03 February 2013
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz and John Levenstein
Directed by Anthony Russo
Insofar as Arrested Development had a learning curve, it wasn't a long one: the first episode produced as part of the regular series run, "Top Banana", finds the show in top form from start to finish, and is, to my eyes, one of the three or four best episodes of the first season. The handful of piloty weaknesses that had still hung on after the first episode have been virtually wiped out, and the characters have all reached more or less their final shape; the show's formal elements are starting to gel (the use of stock footage inserts - of Gob on a security monitor, and of a younger version of Michael putting in the first of many appearances throughout the show's run - reaches, in this episode, what is more or less the final form it would take for the rest of the show's run), and the certain vagueness that was still attached to certain characters has been entirely done away with. George Sr, especially: his obsession with ice cream sandwiches, his whispered gossip about cell-mate T-Bone (Patrice O'Neal), and of course his episode-ending blow-up about what, exactly, "there's always money in the banana stand" means, are so much more comfortable than Jeffrey Tambor's approach to the character in the pilot.
But before we get into all that, let's start with the most important new change: being a real episode and not a pilot, "Top Banana" opens with a standardised title sequence, and thus calls attention to one of the most important collaborators in the whole Arrested Development corpus, composer David Schwartz. Already in the pilot, Schwartz's remarkable background music, poppy and vaguely old-fashioned but not in a way you can really pin down to any one style or era (many of the most commonly-used cues have always struck me sort of as a hyper-modern, minimalist ragtime), had proven tremendously important in establishing the blithe tone of the show, but what starts to come to the fore in "Top Banana", and would continue to be extremely important all the way through the rest of the show's run, are his original songs: five and six-second snatches of tune in so many genres that I, for one, never even thought that they weren't just the result of a soundtrack adviser working overtime to find rarities out in the secondhand bins until the DVDs came out, with their invaluable collection of all the songs. Though the show would, throughout, throw some "actual" music in the mix - even in this episode, Bachman-Turner Overdrive's "Takin' Care of Business" puts in an appearance - it's the seemingly inexhaustible catalogue of Schwartz originals that form the background of the show's aural personality, and helping immeasurably to sell the central conceit, that we're watching an assemblage of documentary footage tricked out with public domain snippets to give it some zest. It takes a lot of craft to make something that resembles a chintzy reality show this well.
I will, undoubtedly, fail to give Schwartz his due every time it is deserved, but right at the start, let us not forget to pay him homage for the irreplaceable good he did for the show.
On to the episode itself, then: not as convoluted and rewarding in its convolutions as many of the show's best work, but then, they didn't have as much backstory to call back to at this point (though there is one of the show's first of many call-forwards: Tobias, in one of several scenes where he's seen to be weeping in frustration in the shower, is briefly glimpsed with cut-offs on). Though the "On the next Arrested Development..." gag here is one of my very favorites, not least because after the pilot's ending showed off scenes that would, in fact, show up in "Top Banana" (though re-shot, to their benefit; how else would we get George Senior's marvelously awful pun, "I'm doing the time of my life"?), "Top Banana" itself ends with one of the most aggressive "previews" of any episode in the series run, not just functioning as a button-up-the-episode gag, but presenting a mini-narrative complete with time-stamped title cards that make it clear in no uncertain terms, this will not be in next week's Arrested Development, while also proving for the second time in a single 22-minute span that the show's refusal to engage in even the slightest degree of sentiment doesn't just apply to its generally unlikable cast of awful stars, but even to its nonchalant willingness to kill off animals (indeed, the funniest thing about the last shot of the episode isn't that Gob killed a rabbit, but the tossed off, "oh well" tone of his body language and the attendant camera angle).
What was left of the character set-up to be done after the tremendously effective pilot is mostly wrapped up here. It's here that Maeby really comes into her own as a character, and the Maeby/George-Michael relationship starts to turn into an important character dynamic and not just an excuse to showcase Michael Cera's ability to look terrified by himself (this was back when that was a fascinating and exciting thing, not the only goddamn acting trick the young actor had to play); it's here that Tobias suddenly turns into more than an fumbling idiot and the Tobias-Lindsay relationship, possibly the most tricky of the entire show, starts to pick up. One of the subtler character threads of the series, Michael's tendency to control people in little but patronising ways, gets its first airing here, when he confuses his son thoroughly with the phrase "Mr. Manager", the first time in the episodes as broadcast that he's got his own set of issues to deal with, long before the show starts to make a point of calling him out on it.
And, of course, it's all tied up with outstanding comedy writing and acting: not a single actor fails to get at least one showcase moment (except for Tony Hale, who didn't appear in this episode), some of them among the best moments in the season: David Cross's utterly magnificent "Oh my God, we're having a fire! Sale", Jessica Walter's incredibly smug and mean delivery of "it's with your warrant", the look of profoundly untroubled satisfaction on Alia Shawkat's face when she realises that she's been throwing away company property. Even the Narrator, who is at this point still the taciturn, objective voice without many overt gags of his own, gets one dry moment in noting that Gob will not be able to return his dead dove to the pet store. And plenty of lines scattered throughout that would do nothing but turn this into a transcript, though I cannot fail to mention a quote that demonstrates how utterly the writers understood their characters already, and how well they're playing the most important game in comedy, letting absurdity happen without anybody onscreen knowing it's absurd (the cornerstone of humor, and shockingly rare in American comedy): "They’re grown-ups, they’re allowed to have fun whenever they want! We’re kids, we’re supposed to be working!"
It's not flawless: Gob refers to a "trick" at one point, and even after one episode, we know he'd say "illusion", for example. But it's shocking how close it comes, structurally hitting the sweet spot of a story with a clear, self-contained conflict, but using the random direction of subplots and chronological discontinuity to complicate that central plot, making it richer and more engaging, and crucially, making us feel just a little bit smarter for getting it. It is, in many ways, in the construction of its gags, the shape of its narrative, and in its themes - the story is ultimately about how its better for families to work together than to compete with each other, the underlying theme of the show entire - one of the quintessential Arrested Development episodes, a single perfect object that you could show to anyone as a microcosm of what its first season was constantly doing on a larger scale.