Arrested Development: 4.01 “Flight of the Phoenix”
Posted by therebelprince on June 2, 2013
She’s finally here, folks: the fourth season of sitcom juggernaut Arrested Development. I’ll be looking at the 15 episodes over the next couple of weeks, trying to offer redemptive readings of a series that – perhaps because of its unusual distribution format – has received some fascinatingly mixed reviews. At the conclusion of this, I’ll be posting my attempt at the fourth season’s timeline which, in my opinion, holds up pretty damn well.
“Stupid, forgetful Michael” — George Oscar “GOB” Bluth II
Please note this review contains spoilers for the entire fourth season of the series.
My usual format will be as follows: a general review of the episode and its place in the overall season’s structure, followed by a listing of some interesting call-backs/call-forwards, and then finally a growing list of current suspects in the Who [bleeped] [bleep] mystery.
4.01 Flight of the Phoenix
written by Mitch Hurwitz
directed by Mitch Hurwitz & Troy Miller
As the protagonist of Arrested Development and the presumptive “straight man” of the series, Michael Bluth may have often been trying to do the right thing, but over the course of the first three seasons it became clear that he, too, had his hypocritical side. He was too keen to be proven the “good son”, always willing to go back on his morals, seemingly unable to avoid sharing a love interest with his son or his brother, and possibly – in the words of his twin sister Lindsay – an “impotent man-boy”. (It’s no accident that his greatest childhood memory involves playing Peter Pan.) So it seems fitting to find Michael Bluth sharing a dorm room with his son, George Michael, studying at the University of Phoenix (although admittedly, doing so online) and unable to sense that perhaps when you’re sharing the same shower cubicle as your son – despite a perfectly useful one right next to it – you might be crossing some boundaries. (Knowing which side of the border you’re on is one of the season’s running themes, after all.)
Flight of the Phoenix tracks Michael’s development from the catastrophic boat party that ended the show’s third season to his decision to move to Phoenix, six months before the Cinco de Cuatro festival that opens the season and will recur throughout. The unusual circumstances of the fourth season led to the decision to film the episodes out-of-sequence (and often in dribs and drabs) to work around the hectic schedules of the cast. Flight of the Phoenix is the tale of fathers and sons, giving us Michael, George Michael, and George Sr (with a splash of GOB and Maeby). While this leads to some frustrating moments where our main actors get few chances to work opposite one another, it does create a more legitimate reason for further episodes of Arrested Development than just “these guys are funny”. Don’t get me wrong, I’d happily watch the Bluths continue to wallow in their self-delusions for decades to come. But it’s satisfying to see the series really explore its title. The decision to move to Phoenix has been driving Michael since the show’s pilot but he’s never able to escape. Wanting to be the “good guy” has held him close to the family for many years (and even when he has been estranged from the Bluths, it’s primarily out of … well, exactly the same reason). Yet he’s also a bit of a jerk, as we see when he guilts his son into staying in the dorm. Unlike so many sitcom straight-men, Jason Bateman thankfully got a lot of credit for his portrayal of Michael, and he’s still able to anchor the series with his impotent man-boyness. Michael Cera’s “awkward teen” shtick is no longer as revolutionary as when the series began, but I think the script finds enough points of difference between the two characters to make their relationship still work. The pair have always been humouring one another, from George Michael going cycling with his dad to Michael continuing with “Take Your Daughter to Work Day” long after it was fashionable. It appears, though, that Michael has now become the dominant one. He’s no longer interested in giving up anything for his son. Michael forces George Michael (who hates that name) to go along with the “wet stamp” plan to get two-for-the-price-of-one at the UC cafeteria, but there’s no give-and-take anymore. George Michael can vocally complain about roommate privacy invasions, but nothing is getting through. If anything, Flight of the Phoenix pushes Michael into becoming more like his father, just as it will push Lindsay more and more toward becoming a Lucille Jr. (Even after Marta Estrella almost tore the family apart, Michael still hasn’t bothered to learn the Spanish word for brother.)
