05 February 2013
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz and Richard Rosenstock
Directed by Joe Russo
Some years ago, I was having a conversation that at one point settled on the question of how a friend of mine could best introduce his new ladyfriend to Arrested Development. After some chatter about what was the most instantly appealing episode from early enough in the series run that established characters and running gags wouldn't be a problem, I proposed this solution, which remains the advice I have offered to everybody since that I've tried to start on the show: watch the first three episodes; it's just over an hour, and surely anybody could commit to a single hour. And if it takes you the first two episodes to get into the rhythm of the show, that's fine, because you can always go back and re-watch them. But if you get to the end of the third episode, "Bringing Up Buster", without liking it, you might as well give up, because it is unlikely that you ever will like the show; for that episode is one of the very best, and one of the most characteristic, and anyone who isn't madly in love with it almost certainly isn't on the same wavelength as the show.
Where the second episode, "Top Banana", is a great episode that typifies everything that the show does well, "Bringing Up Buster" is a nearly flawless episode that typifies everything the show does better than anything else; at a glance, I'd call it my second-favorite of the first season, and certainly in my top five of the show's whole run. It's got a little bit of everything: one of the most acute character pieces in the show's run (and I'll be the first to admit, as much as I prefer the latter two seasons to the first, they're simply not as good on the level of character), flawlessly constructed, and boasting the first great example of what would become one of the series' signature gags, bleeped-out profanity that's funnier because of the bleep than the profanity itself.
Indeed, the bleeping joke - if you've seen the episode, you know the exact one I'm talking about, and if you haven't, I am not interested in ruining it for you - is maybe the single best moment in "Bringing Up Buster" for another reason above and beyond how ridiculously funny it is; though it is undeniably that. For this is the first and one of the best instances of Arrested Development proclaiming itself as a work of fiction and using the added absurdity of that to deepen, rather than dilute, its comedy. When the beeped-out swearing from the pilot is casually reintroduced in the episode's opening scene, it's done in a completely natural, realistic way: Michael Bluth burning himself on a horribly dangerous deep frying machine, and shouting out in pain; if anything, this reinforces the documentary conceit of the show, while subtly putting censored curse words back at the front of our mind. When this comes back at the end, it's in such a resolutely impossible way, out and out daring us to try to figure out what could "really" be underneath all those bleeps, that the joke isn't so much "that's a lot of swearing", as "that plainly isn't a lot of swearing, because that amount of swearing would be impossible in any real-world scenario, and that reinforces the degree to which we're watching cartoon characters, who are awesome". The terrific reaction shots in this sequence are just the icing on the cake, a perfect example of refreshing an extended joke just as it starts to wear out by introducing a new layer.
And if I give that moment credit for being the best moment in the episode, it is not for want of good competition. "Bringing Up Buster" is an outstanding 22 minutes of television comedy, starting with a terrifically layered script in which several individual plots all play out in such a closely-intertwined way that it's hard to decide where one leaves off and the other begins: there's the plot of Michael wanting to give his son space to avoid having George-Michael ending up like Buster (Tony Hale, having been absent for "Top Banana", makes up for lost time with a vengeance), who in another plot is finally emerging from his domineering parent; George-Michael is, meanwhile, on the receiving end of Tobias's wildly misaimed attempt to bond with his own daughter, neatly inverting the Michael plotline. Gob is thrown out by his girlfriend (planting the seeds for a plot a few episodes down the line), and tries to move in with Lucille, reversing the Buster plot. And that's just on the surface.
The dialogue is sharp as a tack - moment by moment, it might have the best one-liners of any first season episode - from the outrageously smutty neologisms ("Everyone’s laughing and riding and cornholing except Buster"), to warped understatement (George Sr's comments on strip poker), to a great many lines that don't really do much of anything but underscore the assorted wretchedness of the Bluths ("She’s not 'that Mexican,' Mom. She’s my Mexican. And she’s Colombian or something"), which is always a delight. The subplot in which Tobias doesn't realise that everything he does and says seems gay really comes into its own in this episode, still fresh and playful and not driven in to the ground the way it would be by the time the show ended. And the use of documentary-style inserts, which the show would turn into an outright artform in short order, reaches and early high with George Sr's disastrous Cornballer infomercial, and particularly its overdubbed Mexican copy ("¡Soy loco por los Cornballs!").
And maybe best of all, we're introduced to the inimitable Steve Holt! (Justin Grant Wade), who has so little to do here but does it so very, very well.
The whole episode is so beautifully constructed, directed with consummate timing by Joe Russo (responsible for more of my own favorite episodes than any other AD director, as it turns out), edited with drum-tight efficiency, and hellaciously full of quick sight gags (though they are mostly not as blink-and-miss-it as in later episodes). It established, early on, an extremely high bar for the show to reach, and while it would do so on occasion, it's remarkable how basically flawless this could all be, only two episodes into its production season. This is not the work of people finding their feet; it's the work of people who know exactly what they're doing, and pushing themselves to the utter limits of their skill.