Revisiting Arrested Development – Season 1, Episode 1: Pilot

Hello Avocadians, welcome to the first part of an ongoing series titled “Revisiting Arrested Development.” Before I begin, I should warn you of a few things:
a) This is purely a passion project for me (and the “passion” part of that will become evident very soon). But as such, I’m not working on a specific schedule here – I have a full-time job and multiple other hobbies, so installments will come out whenever the hell I feel like it.
b) These are going to be wordy to say the least.
c) I’m approaching this as someone who’s intimately familiar with the show but hasn’t rewatched it in quite some time; as such, I’ll be operating under the assumption that readers have already seen the series in its entirety. If you have not seen every episode of Arrested Development, I advise turning away now (and watching it from beginning to end immediately).

Now, a introduction to this project – and myself, as a die-hard Arrested Development fan. I discovered Arrested Development in 2004, when the show first started airing on Australian tv. I’d heard about the show on a Futurama forum I frequent, but knew nothing beyond its title. The show was notoriously mistreated by Fox in the US during the original broadcast of the first three seasons, and sadly, it didn’t fare any better here either (at least not on broadcast television, anyway – I should give credit to Foxtel, though – Australia’s equivalent of cable tv – as they promoted it into oblivion when it first premiered, going as far as to dedicate a few entire 30 minute slots to “previewing” the series to Australian audiences). On broadcast television, it originally aired in a weekly 10:30pm slot, before inexplicably disappearing from the air for over half a year following Staff Infection, before re-emerging in an 11:30pm timeslot with a slew of intermittent breaks along the way.

Admittedly, it wasn’t love at first sight for me (I was 15 years old at the time, my comedic sensibilities were still forming!), but I liked it enough to stick with it, and by the time Pier Pressure – the tenth episode of the first season – had come around, I was hooked. I went out and bought the first season on dvd when the show disappeared from the air, and acquired the second season through some less than legal means shortly afterwards (don’t worry – I now own the entire series to date on dvd!), as there was simply no other way for me to see it and I sure as hell wasn’t going to wait indefinitely for another year or so in the meantime. I had become infatuated with the show – at the height of my obsession, probably watching 4-5 episodes a night on average (while cycling through the same two seasons in the process), which sounds excessive, but I still maintain that Arrested Development is layered and rewarding enough that it can survive any amount of repeat viewings. Hell, I was still finding new stuff in episodes I’d seen 50+ times.

Suffice it to say, the show struck a chord that deeply resonated with me, and to this day, I consider it to be the best tv comedy ever created (and probably on par with Breaking Bad for “best tv show,” though the two are so great for such very different reasons it’s impossible to compare them). I could elaborate as to why, but I’m sure we’ll explore my fandom of the show much more over the coming articles, and I should wrap this “introduction” up given that I still haven’t even begun to discuss an actual episode of the show.

Shortly after Arrested Development’s demise, adulthood kicked in, greatly reducing the amount of time I had to keep rewatching the same 53 episodes over and over again. I tried to rewatch the series whenever possible, though the last time I did so was in late 2012/early 2013 when introducing the series to my girlfriend. Since then, what limited rewatching I’ve done was almost exclusively confined to the subsequent fourth season, released on Netflix in May 2013 (and, to date, I think I’ve only seen season 4 maybe 5 or 6 times). As such, this series is going to be an episode-by-episode look at the beloved cult series through the eyes of a hardcore fan (and as someone who wrote part of the individual episode pages on the Arrested Development wiki, I’m going to get VERY in-depth with the background jokes, references, callbacks, foreshadowing and so-forth). I’m also hoping to touch on just what it’s like revisiting a show I once knew so intimately after not having watched some of the episodes in question in over three years, as I can’t deny that my attachment to the show isn’t in some part an emotional one. So, maybe think of this partly as a love story between a very nerdy man and the weird little tv show that was perfectly in tune with him – that shaped his sense of humour and creative endeavours accordingly, and helped get him through some of the toughest times of his life.

