Jesus, everyone. Is anyone else sitting on their couch right now in shock that we actually have fifteen new episodes of Arrested Development waiting for us to pore over? In case you’re one of the few folks who didn’t binge on the entirety of season 4 today — as I write this, it’s Sunday — I have for you a recap of the first five episodes.
A quick word before we get started: the show’s conceit now focuses on what each character has been up to since the ill-fated voyage of the Queen Mary ship that closed season 3 way back in 2006. If you don’t recall, the family had been trying to avoid SEC charges for their perpetually unscrupulous real estate dealings until the government finally caught up with the Bluths on the boat. This, of course, prompted matriarch Lucille to evade the SEC by sea and Michael to bail on another boat, the Seaward, with his son George Michael (and, of course, his father George Sr., the secret stowaway).
The reason I bring this up is not because the early episodes include trips back in time to 2006 to see what happened in the immediate aftermath of the kerfuffle with the SEC. So stay with us, folks, because the jumps back and forth in time and across storylines can be a little confusing. Without further ado, a few words on the show that features “the story of a family whose future was abruptly canceled.”
“Flight of the Phoenix”
The premiere episode finds us at a Cinco de Cuatro festival, a holiday created years ago by a young Lucille Bluth (channeled wonderfully by Kristen Wiig) and George Sr. (a bespectacled Seth Rogen) out of frustration with Cinco de Mayo. There celebrating the festivities is Michael Bluth, the subject of this episode: now in substantial amounts of debt, Michael seduces and sleeps with Lucille Austero (who has now been through at least three Bluths) to acquire the cash he needs. Oh, Michael, how the mighty fall.
A flashback reveals why Michael is in such a bad way. First, George Sr. pissed away the family’s money to inexplicably buy 4,000 acres of land in the California desert. And, out of anger with his family, Michael sells his shares in the family company to Lucille to finance the completion of the Sudden Valley development, his real estate dream. But thanks to the collapse of the housing market and some faulty cable and internet hookups, Sudden Valley becomes a ghost town complete with vultures and tumbleweeds. And Michael owes quite a bit of money to a lot of people. And has nowhere to live.
This is why we find Michael living in George Michael’s dorm room at UC Irvine. The narrator (yep, still Ron Howard) advises us that this is not an unusual arrangement in the contemporary shittastic economy, but with George Michael, Michael, and George Michael’s roommate P-Hound in one bedroom, the space becomes too crowded. After a Survivor-like vote, Michael ends up nixed from the dorm space and sullenly walks out to the tune of “Christmas Time Is Here,” a lovely homage to the first three seasons.
Oh, but there is hope yet! Michael heads to the airport to acquire a copy of Out West Airlines’s in-flight magazine, Altitude, which features a story about Michael and which he believes will turn his luck around. After a frustrating interaction with the airline staff (played wonderfully by Blake Anderson, Adam DeVine, and Anders Holm of Workaholics fame), Michael heads onboard a flight to Phoenix to acquire said magazine. Of course, the article is less than charitable, and, well. Now Michael’s in Phoenix.
The question that this episode initially elicits is “why the hell is George Sr. in the desert in a sweat lodge?” Let’s backtrack to the initial moments after Lucille hijacked the Queen Mary. Turns out she returned to shore and is now racked with legal fees to deal with the SEC’s charges against her. George, in a rare moment of kindness, hopes to sell his company stock to Stan Sitwell (Ed Begley Jr.) to cover those fees, but he refuses. Stan snubs George because he’s landed a new project that will make his company even bigger than—and here’s my favorite joke of the first few episodes—Halliburton Teen, the hip skating spinoff of the oil company.
The project? A wall between the United States and Mexico. Which means lots of government contractor dollars for Sitwell.Serendipitously, George discovers his twin brother Oscar has been living on that land with a woman named Earthfire (Mary Lynn Rajskub) and a disgraced anesthesiologist (John Slattery) to access a hallucinogenic root and chill in sweat lodges. Thus births the plan to undercut Sitwell’s plan to build a wall: George will buy the land, sell it to the government, and give the state a better price than Sitwell to construct the wall.
