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19 March 2013
Written by John Levenstein
Directed by Jeff Melman
Even now I still think of "Good Grief" as "the Peanuts one". Which is reductive of all hell, to reduce one of the funniest episodes of Arrested Development ever to the most prominent if its running gags. But when a running gag is as unexpected and funny and complicated as the chain of Peanuts homages going on in this breathless 22 minutes, it's hard not to respond to it.
Already by this point, AD had used "Charlie Browns" as a euphemism for the male genitalia (with more still to come), so the comic strip was fairly in its reference pool by that point; still, it takes a lot of self-confidence to refer as many times to something so iconic: audio cues in the form of the semi-mournful "Christmastime Is Here", background visual jokes (including the use of Peanuts-style lettering on signs throughout, a nicety that I'd never noticed before), and the "sad walk" taken from strip that became, in my circle of friends anyway, one of the longest-lived touchstones for the entire series. Surely, Mitchell Hurwitz and his merry band weren't doing this accidentally, taking something as famous and as wildly divorced in sensibility from their own program as Charles Schulz's comic strip for a nice long riff. Perhaps it was just a way of saying thanks; perhaps it was a way of instantly confronting their own audience with the total gulf of feeling happening in this episode. For the point of Peanuts, as a whole body of work, is that it depicts the overly-sensitive and the deeply thoughtful, while "Good Grief", more than any episode of Arrested Development up to that point, confronts us point blank with how much its cast of characters is neither sensitive nor thoughtful. It is an episode whose most often-repeated gag (besides "Christmastime Is Here") is to have a character claim, all flustered, that they don't know what they're saying, using the pretense of grief as an excuse to act just exactly how they'd do in any case.
In fact, the only one of the Bluths who seems actively sad that George Sr. is apparently dead is Lindsay (and probably Buster, but we don't really see that); the rest are all either going about their lives or using his death as an opportunity for themselves. This is all done with unspeakably hilarious wit, and that's just about the only thing which keeps "Good Grief" from being an honestly bitter and nasty piece of TV: for all that the show has hinted around that there reasons to like the Bluths here and there, this particular episode invests fully in their most abhorrent behavior, from patriarch George Sr. (forcing his grandson to lie to everybody just to save his hide) on down; not even exempting Michael, who's not even able to fake a good eulogy at his dad's wake, while continuing to belittle his son's romantic troubles ("As Ann as the nose on Plain's face" is perhaps my favorite of all the various Ann-disses the show had in its pocket this season).
Setting aside its abrasiveness, "Good Grief" is an exceptionally straightforward episode of the show: there is very little of the faked stock-footage that's one of the series' calling cards (though the funeral of a George Sr. piñata is wonderful), hardly any discontinuity, and with all the energy focused on Peanuts, very few obscure references. There are a lot of call-backs, some of the finest in the show's run to this point, as "Her?" continues to make the rounds, as does the feeble defense that Ann is funny; the Cornballer comes back, eggs form a plot point, and Lindsay's SLUT shirt crops back up. There's a call-forward, too: we see, briefly, Gob's magician idol and rival, Tony Wonder, who'll appear in the flesh several episodes down the line, and if you didn't know it was Ben Stiller, it would be hard to recognise him in that little flash. Which is all to say, even a straightforward Arrested Development episode is still one that demands a good deal of engagement with the show's overarching narrative and extremely close viewing. Especially close in the case of "Good Grief", where some of the best jokes are buried in the background, or just thrown out in the midst of a chaos of one liners. For, having eased up on the aggressive formal play, "Good Grief" gets to devote all its energy to developing gags, and they are perfect across-the-board, from Tobias's awful attempt to psychoanalyze through a bad John Wayne impersonation, to Gob's accidental flirtation with a visibly horrified gay employee, to the legendary quote "The mere fact that you call making love 'Pop-Pop' tells me you're not ready". Even the dated Iraq references (George Sr. is found in a hole very much like the one where Saddam Hussein was hiding, and looking awfully like him as well) hold up better than I'd expected them to, if only because they don't hold up the rest of the comedy too much.
"Good Grief" is a masterpiece: deeply funny and deeply mean in one package, while trading heavily on what we know about the characters and what we expect of him. It is, in fact, fairly typical sitcom writing, in that it's almost entirely character-based; of course, "typical" for Arrested Development means something different than it usually does, and despite its classical construction, "Good Grief" is far too smart, layered, and dark to resemble the average television comedy in most ways. Of course, that's the very same reason it's so brilliant: nearly every line and every shot introducing some dense new gag that takes work and patience to unpack, but man, is it worth the effort.