One thing that becomes clearer as the season develops is that this isn’t Michael’s story anymore than it is Lindsay’s or Lucille’s or Buster’s. The first thing we see alongside Ron Howard’s warm-up coughing is the devastation wrought by Cinco de Cuatro, a holiday devised by – get this – Lucille Bluth in an attempt to deplete party supplies for the Mexicans celebrating their own event the next day. (The festival’s name – which should be “Cuatro de Mayo” rather than “Cinco de Cuatro”, which means “Fifth of Four” – is both a long-running addition to the idea that Bluths can’t speak Spanish, and also a neat reference to a gaffe made by Barack Obama in 2009, being the first of the Obama references in this season.) It seems likely that scheduling conflicts were the main reason behind the decision to recast Young Lucille and George with other actors as opposed to continuing the tradition of our regular cast in wigs, but I can’t complain. Kristen Wiig is simply stunning as Lucille Bluth, capturing all of Jessica Walter’s facial tics, while Seth Rogen isn’t perfect but he has a neat understated manner of speaking that suits the character well. This is going to be a season about all nine of our main characters, even if scheduling conflicts require a few of them to be conveniently out of the way. And with seven years’ distance from the original series, the writers have lost any sincerity they may have once felt for their creations. This is a season where Annyong appears for a delightfully mean five seconds and at least one of our main characters may become a murderer (although, honestly, I find that unlikely as we’ll discuss another time). It’s not just Sally Sitwell who has become much colder toward the Bluths.
So, how does Flight of the Phoenix hold up? The first few episodes of season four require some flexibility on the part of a new viewer. Many of the jokes are hidden in plain sight (George Michael and P-Hound’s FakeBlock discussion) or obvious but without any clear meaning yet (the ostrich-destroyed Balboa Towers apartment is an amusing image, but we’re just waiting to see why it’s amusing). On rewatching, however, I’m very satisfied with how the episode holds up. Perhaps it’s because my 2003 self came from a background of traditional sitcoms, whereas my favourite works of the 2000s include Louie and Curb Your Enthusiasm, so I don’t mind the stretches of character work and imagery being laid here. There are plenty of neat little references and conceptual moments, some of my favourites being GOB mimicking the narrator regarding his “recent unpleasantness”, the return of Stacey Grenrock Woods are reporter Trisha Thoon (and her Wee BBC2 counterpart, Beatrix Hebberly-Sneed), Lucille fleeing on “whatever the opposite of a maiden voyage is”, a great cameo from Adam DeVine as an unfriendly TSA agent, and the brilliant cut between the narrator’s “soon the hearing draw near” and Barry Zuckerkorn’s “Well, I missed the hearing”. Henry Winkler is in fine form – in fact, he and Liza Minnelli appear more often in the season than some of the regular cast! – although it’s of note that they’ve mostly dropped the gay references to his character. Similarly, the homosexual elements of Tobias’ arc seem quite toned down this year. I wonder if this is because the actors preferred the incompetent sides of their characters, or if Hurwitz and the team felt they didn’t want to keep going back to some of those wells. (Barry’s sexual perversions do lead to one of the series’ funniest background jokes, but we’ll get to that another time.)
The intertwined structure will reveal some flaws down the track as the season attempts to build to a climax while also laying groundwork for potential future plotlines, but Flight of the Phoenix works much better as one part of a grand plan than it does standing alone. GOB, George, Lucille, and Maeby appear only as stepping stones on Michael’s journey which definitely creates a lack of cohesiveness throughout the script. For some this will be a recurring concern – isolating Lucille and George Michael’s characters from the main plot for most of the season creates some challenges, while Buster sits out much of the run despite being available in the show’s world possibly because of Tony Hale’s schedule. Still, I’m impressed by everything Flight of the Phoenix accomplishes. The longform joke of Michael preparing the bloc voting against P-Hound will only amuse some, but for me his complex planning is hysterical. It’s a joking trope Arrested Development doesn’t do very often, where we know the outcome but watch a character fight against it. Yet knowing that Michael is doomed to failure makes his conspiring all the funnier. Meanwhile, I adore Jason Bateman fighting vainly with a tumbleweed and then trying to be as dignified as possible while standing next to a vulture. As a character, Michael Bluth has to do triple service: as the strangehold around George Michael’s neck, as the straight man to a family of loons, and as a key example of someone trying to break away from the family and failing to do so. He may seem more genuine than Lindsay in his desire to find something more in life, but it’s all a facade. It’s perhaps harder to create a script as strong as Señoritis from this, but it also means there’s much more to explore than the two George Sr episodes, which definitely scour every last possible joke one could make about the character… and then some. We end up with the genuinely sad moment of Michael opening the fourth ballot – which leaves open a conflict that will run until the final episode of the season – and then Michael departing California with hope. So of course the last thing we see is Michael returning (at this point, inexplicably) to the apartment just a few months later. If you’d rung up the Bluths to check on his medical appointment, they wouldn’t even have realised Michael was gone. He’ll return. He always does.
