Yesterday, I discussed the remarkable fourth season of Arrested Development — without any major spoilers. Today, we’ll look at some episodes and themes in more detail — with plenty of spoilers.
It’s surprising how well breaking the ensemble of Arrested Development formula works. But it’s also surprising that the best episodes of the season are disproportionately those focused on the more minor family members. The first couple episodes focus on Michael and George Sr., and they’re very good, but it’s the third episode, focused on Lindsay, that first made me stop the video over and over. Lindsay was never a very fleshed-out character in the first three seasons, in which she largely seemed like a flighty and spoiled cliche who neglected her daughter and wouldn’t leave her obviously gay husband. Yet her first episode is nothing short of staggering. She get another episode later. Tobias gets two. Gob gets two. Maeby gets one. All of them are among the season’s best, and that’s no mean feat.
It’s also in these episodes where the deeper messages of the season resonate most. Near the end of the first episode, Michael arranges to vote someone out of the dormitory in which he’s living with his son. The vote is unanimous that Michael should leave — Michael votes for himself. It’s very clever, and we see that George-Michael can’t muster the courage to break his Dad’s heart. There’s some timely satire of the post-2008 economy, and some riffs on The Social Network. But it’s all more clever than emotionally engaging.
You can see the same timely satire in the Lindsay episode. Eat, Pray, Love gets mocked. There’s an old-school pun about what Tobias thinks is an “acting clinic” named Method One. There’s satire of hipsters’ self-conscious frugality, post economic collapse, with a restaurant that uses the barter system — and where Lindsay and Tobias both end up swapping each other with members of the couple they’re eating with. It’s all very clever. But here, Lindsay’s caught up in the satire. Eat, Pray, Love is an easy target, but Lindsay’s living a lie and is ripe for a search for meaning. Sure, it’s funny that she goes to India and ends up shopping — mostly for counterfeit goods. But it’s also a touching commentary on our wider superficiality. After all, Eat, Pray, Love is a commodity too. I’ve known people who are very close to Lindsay here: drawn to alternative ways of living, intoxicated with having realizations and making fresh starts, and so lacking in an instinct for self-preservation that they wind up in terrible situations. I know Lindsay now, and I never felt that way in the first three seasons. At times like this, the show’s able to make its characters’ constant shifts into a metaphor for the wider culture’s affluent directionless.
The first Gob episode, “Colony Collapse,” is another such example. Fans of the show know Gob as a stupid, egotistical man, obsessed with his own image and terrible at being a magician. We’ve seen his own ego once prevent him from admitting he hadn’t had sex with his wife, which would permit him the annulment he wants. We’ve seen him pull back from his emotions after he discovers his son, Steve Holt.
But in this episode, all of these sad and funny aspects of Gob’s character come together. Sure, there’s some satire of Christianity, but what’s far more resonant is that Gob (whose name sounds like “Job,” after all) plans to escape his marriage by reenacting Jesus’s burial and then disappearing from the tomb. Of course, he’s really pulling a disappearing act on his pending marriage. The trick goes horribly and comically awry, as we’d expect. Then, on the verge of starting a new and healthier life with his son, Gob ditches this to become a member of a pop singer’s entourage. Another disappearing act. In fact, he’s accepted into this entourage because he helps singer Mark Cherry get away — which is, after all, the one thing Gob’s good at. Gob’s “Forget-me-now” pills from the first three seasons reappear here, and we’re introduced to the impossibly brilliant concept in which a pill erases memory of taking the pill but not the event one wants to forget, causing Gob to take pill after pill, day after day. In the first three seasons, these pills were clever and funny, but here it’s abundantly clear that they’re another form of escape. It’s no wonder magic appears to him — and that he’s partial to disappearing acts. Like Lindsay, Gob’s looking for a panacea for his problems: in this regard, marriage and Mark Cherry are no different than going to India or dropping out of society. But Gob’s a character from Bret Easton Ellis, whose Less than Zero is remembered for the phrase “disappear here.” Gob’s had all these traits before, but they’ve never coalesced like this into such a pained and painful portrait.
The episode’s title, “Colony Collapse,” ostensibly refers to bees. Gob’s got the idea of making money raising them, but they’ve got Colony Collapse Disorder, and they play a role in the plot. But of course, “Colony Collapse” also refers to the collapse of the Bluth family. Bees are famous for their ant-like, ordered social structure. Gob’s a sick bee, who lacks such a structure. And all his sick bees end up doing is hurting people — much like Gob, who wants to belong but ends up disappearing at the first sign of responsibility.
Bees are, in fact, one of the elements (beyond all the scenes seen from multiple perspectives) that tie the season together. The second Michael episode is titled “The B. Team.” The Lucille episode is titled “Queen B.” “B” stands for Bluth, who are the real colony that has collapsed. Ostriches also recur, again and again, often representing mystical truth. They appear to both George Sr. and Lindsay, who both take them as divine messages. Lindsay’s new lover works on an ostrich farm, which Lindsay also takes as a sign. Later, the narrator corrects Lindsay, asserting that it was only a coincidence. Everyone this season is busy searching for meaning, in one way or another, and ostriches seem to represent that meaning. But they also represent how meaningless this search may well be. I’ve already mentioned that the first three seasons repeated motifs, but they were never so metaphorical and interwoven into the episode’s themes as they are here.
