Revisiting Arrested Development – Season 1, Episode 20: Whistler’s Mother

Oh, Revisiting Arrested Development readers, this guy’s got nothing in his life. He wrote one song that made Joan Baez call him “the shallowest man in the world.” He has a worthless piece of property, and, yes, a head of hair. Only because he’s never had to work for a living!

It’s…

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SEASON 1, EPISODE 20: Whistler’s Mother
Written by John Levenstein & Jim Vallely
Directed by Paul Feig
Original airdate April 11, 2004

This may be a bit of a “hot take” among Arrested Development fans, but I think I actually prefer Oscar over George Sr. The family dynamics in the show are so fully-realised, and George Sr is certainly an interesting character with a lot of layers – namely the way he constantly berates his children and composes himself with faux masculinity, despite so clearly being wrapped around Lucille’s finger – but Oscar shows us a different type of Bluth, one who possesses many of the family’s traits while having largely avoided the drama and deceit that comes with being in their orbit. Perhaps it’s Oscar’s more subdued, almost kind nature (he’s certainly selfish and inconsiderate, but he rarely actively harms anyone else), or maybe George Sr’s aforementioned traits remind me too much of my own father, but one of the best things about this episode and the next – and most of season 2, for that matter – is seeing Oscar come so thoroughly into his own as a character. And, of course, Jeffrey Tambor deserves nothing but effusive praise for his portrayal of both roles. It’s honestly very easy to forget sometimes that both characters are played by the same person.

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In addition to serving as Oscar’s introduction, Whistler’s Mother is a reliable (if unremarkable) installment of the show, perhaps most memorable for Gob and Tobias’s brief-but-hilarious foray into the world of business in the form of Gobias Industries. As in, “go buy us some coffee.” There isn’t much of a thematic through-line with the narratives here, though almost everything ties in with Michael’s lemon of a deal, which is, of course, a literal lemon grove. There are plenty of amusing moments here (such as George Michael and Maeby’s near-misunderstanding on the secret “about the hair that nobody’s supposed to see,” or us learning that Lindsay once picketed Michael to get cable), but the highlight here is the surprising change in dynamic in Michael and Lucille’s relationship. For once, Michael screws up, everyone blames George Sr, and he desperately needs his mother’s help to fix it. Watching Lucille at her most maternal – while still being cold and terrifying – is utterly joyous, and makes me almost sad the show hasn’t explored this side of Lucille more.

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Unfortunately, the recent political events in the US made it a little difficult to enjoy Lindsay’s sub-plot, which involved being caged in a “free speech zone” with other protesters, getting hosed down by rednecks who thought they were witnessing a gay marriage, and then proceeded to ogle a cage-dancing Lindsay. This of no fault of the show, of course (and, admittedly, Lucille driving past, muttering that the woman could use a good mother, and then yelling “WHORE” is still absolute gold), but it might be a while before I’m able to laugh at jokes about intolerant people again. Nonetheless, Whistler’s Mother is a solid episode with a lot of humorous moments, and provides some vital pieces to the puzzle that is Michael and Lucille’s relationship. Not to mention giving us the perfect introduction to Oscar – one which retains a mysterious element in all his scenes, while still somehow perfectly encapsulating him as a character. We may not know exactly who Oscar is yet, but he is undeniably a Bluth.

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MY FAVOURITE JOKES/MOMENTS

* MICHAEL: Well, this money is for land, okay? We’re not going to burn through it like Dad did when he was in charge with his bad investments and his corrupt dealings… Mother’s neck…
LINDSAY: No, that was a good investment.
MICHAEL: It is easier to look at now, isn’t it?

(Later, when Oscar sees Lucille again, he compliments her by saying “You still have the neck of a 20-year-old.”)

* LINDSAY: I just feel like using my body.
TOBIAS: Well, Lindsay, could you use it over there? I’m trying to grow.
LINDSAY: Yeah. Well, it’s clear that’s not going to happen.