Series creator Mitchell Hurwitz got in some trouble on social media in the days after Flight of the Phoenix‘s release by suggesting that fans and critics who didn’t like the changes to the series were not willing to change with the medium. While I respect the idea that not everyone will enjoy season 4 as much as I do (and am eagerly looking forward to some of the more intelligent reviewers like those at the AV Club sharing their thoughts), I’m also reminded of a great piece at that same website on how Community changed as it went along. Of course, TV shows have their ups-and-downs. Writing staff changes, cast get more power as the years go by, old ideas are run into the ground, shows risk either changing their formula for the negative or resisting change to an absurd degree, networks add in new concepts that don’t suit, and so on. At the same time, shows need to evolve. The longterm fans of this show are 10 years older than they were when it began. We’ve changed so much; where is the line between enjoying something for nostalgia’s sake, and enjoying it in a reciprocal manner? Should a show attempt to grow with its audience, or should it keep repeating the same beats? (Not, mind you, that I’m saying Community is as good now as it once was.) And how does this affect an audience watching something long after the fact? I grew up with the Harry Potter books, which allowed me to age at almost the same rate as the characters. Children reading these books now in the span of a couple of months will find a series that was originally written for young teens and eventually became a series aimed at adults. This leads to an unusual relationship with the reader in the same way that someone coming to a Seinfeld or Futurama now must deal with. Anything that spans a decade or more is going to challenge those trying to see it as a unified whole, particularly if it constantly engages with popular and political culture.
Which brings us back to Arrested Development. Which is it, then? Is it deliberate that Michael’s smartphone calendar is stuck in the year 2003? Do we want an endless string of jokes about cutoffs and frozen bananas against all logic and reason? Are fans being foolish yearning for the kind of taut, tight farces where nine plots come together in a 22-minute period, rather than singular character stories? Or is there some truth to the notion that stretching out these one-dimensional joke machines into characters worthy of holding up an episode longer than half an hour was ultimately a mistake? For me, I think the first two-and-a-half episodes require some benevolence in viewing. The series has a lot of pieces to move into play, hampered by an unpredictable filming schedule and the awareness from day one that it was never going to be able to replicate the style of the first three seasons. Instead, the writers attempted something akin to creating one long episode. What we’re seeing here in Flight of the Phoenix is the first two minutes of an Arrested Development episode, setting up a series of character dilemmas and the seeds of future plots. Some will say that if the series couldn’t get the whole cast back together, it shouldn’t have bothered. Or should have done a short, six-episode run to better capture the original. Some may say that these episodes lack the consistent belly-laughs of the classic episodes. Ultimately, I’m not onboard with that. I’ve enjoyed seeing these sitcom characters set adrift in the real world (or something like it) and completing this rewatch has assured me that the series has never felt better. The phoenix of the title is, of course, Arrested Development itself. So for now, “adios brothiero”.
(Miscellaneous musings below)
Thoughts and musings:
- On first watching, I was convinced that GOB had slept with Lindsay. I’ll be interested to see how the show messes with our assumptions about the identity of the hairless legs in future episodes.
- The opening credits of each episode are different, with the character descriptions fitting their relationships to the nominally central character. The musical ornaments are also played on a different instrument for each character, with Michael’s being a trumpet.
- The first episodes filmed were the two Michael installments and then the two George Sr. episodes, perhaps explaining why a lot of these four include more set-up than they do pay-off.
- I’ll be honest: I find forget-me-now jokes have diminishing returns, particularly as the loose definition of exactly what you forget causes some confusion throughout the season. On the other hand, I love that “maritime law” – originally a one-time joke – becomes such a solid running gag this year. “Maybe YOU should be the maritime lawyer”.