In another example of an episode transcending its clever humor, the second Gob episode has Gob pretend to be gay to get revenge on his rival, gay magician Tony Wonder. Except that Tony’s also pretending to be gay. They even have the same depression, signaled by same musical cue. The two have so much in common that they fall in love. Or rather, we’re told that they’re both never had friendship, so they confuse these feelings for love, which neither understands. We’ve seen that before, in previous seasons. But here, it’s hard not to wonder if this isn’t really love. After all, “we have so much in common” is something lovers say proudly, and we see Gob and Tony painfully missing one another. All that seems to be missing is sex. But there’s also a fluidity here, which seems to recognize that it’s not odd for heterosexuals to fall in love on occasion with members of the same sex. There’s a thinner line between male bonding and male attraction than some would like to think. Yes, it’s all very funny, and it’s all very clever, but it’s resonant and fascinating.
As this episode continues, Gob and Tony regret that they feel compelled to follow through on their revenge against each other, despite their feelings. They’re stuck in their appointed roles, in their personalities. They consider changing, but they can’t. It’s Gob that Gob can’t escape. He’s the prison he can’t disappear from.
In the episode’s climax, Gob plans to out Tony as straight by using masks of magicians, which are used as part of their tricks — in order to disappear and reappear somewhere else by having someone else pretend to be them. It’s a convoluted plan, but it ends up with Gob in a Tony mask and Tony in a Gob mask, having sex with one another. They stare at the masks poignantly, aware that they’re destroying the person they have feelings for, in order to follow through on their revenge-prone personalities neither can escape. Of course, it’s all absurd and hilarious. But one can’t fail to notice that both men wear masks all the time. And in the climax, both men become each other, embracing each other’s identities, and unite physically. It’s touching, even as it’s over-the-top funny. If we do take their homosexual attraction seriously, as they seem to, both men’s fear of their homosexual feelings is a sign of social stigma and repression — which is so strong that they have to literally wear masks in order to overcome it.
The episode is entitled “A New Attitude,” which recalls all the fresh starts the characters make this season, searching for panaceas to their problems. The title also recalls the “new start” Tobias proclaims in his first episode. In fact, Tobias gets a custom license plate, in which “new” is shortened to “nu,” so that the license plate reads “anustart” — which everyone else reads as “anus tart.” There’s a lot of humor over Tobias’s sexuality in the show, and it’s not always comfortable to watch; there’s a feeling that Tobias’s homosexuality is being mocked, or that homosexuality is a fodder for humor. Similarly, I’m not sure that the show is entirely in control of its meanings, when Gob and Tony have to wear masks of one other in order to have sex. But it’s resonant, and it certainly suggests the hollowness of both Gob and Tony’s identity. Maybe neither can tell whether they’re sexually attracted to each other because neither has an identity, sexual or otherwise.
In the following episode, the only one starring Maeby, there’s a hilarious twist whereby Maeby pimps her own mother, Lindsay. In the second Lindsay episode, it was clear that politician Herbert Love saw Lindsay as a prostitute, whereas Lindsay believes she’s having a relationship. But when Maeby’s dialogue is confused for a confirmation that she’s Lindsay’s pimp, Maeby’s only too willing to accept he money. (As with the presentation of homosexuality, the fact that the show has so few minorities is striking, and the fact that Herbert Love, who’s black, plays into racial stereotypes is uncomfortable to watch in this context.)
It’s all very funny. But beneath the laughter, we see a daughter incapable of changing her mother, who’s deluded and defines herself by superficial things like dating a powerful man — another panacea, another new direction. Maeby’s already expressed her disillusionment with her mother, to the point that Maeby’s clearly given up. Maeby’s also shown herself as opportunistic, and it’s not out of character for her to take the money — especially since Lindsay’s already, at least in Maeby’s eyes, a whore. (A flashback to an earlier episode, in which Lindsay wore a T-shirt emblazoned with the word “SLUT” on it to prison, helps us to feel less judgmental towards Maeby.) It’s a completely over-the-top situation, but it’s also a sad one. Maeby’s a young woman who’s old enough to realize, like most kids, her parents’ self-destructive patterns. But she’s incapable of changing them. Her choice to profit from them might be amoral, but it might also be a very sane act, given the family Maeby comes from.
There’s also a commentary on Lindsay, in her relationship with Herbert Love. The show makes a few puns on Love’s name, in keeping with the first three seasons. But earlier we saw that she didn’t read all of Eat, Pray, Love — she stopped after “pray.” Lindsay, who makes bad decisions in relationships and doesn’t exactly have a healthy family, is missing love. It’s the “love” part of the book she needs to read. When she gets involved with Love, she’s seeking out what she needs in the best way she can, but it’s all bound up with superficiality, with her love of affluence and power — especially after souring on the down-and-out route. And he doesn’t only treat her like a whore; he literally thinks she is one. It’s funny that she doesn’t notice. But it’s also sad, and it speaks volumes about what this family is missing — without being too preachy about it (which didn’t go over well in the Seinfeld finale).
Mitchell Hurwitz, creator of Arrested Development, has long suggested that he wants to make an Arrested Development movie, and the conclusion of season four hints at this idea, in the show’s trademarked metafictional way (which also mirrors the conclusion of the third season). But if season four proves anything, it’s that any of these characters could be spun into their own shows. The episodes — and the characters they reveal — are that strong.