It all builds to a climax that brought me to tears and a sore stomach the first five times I watched it, but somehow they keep it all together with the unifying power of Peanuts

2. Meat the Veals (2x16)

It is with some small amount of shame that I say that, in a show packed with the greatest and most supportive comedy cast and penned by writers with the greatest gift for callbacks and obscure references this side of Monty Python, my single favorite moment from Arrested Development is a suspenseful zoom-in on a puppet. But that's one of only many reasons to love "Meet the Veals" and its giant, pulsating middle finger at cheap sitcom declarations of love. George Michael decides to get "pre-engaged" to Anne, which in turn inspires George, Sr. to kidnap Lucille in order to renew their vows. "Meat the Veals" brings an end to the uproarious Mrs. Featherbottom run, as well as letting Alan Tudyk and Ione Skye (who play Anne's parents) steal a bit of the spotlight despite limited screen time. As mentioned, Franklin makes his debut here, though the majesty of his record career was still on the horizon. It all coalesces in the final 6 minutes into the biggest and wildest comedy cavalcade I have ever seen on television, American or otherwise. I will also never, ever tire of David Cross' reading of, "I guess he changed his mind when he saw you pounding that sweet piece of Veal!" as Mrs. Featherbottom.

3. Top Banana (1x02)

Oh my God, we're having a fire! The pilot of Arrested Development was its weakest moment (relatively speaking, of course), simply because it had to at least somewhat seriously establish a world of infinite comedic possibilities and characters with no remote ties to reality. With the second episode, however, the wheels on the logic train came off and the thing somehow blasted into orbit.

Artist's representation

Various tendrils and threads of Bluth family politics were formed in the pilot, but with only the second episode nearly all of them pulled together and joined into one insane web of deceit, pettiness and suppressed memories. Tobias immediately hits the wall with his sudden desire to become an actor, Lindsay mocks him and even undercuts him at an audition for an advertisement, and all the while Michael must juggle the sudden strain of having to continue to speak to his family, much less keep them all together in the face of George's arrest. Furthermore, GOB's penchant for accidentally killing the animals he buys for his tricks is revealed, as is his bizarre desire not to help the family, but simply to be asked, and his resentment of Michael. Remember, there's always money in the banana stand.

4. Pier Pressure (1x10)

By the time Arrested Development reached its tenth episode, it had more than proved its absurdist, uncompromising tone, but "Pier Pressure" was only the first of many times the series raised its own bar, just when you thought it couldn't get any better. I don't know what's more outrageous: the idea that George, Sr. would hire an amputee (a former Bluth employee who lost his arm in a work-related accident, no less) to teach his children elaborate lessons involving a fake arm being apparently ripped from its socket for issues as mundane as writing notes or not yelling, or that, judging from the numerous flashbacks, the kids fell for it every time when at some point they must have remembered the face of ol ' J. Walter Weatherman. That's all well and good, but then it moves into the realm of the outright audacious when Buster asks George Michael to buy him pot to ease his girlfriend Lucille Austero's (Liza Minelli) vertigo. Michael misunderstands, hires GOB's male stripper pals to scare his son straight -- yep, that metallic taste in your mouth is from the irony -- and somehow it builds into George's greatest and final lesson: "Never teach your son a lesson."

5. Mr. F (3x05)

You could easily substitute "The Ocean Walker" into this spot, but honestly any episode of the Rita arc deserves a mention and any one of them could beat the best moments of 90% of every American sitcom ever made. Obviously Charlize Theron knew the full truth of her character from the start, as her performance across all of her episodes works on three levels: as a seemingly brilliant and charming woman, as a potential spy and, dear God, as an "MRF" -- mentally retarded female. We learn this shocking, gut-busting truth at the end of this episode, so perhaps I'm awarding it a spot in the top 10 in retrospect. But everything about the episode is fried gold, from Tobias being recruited by the C.I.A. to be a mole, only for the idiot to dress up as a mole, to GOB trying to connect to his emotionally and now physically disconnected father via the surrogate George hires to communicate with the outside world (then of course Buster takes over behind the scenes and the two brothers bond through Larry). It might actually be tragic and symbolic if it wasn't so hilarious.