Things start going awry when the government puts the construction of the wall on the backburner, although a hazy vision in a sweat lodge prompts George to undertake a new business venture: he’ll charge CEOs to learn about spirituality and self-actualization (maybe?) at a sweat lodge retreat. Initially, business is solid, but after a year, Father B has lost control of his flock.
Things get worse when family lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler) drives to the land and informs George that he has a cool fifteen million due on the land—mortgage payments, you know. And so, to make his cash, George must marshal the political support of a candidate named Herbert Love (Terry Crews) to make constructing the border wall a salient political issue in the upcoming election. The Bluths in politics? What could go wrong?
The end of season 3 of Arrested Development found Lindsay Bluth newly acquainted with the knowledge that she was not actually a Bluth (nor was she actually Michael’s twin): she was adopted. In a move to reinvent herself, Lindsay derives inspiration from Eat Pray Love and travels to India, hoping to dispel her materialism and find out who she is. A very, very new path.
But, naturally, her luggage is lost and she hits up Mall Mountain (seriously) for a shopping spree. After the hotel shaman tells Lindsay to head home and stop being such a phony, Lindsay makes a call to her adoptive mother who cuts her a deal: if Lindsay testifies on Lucille’s behalf, Lucille will cut Lindsay quite a bit of cash.
Lindsay’s path to reinvention includes rekindling her relationship with her eccentric husband, Tobias Fünke. To that end, they buy a house from returning realtor James “I Don’t Sell” Carr(s), played once again by Ed Helms. And here’s where the show’s tongue-in-cheek political commentary kicks into higher gear: the narrator reminds us that they are buying a house in 2006, before the subprime lending crisis, and the duo buy an absolutely gargantuan house without having savings, credit, or income. The scene’s a little bit cringey thanks to the fact that this actually happened on a national scale and screwed the economic pooch for a long, long time. Lindsay and Tobias, in this moment, stand in for an America duped by shady lenders. Absurd and wonderful.
All seems to be going well in the new and cavernous house, except that Lucille informs Lindsay that she will not get her cash unless her testimony is believable. So Lindsay goes to a method acting class with Tobias to learn how to be more believable and to bond with Tobias, but what Tobias assumed was a class called “Method One Clinic” is actually a methadone clinic. But, at the clinic, Lindsay meets a scruffy gent named Marky Bark (son of Johnny Bark, the protestor inhabiting trees on the Bluth property back in season 1) and immediately takes a liking to him. Because nothing says “a new start” for a marriage like falling for another man.
Marky, Lindsay, Tobias, and Marky’s companion, a strung-out addict named Debrie Bardeaux (Maria Bamford), join for lunch at C.W. Swappigan’s, a barter restaurant with a “Marxist- or Leninist-type social structure.” Lindsay and Marky continue connecting and spontaneously bail from the join after Debrie and Tobias head to the bathroom, and the duo find themselves on Marky’s ostrich farm lying in the dirt. She’s made a huge mistake.
“The B Team”
This is the first episode in the season that is not simply a biographical sketch of what’s been up in the past several years, and it gets postmodern in a way that would make Fredric Jameson go cross-eyed (cultural studies shout-out, whaaat!). Michael has, for the moment, given up on the real estate business and tries to get a job in the high tech sector—for him, this means driving a Google Maps Car (but, you know, it’s not officially a Google Maps Car, thanks to some legal thing, probably?).
And get ready for the show to get really meta, because shit gets weirdly real in this episode: Michael gets a phone call from Barry Zuckerkorn, who informs him that none other than Ron Howard wants to meet with Michael. The narrator of the show. The producer of the show.
(sidebar: a brief tangent from the narrative features the return of Bob Loblaw (Scott Baio), who is Zuckerkorn’s defense attorney. After Loblaw offers a zinger to seal his case, the prosecution remarks, “that’s a low blow, Loblaw.” Say that three times fast!)
