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15 March 2013
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz & Jim Vallely
Directed by Patty Jenkins
And, we're off to the races. "The One Where They Build a House" is Arrested Development at its finest and most inventive, its smuttiest, its most charmingly character-driven, its most satirical. If "The One Where Michael Leaves" was the show stretching and warming up for Season 2, "They Build a House" is the full explosion of all the things that Season 2 would be, and it is glorious.
Not to go reducing things needlessly, but there is a sequence here that exactly sums up everything I enjoy about this episode and by extension, everything I love about AD itself. It is the moment that George-Michael excitedly "introduces" his father to his new girlfriend, Ann Veal (Mae Whitman, taking over the role from Alessandra Torresani). And it is a moment than I cannot do better than to transcribe at length, begging your indulgence. But moments like this do not come along often enough to squander them.
MICHAEL: "I’d love for you to come with me when I cut the ribbon at the new house."
GEORGE-MICHAEL: "Oh, wow. Hey, can I bring Ann?"
G-M [pridefully and embarrassed, a perfect evocation of the nervous adolescent with his first love]: "Ann. You know, she’s... She’s the girl I’m kind of hanging out with."
M: "I haven’t met Ann."
G-M: "Yes, you have."
NARRATOR: "Michael had met Ann."
G-M: "You let her in. See, that’s ... That’s her right over there."
[Camera pans over, reveals Ann in the background, eating messily]
M: "Oh, Ann. Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. Ann. Hey, you! She’s got a little hard-boiled egg going there?"
G-M: "Oh, it’s so cute. She sometimes takes a little pack of mayonnaise, and she’ll squirt it in her mouth [at this point Jason Bateman adopts the most flawless blank-leaning-horrified expression], and then she’ll take an egg and kind of...[chomping noises] She calls it a 'mayonegg'. Are you okay?"
[Michael's face, without moving in the slightest degree, has gone completely ashen
M: "I don’t feel so good."
G-M: "You know, I kind of want to buy her a diamond."
M: "...her?" [And thus is born the most quotable of all AD quotes]
[Without speaking or moving, Bateman communicates "...her?" again]
G-M: "I know I can’t afford it, but Aunt Lindsay was telling me about this diamond cream..."
M: "George Michael, I’m sure that Egg is a very nice person. I just don’t want you spending all [G-M, mumbling: "It's Ann."] your money getting her all glittered up for Easter, you know?"
Everything is in there. The whole damn show. It's all there in George-Michael's excitement about inviting Ann that very quickly turns into annoyance that his dad is so obviously not onboard the Ann train; but being a self-consciously Good Son, he keeps the same chipper tone and happy expession. And it's there in how Michael is so deeply, viscerally bothered by the decisions his son is making, but being a self-consciously Good Dad, he will not express this in an authoritarian, patriarchal way, but tries to passive-aggressively push his son in the right direction. "...her?" isn't just one of the all-time definitive Arrested Development lines because it's inherently funny - it's inherently not funny, in fact, and requires all the context around it, and Bateman's perfect delivery (and the several other actors who are given to say it over the rest of the show's run), to make it not just a gag, but one of the best gags the show ever put over. And it's best of all because that context and delivery pack into that one syllable the though, "I'm right and you're wrong, but instead of saying so and risking pushing you away from me, I will give you over verbal cues that will allow you to come to my side of things without embarrassing either one of us". It is the quintessential Michael & George-Michael scene of at least the first two seasons and possibly the whole show (though when we get there, a couple of Season 3 moments between those two have always stood out to be as being basically perfect), with Jason Bateman and Michael Cera delivering every line and beat and reaction shot flawlessly. And as Arrested Development's heart and soul as a show about people (which it is not always recognised as being) is centered on the father-son relationship here, that makes it one of the quintessential scenes of the show's whole run.
Also: "Getting Egg all glittered up for Easter". I love the running gag where Michael can't remember Ann's name. It's one of my very favorite elements of this season.
"They Build a House" does not begin and end with that scene; it is brilliant in every respect, through every storyline. Michael's passive-aggressive nature comes back to the fore in the wonderful "I have no problem with that running gag", one of many, many points where the episodes builds jokes out of the character traits we've already come to know; it might be at this very point, in fact, where Arrested Development made the transition from "show that is funniest if you've seen most or all of the preceding episodes" to "show where having seen every other episode is, in fact, mandatory, if you're going to be able to follow along". The Lindsay/Tobias B-plot, for example, while indulging in many gags that are funny by themselves, is given extra depth when we understand how the events playing out represent patterns of behavior that are being repeated, rather than just ha-ha, the man is painted blue and hiding on the side of a blue van (for one thing, the casual viewer would not be sufficiently impressed by how cat-like Tobias is being as he stalks his wife).
Of course, most of what's funny about the episode is not because it is arcane, but because it is intelligent and subtle: multiple truly outstanding punchlines come in the form of tossed-off mumbles in the background (the first time I saw the episode, I didn't even that Buster's reference his reproductive organ being shaped like a lobster tail was meant to be heard; I though it was just comedy through obfuscation, like the bleeping, or the big blue dot that shows up so memorably here, twice. Or the way that the whole thing is broadly a satire of Operation Iraqi Freedom, which had by that point begun turning into the q-word that polite people weren't talking about, and is mocked both overtly (the "Mission Accomplished!" banner), and not so overtly ("Solid as Iraq").
What's funniest of all, though, isn't (to me) any of the verbal play, or the character-derived humor, or the heightened irreality, or the use of the rock motif throughout, or even her. It's the filthiest joke I had ever seen on television to that point, made even funnier because it is so incredibly smart and even challenging. "Get rid of the Seaward," says Michael curtly to Gob, to which a coldly offended Lucille replies "I'll leave when I'm good and ready". Even with a nice long pause both for the joke to land and the laughter to subside before the action resumes (good God, this is a well-edited show), the first time I saw that, I wasn't recovered enough. And eight years later, I'm still not over it. Man, this show was the absolute goddamn best.