6. S.O.B.s (3x09)

FOX treated the show like dirt -- they reduced the second season order from 22 to 18, then cut the third down to 13 including a two hour finale made up of two two-episode blocks -- but the writers responded to every clichéd last act of ratings-grabbing desperation with postmodernist brilliance and wicked snark. The dreaded "very special guest star" syndrome is the most obvious and, usually, the most damning studio suggestion that bogs down episodes entirely around name recognition for a star who's just there for the paycheck -- see the first half of 30 Rock's third season -- but Arrested Development utterly skewered the concept of guest stars as well as every other ploy in the book. The family organizes a fundraiser for themselves, titled "Save Our Bluths," and they spend the entire episode wondering what they can do to get more supporters, from inviting Nicole Kidman (a jab at their own usage of Oscar-winner Charlize Theron in several episodes), 3-D effects, a "live" ending and even outright asking the audience to get their friends watching in the narration.

The writers take a special glee, though, in referencing a host of other FOX shows that were canceled, as if resigning themselves to their fate but also reminding everyone that it might not be their fault for failing to attract ratings (as if winning Emmys, Golden Globes, various guild awards and appearing on pretty much every TV critics' year-end lists didn't let the cast and crew off the hook). As much as we all might wish that Arrested Development had never met its fate, we should be thankful that the writers took their cancellation as a cue to go down swinging.

7. Motherboy XXX (2x13)

Arrested Development ran into problems with the network over ratings long before they poured their frustrations into "S.O.B.s," and "Motherboy XXX" was the first indicator of the crew's disgust with FOX's suggestions to win over viewers. The network foisted product placement by Burger King upon them, and they responded by placing it so blatantly in the forefront to mock that no one could accuse them of selling out. The show never wanted for brilliant pop culture references, but I don't know that they ever topped the blink-and-you'll-miss-it genius of having Henry Winkler's Barry Zuckerkorn hop over a dead shark (on his way to Burger King, of course). The title comes from the unfortunately Latinized anniversary of the Motherboy pageant, normally where Lucille and Buster prove their ever-disturbing bond. Substituting Buster for a terrified George Michael, though, allows for even more laughs, culminating with Michael's desperate attempt to save his son from Buster's fate.

8. Forget-Me-Now (3x03)

I admit that I always preferred Steve Holt in small bursts, and his increased role in the final season -- funny as it was -- was one of the few aspects of the show that I did not fully love. However, the matter of his relation to GOB informs one of the series' finest episodes, centered on, of all the innately unfunny things in the world, roofies (and in the same episode that Tobias combines his experiences as an analyst and a therapist into the world's first analrapist, no less). That GOB would have a bottle of date-rape drugs on hand at all times steers the show dangerously near the edge of taste, but the idea that he would use them simply to erase people's memories to deal with major embarrassments is so insane it works. There's also the matter of George Michael, who knows Steve's connection to the family, attempting to stop Steve from getting with Maebe without burning his own bridge to her by condemning the potential incest. I don't know why, but when the characters of this show feign at genuine emotional moments they tend to be even funnier than usual.

9. Let 'Em Eat Cake (1x22)

The first season finale largely encapsulates what makes Arrested Development so great: what starts as a deceptively plot-heavy finale throws narrative out the window in favor of unrelenting insanity that somehow forms its own working narrative. What other series could posit a main character in the post-9/11 era as having built houses in Iraq, who fakes a heart attack to avoid trial for treason? The finale also introduces some wonderful new characters, such as Ann (her?) and the too-literal doctor who enrages the family with his misleading announcements every time he appears. In the show's fashion, a plot development as big as "light treason" plays second fiddle to an overarching send-up of the Atkins craze (read that title again).