* MICHAEL: What is the matter of life and death?
LUCILLE: Buster’s jaw clicks when he eats.

I also LOVE Jessica Walter’s delivery on this follow-up line later in the episode:

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* The flashback with Mr. Vandenbosch’s mysterious disappearance is wonderfully dark.

* GEORGE SR: Michael, this is my brother. Do you know what it’s like to have a sibling who has no source of income except for you?
MICHAEL: Just one? No, no idea. It sounds wonderful, though.

* I’m not quite sure I’d call the whistle scene one of my all-time favourites, but it’s a very funny scene nonetheless:

(Also hilarious – Lucille closing the episode out by asking “Why have we been spending so much money on whistles?”)

* MICHAEL: Is this about the money?
GOB: No.
MICHAEL: What do you want?
GOB: …It’s not about money in the sense that I’m coming here saying, “Here, Michael. Take some money.” It’s just more of a “may I have some” kind of visit.

* This brilliant back-and-forth between Gob and his wife:

* “Well, I’ve always wanted to remake “Annie Hall”. Except, I wouldn’t want to get in bed with a green producer like a Sofia Coppola though. Oh, but give me an old pro like a Robert Redford. Oh, I’d jump into bed with him in a second. And I wouldn’t just lie there, Michael Bluth, if that’s what you’re thinking!”

* NARRATOR: Gob and Tobias accidentally had Michael on the hook, and they didn’t want to blow the deal…

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MICHAEL: … I guess that’s a response.

* OSCAR: Well, you do the best with what you have. I have lemons, I make lemonade.
MICHAEL: That’s a very positive attitude.
OSCAR: But I hate the lemonade business, I hate the grind. You have to grind so many *beep*ing lemons.
MICHAEL: You’re not a very metaphorical person, are you?

* Despite my above comments about Lindsay’s sub-plot, this did still get a laugh out of me:

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* TOBIAS: I’m afraid this offer comes off the table at midnight tonight.
MICHAEL: That may be the worst bluff I’ve ever seen.

* MICHAEL: I misspoke. My dad, in no way, is talking about business from prison.
TED: Excuse me. Your father’s calling from prison. He wants to talk to you about the land deal you made with his brother.

* LUCILLE: Shh. Shh-shh-shh-shh-shh.
MICHAEL: What’s this? What’s happening?
LUCILLE: It’s going to be all right.
MICHAEL: Why are you squeezing me with your body?
LUCILLE: It’s a hug, Michael; I’m hugging you.
MICHAEL: Well, why?
LUCILLE: Because you need your mother right now.
MICHAEL: But I don’t get along with m… Sorry, that was, that was a knee jerk.

MINOR NITPICKS

* There’s a gag where Michael suggests Lindsay goes back to her roots, which causes her to go and get her hair done. While that’s a solid pun, I think it would’ve been better had the writers not had Michael actually say “You’re going to get your hair done, aren’t you?” and just shown Lindsay at the hair salon later – letting the viewers figure out the joke for themselves.

* I always hated the gag with Oscar farting repeatedly in the coffee shop. I’m not necessary adverse to fart jokes (hell, I’m a huge South Park fan, so I’m more than used to them at this point), but for them to work in a show like Arrested Development, they need to be especially clever, and this one just wasn’t.

EPISODE NOTES & TRIVIA

* The title of this episode is a reference to a famous painting by James McNeill Whistler, and also refers to Lucille, who effectively becomes a whistler’s mother when Michael buys all the whistles (it could also be a loose reference to the way Gob whistled when chipping his tooth earlier in the season).

* This is the first Arrested Development episode to be directed by Paul Feig, who’s become a pretty big name in the comedy industry since then (and already had a pretty impressive résumé even at the time of this episode’s production). He would also direct the season 1 finale, Let ‘Em Eat Cake, along with five other episodes throughout the second and third seasons.

