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25 March 2013
Teleplay by Barbie Adler
Story by Courtney Lilly
Directed by Paul Feig
Anything would feel like a slowdown after the run of episodes from "The One Where They Build a House" to "Afternoon Delight", but if "Switch Hitter" can be thought of as a "settling in" episode - as I believe it can - that really only says wonderful things about Season 2 of Arrested Development, for it's hard to imagine any other context in which anything as broadly hilarious as this could be thought of as close to average.
Having taken the first third of the season mostly to re-introduce the characters and enjoy spending time in their awful, toxic presence, "Switch Hitters" very suddenly thrusts some serial arcs on us, though not all of them are recognisable as such to begin with. The one that clearly is, is the beginning of the sometimes brilliant, and sometimes too-obvious "Maeby the studio executive" plot, where after 29 episodes, the show's writers finally figured out something to give to Alia Shawkat that would allow her to show off her talents, and it's at this point that she very quickly transitions from being a reliable source of sarcastic quips in one or two scenes every episode, to one of the stars of the show, in my opinion; the parody of Hollywood bullshit artists (and, perhaps inadvertently, a joke at the expense of Steven Spielberg's earliest days in the industry) can hardly be accused of mining new territory, but it's so breezily folded into the show's fabric, almost unconsciously (even looking at the plot building, knowing exactly why each wrinkle in the first act has to be there to get Maeby onto the studio lot, it doesn't feel remotely forced), that it's as though it bubbles up naturally from the show's universe rather than being set atop it. Better still, the chemistry between Shawkat and Jeff Garlin's bellowing exec Mort Meyers is just about my favorite relationship in the entire series between any Bluth and non-Bluth; even in their brief interaction here, the peppy, almost screwball-style rapid-fire exchanges between the pair are starting to shape up.
The other introduction is, of course, Stan Sitwell (Ed Begley, Jr.), the kindly anti-George Bluth, who represents AD character creation at its best: given a defining trait so warped and unreal that he slides into the cartoon universe of the show - and certainly, by this point, AD had completed its transition to live-action cartoon; if that hadn't happened before the climax of "Afternoon Delight", it surely could no longer be denied afterward - but he's also sufficiently closer to actual human behavior than the Bluths are that he forms an effective contrast to their demented antics. It's wonderful that the family's longstanding antagonist (whose name was first mentioned, without context, all the way back in the pilot - during his brief rebellion, Michael takes a job with Sitwell Enterprises), should be such a decent, friendly man, not as a parody of a saint but just as a fella who says and does nice things; better yet is that he triggers one of the few moments of unabashed self-awareness experienced by any character in the show's run, when Lucille mocks his giant $10 million checks, and stops herself with icy hatred radiating off her face when she's about to insult his charitable donations. It's telling that Sitwell is introduced in direct opposition to a flashback to George Sr's parenting skills, where he's willing to make a consciously poor business decision rather than cede authority to his son.
These two new plots would be, alone, sufficient to make "Switch Hitter" great television, and they are the best parts of an episode that has just a bit of sag: the Lindsay plot doesn't go anyplace at all, while introducing a rare continuity error (Teamocil, we were told in "Best Man for the Gob", was discontinued, yet here she is, taking it), and Ann-the-softball-player is underdeveloped as a plotline (also, George-Michael's one-note characterisation in the Ann subplot is becoming a wee bit tedious: Michael Cera's great at playing the desperate, why-don't-you-like-my-girlfriend-dad? material, but as was just proven in "Afternoon Delight", he could do so very much more).
But that's largely overcome in light of everything that goes right. In a series with the editing was never less than brilliant, and some of the finest jokes were solely a matter of perfect timing, "Switch Hitter" has some unbelievable well-paced gags, of which my favorite is unquestionably the return of the running joke where any time somebody touches part of the Bluths' model home, something else breaks. The highlight is when there's a five-second flashback to a piece of vent hitting George Sr. in the head in the attic, though Michael's smooth amendment of "we can build houses, we can win games" to "we can win games" is a close runner-up.
There's also the beautiful little joke in which George-Michael associates the names of real estate developments with food (his reflective "I can see marinating a chicken in that" especially), the blink-and-miss-it cameo of Starla the business model playing softball with rather expressive, presentational gestures, the pantomime appearance of Gob's chicken dance for the second time, and some wonderfully nasty dialogue between Michael and Gob hidden beneath the surface-level "sitcom about family working out their differences" tone. And the phrase "candy beans" puts in its first glorious appearance. Can't say anything bad about candy beans.