For the one person still reading, welcome to:

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SEASON 1, EPISODE 1: Pilot
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz
Directed by Anthony Russo & Joe Russo
Original airdate November 2, 2003

NOTE: As these continue, I will be going by DVD order (production order for season 1, broadcast order for seasons 2, 3 and 4), as I consider this to be the “correct” order of the show. Technically it’s impossible to retain ABSOLUTE continuity in season 2 regardless of what order you put the episodes in, but the dvd order of the show creates the fewest issues.

A good pilot is a tricky feat for any tv show to pull off, and this is doubly so for ensemble comedies. The success of such shows live and die on the chemistry of the cast, and since pilots are generally scripted before any casting decisions have been made, it’s pretty much a given that the end result is hardly going to showcase the series at its full potential. Very few examples come to mind, and while there are some comedy pilots that are far from terrible – Community and 30 Rock spring to mind here – they often don’t resemble what the show eventually becomes (of all the shows that spring to mind, I think Better Off Ted may be the only one that was fully-realised right out of the gate). As most of you are probably aware, Arrested Development relies heavily on continuity, running gags, callbacks and the attention to detail of its increasingly absurd universe – so it’s pretty much impossible for it to be firing on all cylinders in its first episode, or even its first season in general, for that matter. The writers don’t really start to go full throttle on the callbacks and running gags until season 2, making season 1 a little more simplistic, but that’s not to say the show adheres to tv comedy conventions in any way. Hot on the heels of the original British version of The Office, Arrested Development utilises the mockumentary format in a way that’s entirely different to shows that would later become its contemporaries, avoiding talking heads and only sparringly acknowledging the camera (usually a couple of times a season for strictly comedic purposes) – which was a smart decision on the writers’ parts, as it saves them from having to address a whole bunch of logistical issues – such as why cameras would be allowed in the prison – instead opting for the use of a narrator and constant cutaways, to anything from security camera footage to photos and newspaper/yearbook clippings, packing in as many jokes as possible in the process. The Simpsons may have pioneered the concept of the “freeze frame gag” (a visual joke that’s on screen so briefly, one can only fully take it in by pausing the episode), but Arrested Development turned it into an entirely different beast altogether. season 1 is also considerably more subtle and grounded than the subsequent seasons, which I suppose is just part of the show’s natural evolution, but the first episode can definitely bear the proud label of being a great comedy pilot – even if it’s still considerably disparate from the majority of Arrested Devleopment’s run.

Arrested Development’s pilot begins with an in medias res cold opening that introduces us to five of the nine main characters in a mere two minutes (and 15 seconds, if we’re being precise). The image of the camera panning from the sun over the oceans of Orange County to Michael Bluth may not be an memorable shot for everyone, but for me, it’s as iconic as Tony Soprano sitting in the waiting room before his first therapy session. With such a large cast to establish, the show’s trademark breakneck pacing is present right from the first few moments, reducing everyone’s introduction to a line or two that almost fully embodies their character’s personalities. Lucille and Lindsay’s first interaction marks the show’s first instance of sneaking in a line that initially plays as a throwaway gag, but later has an unexpected pay-off (and, in the process, recontextualises itself as a different joke altogether), while Gob delivers one of his most memorable quotes in his very first appearance – and, at the same time, establishes one of the show’s countless running jokes by correcting Michael on his use of the word “trick”:

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An alternate take of the last line (“Or cocaine!”) is used on the extended cut of the pilot, which was assembled from various deleted scenes as a special feature for the season one dvd. As hilarious as it is that Gob believes “cocaine” is somehow more appropriate for children, I think I prefer the original version – the thought of a prostitute “turning tricks” for candy is much more amusing to me. Having said that, the extended cut of the pilot is arguably the better version, as the whole thing just has a lot more room to breathe – the extended cut clocks in at 7 and a half minutes longer in total. I’ll go into this version a little later, but for now, I’d like to focus on the first scenes in the model home, which is where the episode “begins” following its cold opening. The sacrifices Michael has made for the Bluth company are evident immediately, with him and George Michael cooped up in sleeping bags in the attic while the rest of the model home still functions as a display unit for prospective buyers. The show would eventually get a lot of mileage out of the concept of living in a “fake” house. The extended cut followed this scene up with a scene wherein Gob swindles George Michael for $20 in exchange for an incomplete Monopoly set – all under the guise of magic, of course – which had a brilliant pay-off later in the episode:

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But again, I’m getting ahead of myself (sorry guys, I’m bad at the whole “recap” thing). It’s not long before we’re introduced to Tobias, who undoubtedly steals the episode with what little material he’s given. Tobias and Buster were arguably the break-out characters of the show, and it’s not difficult to see why, with David Cross and Tony Hale both throwing themselves in to their unusual roles. Both actors already have great material to work with, but their choices of physical mannerisms and the way in which they deliver their lines elevate that material to an entirely different level. The character of Tobias would unfortunately suffer from some serious Flanderisation in later seasons – spending almost all of season 3 as a sentient punchline – but I suppose I’ll get to that when (or maybe if) I reach that season. Just 39 more of these damn things to go! Anyway, character introductions continue up until the 7 minute (and 22 seconds) mark – much like this review, the episode keeps moving from tangent to tangent, constantly interjecting with exposition and cutaways to further familiarise the audience with the bubble of privilege and ignorance the Bluths have inhabited for their entire lives. This may sound exhausting, but the show’s unique style allows them to get vital information out of the way quickly, while still being entertaining and amusing in the process. Notably, George Sr. doesn’t get an on-screen text introduction like the rest of the cast. This may be because Tambor wasn’t actually supposed to be a main character initially, but then again, neither was Tobias. Luckily, everyone involved quickly saw how rich these characters are and rectified that decision pretty quickly. And on the note of the show’s tendency to jump erratically back and forth along its timeline, the writers use this to its maximum comedic potential, as evidenced by one of the other early big laughs the show provides us:

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I realise I haven’t really touched upon on the episode’s plot thus far, and to be honest, it’s not going to be a huge focus for me with these write-ups. I’d like this project to be a little different than simply recapping and reviewing (other reviews, episode scripts and synopses are just a quick Google search away, after all). However, it’s probably worth noting that, despite all I’ve written about this episode’s use of documentary techniques, the plot is actually very straightforward for an Arrested Development episode: The Bluths are having a retirement party for George Sr, Michael believes he’ll be announced as the next president of the Bluth Company, he isn’t, Michael goes to leave, his family realise they need him, he agrees to stay. Bam. Done. Let’s go home. … No, really, the moment when George Sr. announces Lucille as the new president of the Bluth Company is actually surprisingly effective. The audience has known Michael Bluth for less than ten minutes, and yet this turn of events actually feels like a bit of a gut punch – perhaps in no small part to the brilliant use of Love Will Keep Us Together in the background, which proves to be equal parts hilarious and tragic for what could’ve simply played as an ironic song choice.

Michael’s disappointment, however, is quickly overshadowed when the Securities and Exchange Commission (“They have boats?”) arrive to arrest George Sr. – for “defrauding investors, and using the company as his personal piggy-bank,” as explained by Fox newscaster and soon-to-be recurring character John Beard (who, despite the name, would never make an appearance with facial hair again). While they gather at the police station, Tobias announces he wants to be an actor, having experienced the first of many, many misunderstandings of a homosexual nature… Admittedly, the gay jokes haven’t aged as well as a lot of the show’s quips, but they’re still far from malicious in nature – the joke is always on the ever-oblivious Tobias. Arrested Development was also never a show to shy away from touchy subject matter, as we’ll come to learn once the season starts to unfold; George Sr.’s crimes extend far beyond embezzlement, after all.