10. Ready, Aim, Marry Me (2x10)

My other favorite episodes generally contain one main element that attracts me, which then builds and spirals into an avalanche of absurdity that gives each character a moment to shine. The element of "Ready, Aim, Marry Me" that I love so much, though, has almost nothing to do with anything else in the series: I don't care how over-the-top and meaningless his performance is, Martin Short's guest spot as the paraplegic "Uncle" Jack Dorso is one of the most joyously ridiculous things the show had to offer. Watching Jack try to reclaim some of his action hero past by having his deaf caretaker launch him like a human bullet brought tears to my eyes, and it figures that Lindsay would attempt to hook up with him. And let's not forget Ed Begley, Jr.'s alopecia-stricken Bluth rival Stan Sitwell, who inadvertently sets off both Buster and GOB for the hand of Lucille 2.

Well, there you have it. Agree? Disagree? What are some of your favorites?


  1. Love this list, although surprised at the inclusion of Motherboy XXX and S.O.B.'s

    My top ten (in no particular order) would be:

    1)Bringing up Buster
    2)Ready, Aim, Marry Me
    3)Making a Stand
    4)Shock and Aww
    5)Afternoon Delight
    6)Marta Complex
    7)Top Banana
    8)Pier Pressure
    9)Altar Egos
    10)The Immaculate Election

    1. Bringing up buster is also my favorite. I do like spring breakout as well

    2. Spring breakout was epic. I love Bringing up Buster. The "Speech, speech" part of Marta Complex made me laugh so hard I almost choked.

  2. Great list, eloquent summations. I don't think Ready Aim Marry Me belongs anywhere near the top 10, however. That's unambiguously the worst episode in the series, IMO--to me Martin Short's performance is over the top in a bad, unfunny way, and I'd say the way the whole Jack-bails-out-the-family plot thread was unceremoniously deleted from the series attests to its disposability. But I guess to each his own. Not sure what I'd replace it with. Maybe Public Relations ("You mean when those guys kept saying 'hey you, boy,' that was me? I was the boy?"), or maybe Marta Complex ("Speech! Speech! Speech!"). So many candidates.

    Kudos in particular for including Mr. F--the scene with Mole-Tobias inadvertently fighting George Michael-in-Jetpack in front of the Japanese financiers...pure intertextual brilliance. That, Good Grief or Motherboy XXX would be my no. 1.

    As far as Fox's treatment of the show...I dunno. Of course it sucks that it was canned before its time, but on the other hand they did stand by this expensive show with its big ensemble cast and elaborate sets for three years of middling ratings, which is more than some networks would have done. And as long as you mention AD's snarky, contemptuous reaction to corporate interference, well, that's just it--they were allowed to respond in this way, to make not-so-subtle digs not only at Fox but also at the audience they were told to target ("Why are we going after this idiot demographic?"). I guess I've always thought Fox's willingness to take a chance on a show of questionable appeal like AD in the first place trumped its decision to ultimately pull the plug. Plus, as you mention, the writers' response to impending cancellation--bizarre incest jokes, the abandonment of all narrative logic, the meta ratcheted up to 11--is one of the series' greatest enjoyments.

    1. Ready, Aim, Marry Me was one of my favorites not even for the Jack Dorso portion but that it included my all time favorite exchange between Tobia and Michael, the "I accidentally shot my wad on what was supposed to be a dry run" quip.

  3. How is afternoon delight not on here?

    1. Thank you. That's my favorite.

  4. My Hand To God should be there it's really good

  5. No "My Mother the Car?" that episode was hilarious. When she walked in and screamed "Surprise!" I couldn't stop laughing. And every time she tried to hit Michael over the head to keep him from remembering.

    "Ready, Aim, Marry me" wasn't even remotely funny to me, one of my least favorite episodes.

    The first auction episode was also funny, the name evades me for the moment.

  6. I'd say I agree, but I love them all so much. It's not that they all blend in, it's that, with the exception of the pilot episode, they're all on pretty much the same level.