Anyway. Michael finds himself at Imagine Entertainment, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s production company—the company that produces Arrested Development. Keep trying to separate the narrative from reality, because it’s only going to get harder.
Michael runs into Kitty Sanchez (Judy Greer), once George Sr.’s mostly unbalanced secretary, who is now a movie executive working under Ron Howard. And, after Ron saw an article on Bluth in Altitude—“most of my movies are based on photographs that I find inspiring,” he explains—he decided to pursue a film about the market crash focusing on Bluth’s story. The problem? He needs the family’s signatures on release forms to go forward with the project.
Michael’s ambivalence shifts to enthusiasm after he runs into a gorgeous woman (Isla Fisher) on the street—never catches her name, naturally—and hopes to track her down to offer her a space in the Bluth film project. Michael assembles a purported dream team of past Arrested Development fixtures to work on the film: Carl Weathers, Warden Stefan Gentiles (James Lipton), and Andy Richter. Ron and Kitty are less than enthused—signatures first, after all—so Michael is jettisoned to an Imagine Entertainment office in Orange County that is consistently mistaken for an x-ray and imaging clinic.
After a brief visit with the Bluth patriarch, Michael finally acquires a signature from his father only to discover that Ron wanted the film to focus on George Michael and Michael. Michael decides he cannot invade his son’s privacy and nixes the project. But all is not lost: he runs into the beautiful unnamed woman from the street, and after a quick tryst in a photo booth, he discovers that he is hooking up with Ron Howard’s supposed mistress. Actually, it’s his daughter, and Ron Howard reminds us in a voiceover, “that’s kind of worse, don’t you think?”
“A New Start”
Hoo-boy, this is the episode I’ve been waiting for. All Tobias, all the time. Turns out that Tobias’s pursuits since 2006 involve getting nailed for an illicit sexual rendezvous with a young ‘un by a show in the vein of NBC’s To Catch a Predator, helmed by John Beard.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves, because this episode is chock-full of typical misunderstandings and allusions to his ambiguous sexuality (although much of that is self-imposed, thanks to Tobias’s perpetual but inadvertent use of double entendres). Right after the incident with the Queen Mary, Tobias and Lindsay both decide to pursue a new start and similarly derive inspiration from Eat Pray Love. So, naturally, he also heads to India for a new start, and he’s so committed to his self-reinvention that he emblazons his new motto on his license plate: “ANUSTART.” Let that sink in for a second.
Long story short, Tobias gets very little out of his trip to India beyond a two-week hospital stay and a new commitment to a life as a comedic actor. Hence his foray into a method-acting clinic, the methadone clinic, in which he meets Debrie and is immediately captivated by her monologue/confession about her addiction. And, as it turns out, Debrie is no stranger to the silver screen: Tobias recognizes her from a starring role in a very low budget version of the Fantastic Four.
Of course, the two run away together to become stars and to make some bank from Debrie’s past role. The two find themselves on the streets hoping to corral tourists into taking photos with them for money: Debrie reprises her role as Sue Storm, while Tobias initially plays Johnny Storm, the “human flamer.” After that plan doesn’t work—surprise—Tobias dons the costume of The Thing, wherein the two promptly receive a cease and desist notice from Stan Lee’s lawyers and are continually arrested for violating that order.
Eventually, Tobias returns to the family enclave in Balboa Towers and discovers that Lucille is being attacked by an ostrich (naturally). He saves her, wherein she offers him a hefty $120,000/year job at her rehab facility, Austerity, which Tobias turns down to keep his acting dream alive. Debrie is unsurprisingly upset with Tobias’s decision and bails on him.
After Tobias is left with nowhere left to go, he returns to the old family home in hopes of finding Maeby, but instead runs into the To Entrap a Local Predator crew. As Tobias is wont to do, his verbally ambiguous statements (he’s “Big Daddy” looking for a 19-year old who he wishes were 15) land him in the hands of the law.