Michael decides to part ways with his family for good after Lucille puts Buster in charge of the company, expressing particular disappointment at Lindsay, who he says “should know better.” Buster’s tenure as Bluth Company president is extremely brief (albeit quite funny), and I’m sure the writers would’ve stretched it out a bit longer had they done this plot turn later in the show’s run, but here, it serves largely as a narrative device for the Bluths to realise how much they need Michael. And so, they stage an intervention/imposition, in yet another scene that’s expanded greatly in the extended cut (wherein we learn that the Bluth definition of “intervention” is more of a group critcism session). Michael is not convinced, but decides to give his resignation to George Sr. in person, as per Lindsay’s suggestion, where he is told that George Sr. gave the position to Lucille for (very misguided) legal reasons. Later, while Michael and George Michael are packing up to leave, Lindsay decides to raid the model home for resources, where she stumbles upon a forlorn George Michael who clearly wants his family in his life (most likely due to his incestuous crush on Maeby). This leads us to a fantastic little scene with Michael and Lindsay sitting on the model home stairs, just talking brother-to-sister, and Lindsay admits to Michael that her life is in shambles. Arrested Development almost always goes for laughs over emotion, making this scene somewhat of a rarity for the show, but Jason Bateman and Portia De Rossi play it perfectly, giving us a convincing reason as to why Michael decides to stay (and take the Fünkes in).

So, what was it like to sit down and rewatch the first episode of a show I love so dearly for the first time in three years? Well, as corny as it sounds, it’s like catching up with a very close friend who you haven’t seen in a long time. There’s some initial awkwardness, sure, but you quickly realise they’re still the same person they always were, and you quickly remember why exactly you became friends in the first place. The pilot was one of my most watched episodes of the show – an episode I knew word for word at one point (both versions, too) – so I’m hoping that, as I continue through the show, I’ll eventually get to some less familiar episodes and maybe be tickled by the memory of something I’d long forgotten. But for now, I’m perfectly happy being back in the company of the Bluths, and the beautiful train wreck that is their lives. … It’s Arrested Development.

MY FAVOURITE JOKES/MOMENTS

* Absolutely every moment of Tobias and Michael’s first encounter. Especially David Cross’s perfectly-timed pause after Michael asks him how his job search is going.

* Newspaper headline: “Sleeping Tourist has Sternum Broken.”

* “I knew it was against the law!”

* LUCILLE: Buster, find us a channel to the ocean.
BUSTER: Gee, I don’t really have any of my mapping equipment with me…
LINDSAY: You’ve had $80,000 worth of cartography lessons. Get us a channel to the ocean!
BUSTER: Okay, okay, okay… Okay. Obviously, this blue part here is the land…

* Buster’s hand movements when he asks “Are you at all concerned about an uprising?”

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* “George Michael, grab the coat.” That line always gets overlooked, but the implication that Michael and George Michael have a single coat between them is infinitely hilarious.

MINOR NITPICKS

* If the writers had just 4 episodes’ worth of hindsight, George Sr. almost certainly would have been talking to Kitty on the phone after the S.E.C. showed up (“Save it. Shred it!”), but alas, his accomplice instead goes by the name of Delores, and is never mentioned again.

* And had the writers 29 episodes’ worth of hindset, you can bet that Stan Sitwell would’ve been present during Michael and Gob’s interviews for Sitwell Enterprises. But then again, perhaps he was out grazing – he is an alpaca, after all.

* T-Bone, seen in the “On the next” segment, is played by a different actor in the following episode. Given how brief his appearance is here, however, it’s nowhere near as jarring as the Marta issue that we’ll see in just a few episodes.

EPISODE NOTES

* The extended pilot contains an extra line of narration during Michael’s introduction: “He’s a good man.” I’m happy this was dropped from the “official” version of the episode, as anyone who’s watched the later seasons knows this isn’t true. Michael’s motivations are equally as selfish as the rest of his family, and unlike, say, Gob or Lindsay, Michael can’t really chalk his actions up to ignorance.

* Many running jokes in the show originate from this episode – Michael and George Michael’s banter about what “the most important thing” is, for instance, along with one of my favourite silent background characters, Freedom Sign Guy, who makes multiple appearances throughout season 1 (generally whenever there’s a protest, or a group of gay men). Tobias’s announcement that he wants to be an actor – coupled with the noise he makes afterwards and the gesture he does with his hands – gets called back to a couple more times later this season, and each time someone makes a similar announcement, the same audio of David Cross’s excited inhaling sound from this episode plays.