- A solid burn from Sally Sitwell at the start of the episode. She’s a much crueler character this time around. (And she has such lovely hair…)
- Check out that mural Michael passes on arrival at Phoenix Airport. It appears to cover the series’ history from the staircar to a loose seal. Maybe Annyong has found work as an artist in the years since?
- The “SHOWSTEALER PRO TRIAL VERSION” watermark appears across the original series flashbacks, confusing many, many fans on first viewing. The implication, I guess, is that Ron Howard and his hack documentarians were too cheap to pay for that footage? (Callbacks to a certain Yellow Submarine reference?) In the final episodes of the season, the SHOWSTEALER license expires.
- Ron’s Dr. Seuss-like narration of the Cinco de Cuatro plan at first confused me, until I realised on rewatch that Lucille’s makeup is rather Grinchlike.
- Richard Jin Namkung as P-Hound might be my favourite new character.
- Oh jeez, I never before noticed that Lucille Austero’s apartment is number 2.
- There’s a camera crew on campus at UC filming The Real The Graduate, which doesn’t appear to come back in the season, but ties in obliquely to Maeby’s career (and thematically to her relationship with Perfecto Telles) and into GOB’s consistent Graduate-esque moments of tuning out to the strains of The Sounds of Silence. It’s also the first in a long line of fake reality TV shows that pepper the season’s run.
- I can’t believe it took me 10 years to notice it, but Michael’s childhood experience in a mock courtroom ties in nicely with Mock Trial with J. Reinhold.
- We only see Lindsay without knowing it, but the only main character not to appear this week is Tobias.
- People not at Lucille’s trial this week: Michael, George Michael.
- Young Lucille’s maid is Rosa, of course.
- GOB’s “love with a man” speech is severely truncated here, but will make much more sense later. Perhaps I was just giddy when I first watched, but I like how cleverly GOB’s speechifying is written here. It sounds like something GOB would say anyway ( “something embarrassing with a woman? Then, no I don’t”) but, of course, will pay off in spades later in the season.
- As GOB exits the farmacia, we see George Sr entering, wearing a cute hat.
- The subtitle below George Michael’s name lists him as “a nice kid”. This is not only a neat reference to Michael being the “good guy”, but also emblematic of George Michael’s entire struggle this season.
- There’s some clever misdirection here, with the dorm room scenes leading us to believe the cousins have been carrying on an illicit relationship for five years when in fact they’ve barely seen one another.
- The twin nepotism of Dean and Doug Fleer (John and Matt Yuan) will bring about George Michael’s downfall at season’s end.
- George Michael and Michael can’t figure out how to work a phone, which isn’t the first time Bluths have struggled in this department.
- It’s neat how George Michael’s open dislike of his name – a name we learn was given to him by his mother, Tracey – is here a further strike against Michael’s confidence, but will also be the source of so much confusion down the track.
- FaceBlock is, for the first time, described as the “anti-social network”. Did Michael Cera’s vague resemblance to Jesse Eisenberg inspire this arc?
- Michael loses a vote in a spectacular fashion, much as he did back in highschool.
- Young Michael is felled by a loose courtroom seal.
- George Sr is calling himself Big Bear now!
- When Michael borrows $700,000 from Lucille 2, she still has vertigo. Clearly, she’s overcome this again by present day.
- Michael calls Lucille a “hot mess”, kicking off a season of references, although he presumably picked up the phrase from her at some point since she was first put under house arrest.
- Pete the mailman’s final words? “Love each other!”
- Michael of course, does the Charlie Brown walk. He really packs his bags, which is far more than George Michael does later in the season in a similar situation. (In fact, we’ll see in It Gets Better that George Michael didn’t even pack his bag this time!)
- Michael should learn to listen when cabbies tell him not to touch a hot door.
- Michael sees Lindsay in the corridor without realising it. “Gentlemen, start your engines.”
- Buster’s hook is now bejeweled (a present, we’ll discover, from Lucille to “mollify her alibi”), although he keeps losing the jewels.
Who killed Lucille 2?
#1. Michael Bluth – owed Lucille 2 $700,000. Despite his implication that he [bleeped] his way out of it, that doesn’t really seem to fit with the timeline. So what exactly did Michael do to sort out the problem?
#2. Stan Sitwell – sold his shares to Lucille 2 and has a lot at stake against both the Wall, and the Austero-Bluth company.