* As mentioned, this is the first episode where Oscar appears (though George Sr. did mention in Missing Kitty that he had a twin brother). Oscar becomes a very important character, particularly in the second season, where he is present in all but one episode. He also appears in the next episode, Not Without My Daughter, along with three episodes in the third season, and six episodes in the fourth season.

* Buster does not appear in this episode (though this is actually acknowledged, with Lucille explaining that he’s getting dental surgery in Canada).

* Amy Poehler makes her final season 1 appearance as Gob’s (now ex) wife. She would reprise the role one last time in season 2’s Motherboy XXX.

* In the flashback to a young Michael with Lucille, Michael can be heard saying “Tracy won’t marry me,” implying Michael and his now-deceased wife knew each other as children. I’ve previously mentioned my theory that Michael is so awful to Ann because George Michael and Ann’s relationship reminds him too much of himself and Tracy (settling down with a religious woman at too young an age) – I’d count this another piece of potential evidence there.

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* Maeby’s sarcastic suggestion that George Sr. tunneled his way out of prison through a sewer line is likely a reference to The Shawshank Redemption.

* This episode takes place during the Iraq War – which, of course, happened a decade after the Gulf War, hence why Lindsay initially dismissed the news by saying it happened ten years ago.

* Free speech zones are, sadly, a real thing.

* Lucille does indeed appear in some board room scenes following this episode (perhaps most notable in season 2’s Spring Breakout, which reveals she’s been showing up drunk to them).

* The song Oscar plays to court Lucille at the end of the episode – “All You Need is Smiles” (mentioned earlier in the episode a couple of times) – is a David Schwartz original, with Jeffrey Tambor doing the vocals. In addition to being one of my favourite songs from Arrested Development, the lyrics contain a reference to Altar Egos (where Tobias initially said the phrase “your sweet pink mouth”).

The song appears to be a parody of The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love,” and can be heard again in season 3’s The Ocean Walker, and season 4’s Double Crossers.

And, of course, the shot of Oscar holding the boombox over his head is a reference to Say Anything.

* Lindsay’s delivery of “I want to be a cage dancer” mirrors Tobias’s line of “I want to be an actor” in the pilot. Additionally, the giggle that supposedly comes out of Portia de Rossi is actually the same audio of David Cross giggling from the aforementioned scene in the pilot, resampled (as was also the case when the line was uttered by Bob Odenkirk’s character in Visiting Ours).

THINGS YOU MAY HAVE MISSED

* The title of the book Tobias is reading during his flashback with Lindsay:

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Later, when Tobias interrupts the board meeting, he tells Michael “I just need to prove to my wife that I can act like a man.”

* Maeby’s name is once again used as a foreshadowing technique, this time when George Michael says “I know what I saw, Maeby” – only for us to later discover that he did not, in fact, see George Sr.

* During the brief shot with Maeby at the banana stand, she can be seen pocketing the customer’s money rather than depositing it in the cash register:

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* Gob says “people love to carbo-load,” possibly foreshadowing the entire Bluth family going on the Atkins diet in the season finale, Let ‘Em Eat Cake.

* As we all know, Oscar is Buster’s real father. While the writers didn’t start really start hammering this hard until the second season, they did drop a couple of little hints here – beginning with Oscar greeting Michael with “hey, nephew” and then massaging him the way Buster did so often in the early episodes of the show, coupled with the revelation that Oscar and Lucille share a romantic past.

* Oscar steals multiple leftover muffins at the coffee shop.

* When Michael and Oscar meet in the coffee shop, they move seats because of Oscar’s flatulence. Later, in the shot where Oscar shows Michael his lemon grove, Michael moves away from him – presumably for the same reason:

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* Freedom Sign Guy – first seen in the pilot – makes his third appearance here, as one of the protesters in the free speech zone:

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His fourth and final appearance will come in two episodes’ time.

* The Mr. Bananagrabber commercial from Charity Drive can be seen playing in the background in Oscar’s trailer:

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THIS INSTALLMENT’S DISCUSSION QUESTION

Who do you prefer – Oscar or George Sr?

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