* There’s a lot of universe building here. Aside from the obvious fixtures of the show, such as the model home and Lucille’s penthouse (both of which were originally shot on location, and as such, are replicated on a sound stage from episode two onwards), smaller things like the Aztec tomb, the Alliance of Magicians and Sitwell Enterprises all come back in notable capacities as the show progresses. The frozen banana stand is also a major focal point for the next episode.

* The show also lays in a few hints as to who’s really in charge of the family’s shady dealings; namely George Sr. insisting that a husband and wife cannot be arrested for the same crime – which would seemingly imply that Lucille is also complicit in his illegal activities (not to mention making Lucille the president). And then there’s this line: “The S.E.C. is making him out to be some kind of mastermind, which believe me, he’s not. The man could barely work our shredder.””

* A few small moments from the pilot are later mirrored in the season 1 finale, Let ‘Em Eat Cake. And the season 3 finale, Development Arrested (originally titled Harbouring Resentment, up until just a days before it aired), mirrors several major scenes. Had the Netflix revival never happened, the show would’ve begun and ended with a boat party.

* Executive producer Ron Howard also serves as the show’s narrator, uncredited in the role until the Netflix revival. It’s well-known amongst fans that the amount of narration in the show steeply increases as it continues, but it’s not the only major change to the “character” of the narrator: Initially, he’s bluntly stating the facts in a very impartial, non-judgemental manner – whereas later, he would start expressing more opinions on things, and even make the occasional snide remark. Moreover, when I rewatched this, I was struck by just how dull and monotonous his narration was here, especially in comparison to the more animated, upbeat way tone of voice the narrator possesses in later seasons. This isn’t to disparage Ron Roward at all – it works just fine, and actually fits the more subdued tone of the show’s earlier episodes nicely – but it’s something I hadn’t quite picked up on before, and will definitely be listening out for any significant “turning points” in Ron Howard’s delivery going forward.

EPISODE TRIVIA

* The “on the next” segment was originally done as a bit of a joke when screening the episode to the network executives – a (fictitious) preview at where the show could go from here, if you will. It eventually became one of the staples of the show, with the joke being that the footage seen rarely ever actually appeared in the next episode (though was still considered 100% canon – often being flashed back to in later episodes).

* The original script for the pilot also contained a joke about George Michael expressing discomfort over his name – followed by a smash cut to the footage of singer/songwriter George Michael getting arrested – and Michael suggesting he start going by “Boy George” – you can guess what comes next. This bit never made it to the filming stage, but the joke would later find its way into season 4.

* In the dvd commentary, we are told that no one else in the cast had seen David Cross in character as Tobias prior to filming his first scene. Apparently, this shot of Michael is Jason Bateman’s actual reaction to seeing David cross’s performance for the first time:

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(I can’t say they were being 100% truthful on the commentary due to its very jokey nature, but I want so badly to believe that this particular anecdote is true)

* Jeffrey Tambor had his hand over his mouth when saying the words “f**king attorneys.” In later episodes (I think starting from about the mid-point of the first season), the show would make a conscious effort to cover the characters’ mouths when there were beeps in their lines, but this particular instance was completely unintentional. When he repeats this line in Let ‘Em Eat Cake, they sample the same audio from the pilot.

* A 14 year old Michael Cera improvised this fantastic bit of visual comedy (and you can see Alia Shawkat almost breaking as a result):

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* The name “Gob” is an abbreviation for George Oscar Bluth (as evidenced by George Michael, there’s definitely a tradition within the Bluth family to carry first names through the next generation), but also doubles as a reference to Jeb Bush. Maeby’s name is a combination of Mitch Hurwitz’s daughter’s names – May and Phoebe.

* I’ve kind of glossed over a lot of stuff in terms of how the series came to be – particularly in regards to Ron Howard’s involvement and a lot of the high-profile guest stars the show was able to snag quite early in its run. For those who are interested in such things, there’s some decent reading on it here. I would also recommend a feature on the season 1 dvd titled “Breaking Ground: Behind the Scenes of Arrested Development,” which is quite good as far as 15 minute behind-the-scenes dvd features go.

… Okay, I’m done talking now. Feel free to discuss what little is left to discuss about the pilot, everyone!

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