This feature contains spoilers.
The news that cult comedy Arrested Development is to finally get a fourth series, exclusively available on Netflix in 2013, had a legion of loyal fans cheering away. Me included.
An under-appreciated gem, AD reminded the world – or the people that saw it, anyway – that American comedy could be wonderfully acted and smartly written. Not since the nineties pomp of Frasier, Seinfeld and the early years of The Simpsons had audiences been treated to writing so tightly constructed, witty and plain funny.
Taking a smug satisfaction in telling your friends about this wonderful show they do not know about yet is a joy shared by many geeks. Converting them into AD fans is even more of a treat.
The show expects a lot of its audience. Arrested Development avoids canned laughter, makes all kinds of obscure cultural references, utilises wordplay constantly, and has all manner of running in-jokes that only make sense to its ardent fans. It really is a show perfect for the geeks among us.
It may not be instantly accessible. It may be slightly elitist, even. It certainly isn’t ‘leave-your-brain-at-the-door’ comedy like so many shows. But it is brilliant, and hopefully this pick of its five best episodes will help to explain why.
Top Banana (series one, episode two)
A fantastic episode, Top Banana avoids having to do the heavy-lifting (in terms of set-up) of the pilot, and instead carries out some fantastic early characterisation of some of our core cast members. Tobias, Lucille and Gob steal the show.
David Cross is already at his eccentric best as Tobias, instantly proving that he would be the cult character fans would be quoting years on. A former therapist yearning to be an actor, Tobias slightly overdoes his first audition for a ‘fire sale’ TV advert. I won’t say any more for the uninitiated, as it’s a scene really worth watching cold, but it is comedic gold.
Gob is insecure, Lucille is cold-hearted, Tobias is… well, Tobias, and already the characters (and the talented actors portraying them) are establishing themselves as hilarious viewing.
Storming the Castle (series one, episode ten)
Storming the Castle revolves around Michael’s desire to become a little less like himself, and a bit more like the rest of his family, meaning: he wants to become a selfish asshole. And all because a crappy model home chair collapses beneath him.
Michael is undoubtedly the show’s central character, and the glue that holds the family together. This episode makes him evaluate how he sees himself, and how his selflessness and efforts to keep the family together may be holding him back from what he wants.
What he wants is Gob’s girlfriend, Marta. What unfolds is a plot for him to sabotage their relationship. Predictably he doesn’t pull the trigger and instead pulls through for his brother, with funny results.
What clinches this episode’s spot in the top five isn’t Michael’s doomed attempt at deceit though, it’s the first time we see Gob performing magic set to The Final Countdown by 80s band Europe. Just hilarious stuff. Will Arnett proves his worth to the series in this one scene, in a bloody awful David Copperfield-esque show of posturing and prancing round the stage.
Alongside the main plot thread is George Sr’s conversion to Judaism, Buster’s tug-of-war between Lucille Ostero and his mother Lucille, George Michael’s smooth lady-legs and Tobias accidentally stumbling into a gay club. All brilliant moments, all crammed into a tight twenty minutes, something that becomes a defining characteristic of the show.
¡Amigos! (series two, episode three)
This episode marks the only appearance of Lucille’s private eye Gene Parmesan, and what an impact he makes. Martin Mull gives a very funny performance as the investigator, and it sets off a chain of mistrust among the Bluths, having each other followed to find out the truth about what’s going on.
Michael’s father George Sr is on the run from the police, and Parmesan tracks him down in Mexico, spotting the Bluth’s family car – an aeroplane stair-car and arguably the least subtle getaway car in history, for the record – in a small town called Encanta. Michael goes down to find him, pursued by Gob and his own bounty hunter, Ice.
The episode embraces classic tropes that run throughout the series – Gob’s insecurities and hunt for approval and companionship, Michael’s dislike of his son’s girlfriend Ann, and Buster’s cluelessness about life in general. It also reintroduces Gob’s brilliant chicken dance, which becomes a running gag throughout the series.
I’m trying to hold back on using superlatives to describe Tobias, but he does have some brilliant moments in this episode. David Cross is so perfectly cast, Tobias really would not work in the hands of anyone else. Frankly, any episode where Tobias, a former therapist, coldly criticises a man’s understanding of marriage because his wife has died has got to get a mention.
Good Grief (series two, episode four)
It seems as if the writers of Arrested Development hit a purple patch during the early stages of the second series.
Ice, now a bounty hunter for Michael, returns from Mexico to inform him that George Sr has supposedly died there. The family hide the news from Buster, fearful it might push him over the edge.
This episode is one of the rare occasions where the entire Bluth family is focused on the same thing, as opposed to branching subplots that separate the characters. It shows the strength of the ensemble cast, with Will Arnett and Tony Hale particularly shining as Gob and Buster. I get a kick out of the love/hate relationship these two share – Buster loves Gob, Gob hates Buster – and it is explored nicely here.
The laughs come thick and fast too – George Sr being found in a hole à la Saddam Hussein, Gob’s horrible failed magic trick at George Snr’s wake, and George Michael’s eulogy about a grandfather he knows is alive all made me laugh riotously. All the perfect ingredients, really.
Meat the Veals (series two, episode sixteen)
Geek favourite Alan Tudyk, of Firefly and Serenity fame, makes an appearance in this episode and that alone makes it worthy for consideration of this list.
Tudyk plays Pastor Veal, father of George Michael’s girlfriend, Ann. The episode centres around a Bluth family party, and for once, the humour comes from the family just being normal. Michael invites Pastor Veal and his wife round to a family party, hoping that the family’s outlandish behaviour will put them off the idea of George Michael getting pre-pre-engaged to Ann.
It is Michael’s own behaviour that drives the wedge there, when Pastor Veal’s wife makes a pass at him. This becomes the catalyst for the lid being blown off the powder-keg of Bluth normality, climaxing with two fist fights in Pastor Veal’s church.
It is a great example of how the show can take a small premise and crescendo to madness and crazy situations that other shows might not be able to pull off. One of Arrested Development‘s greatest strengths is its ability to tread that fine line between hilarity and annoying ridiculousness. The ending of Meat the Veals demonstrates that perfectly, which makes it a fitting episode with which to conclude this list.
(Incidentally, for anyone cursing the lack of season three episodes on this list, I don’t feel it’s as strong as those first two seasons. That isn’t to say it isn’t hilariously funny, but on a re-watch to write this article, it doesn’t have the consistent spark of those first two seasons. Gotta love Charlize Theron playing a Brit, though. Even with that twee accent.)
Find out why you should catch up on Arrested Development before its fourth season, here.
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