8. "Pier Pressure," Arrested Development (2004)
Welcome to the “100 Best Sitcom Episodes of All Time,” a countdown for 2012. Each episode will get a separate blog post, counting backward toward No. 1. A list of the programs revealed so far is here (and on Pinterest), and an introduction to the project is here.
"Pier Pressure" is the single-camera sitcom at its delirious peak, crammed with sight gags, flashbacks, and musical jokes. Single-camera shows can fall into the lazy habit of inserting cutaways to what's better left unseen, but the interruptions all work here. The Bluths as kids being terrified by a one-armed man, Buster as a drug-test guinea pig, the 1960s hit record "Big Yellow Joint"... all are even funnier than we expect them to be.
As manic as the show sometimes seems, everything is there for a reason, and what seems to be a throwaway gag will often have a bigger payoff later in an episode (as in the glimpse of Maeby's pictogram-filled report card from her school in Boston and Lindsay saying, several scenes later, "I know you got a crocodile in spelling, but..."). This is one reason I never got into Arrested Development until I watched it on DVD; the commercial breaks when it originally aired on Fox made the show seem more scattershot than it really was.
The main plot of "Pier Pressure" is set in motion by Buster's vertigo-suffering girlfriend Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli). Buster (Tony Hale) asks George Michael (Michael Cera) to help get her some marijuana, which leads to Michael (Jason Bateman) thinking his son is on drugs. So Michael comes up with a plan to scare George Michael straight, a plan that unfortunately involves male strippers ("hot cops") posing as the police.
Gob: These guys are pros, Michael. They're gonna push the tension 'til the last possible moment before they strip.
Michael: They're not going to strip, are they?
Gob: I told them not to, but I can't promise that their instincts won't kick in.
Arrested Development is an exception, as seen in the superlative "Pier Pressure" and its sequel, "Making a Stand," both featuring George Sr.'s favorite weapon in scaring the crap out of his kids: J. Walter Weatherman and his detachable arm. This kind of episode works in part because the Bluth family is a hive of duplicity, so no one has to act out of character when trying to trick the others. The only Bluth who seems incapable of deceit is George Michael, but his nervousness about lying is either misinterpreted (his father thinking he's on drugs) or unnoticed (cousin Maeby's obliviousness to his crush on her), and his central involvement in "Pier Pressure" makes it all the funnier.It also helps that the Bluths, including "good son" Michael, are so self-involved that their schemes are more audacious than practical. In "Queen for a Day," Lucille (Jessica Walter) thinks nothing of remodelling her bathroom by moving a wall two inches into neighbor and rival Lucille Austero's apartment. Staging a massive drug bust on the family's yacht to scare George Michael is parenting overkill, and relying on Gob (Will Arnett) and his male stripper colleagues to do the job is ridiculous, but foresight never stops the Bluths. (Again, George Michael is the least likely to fall for anything because he actually notices what's going on around him: "One of the 'hot cops' was my choir teacher.")
Then there's the utter pointlessness of much of the Bluths' trickery. "You taught me a lesson about not teaching lessons?" Michael asks his own father (Jeffrey Tambor) at the end of "Pier Pressure." George Sr.'s unconvincing response: "That was my last lesson."
The legend is that Mitchell Hurwitz and Jim Vallely's script for "Pier Pressure" was the response to a suggestion from Fox executives that Michael should "teach his son a nice lesson," presumably to make the Bluths more sympathetic and boost the show's terrible ratings. This may be too good to be true, and I can only find second-hand mentions of the tale, but it's funny to think of the directive coming from a network whose first hit was Married...with Children. And a parody of "lesson" episodes turned out to be perfect for Arrested Development — especially with Ron Howard as the show's narrator, given his association with The Andy Griffith Show. Just imagine Sheriff Andy Taylor using J. Walter Weatherman to teach Opie not to leave his fishing pole lying around, and you've got an extra bit of comedy.
I need the guy with the fake arm, J. Walter Weatherman.
George Sr.: Oh, he's dead. You killed him when you left the door open with the air conditioning on.
The episode's B-story also involves misguided parenting, as Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) finally shows some concern over the terrible grades of Maeby (Alia Shawkat). She punishes her daughter by making her spend the afternoon with Lucille (a.k.a. "Gangy"), who needs help doctoring the receipts for jewelry she bought after the Bluth family's assets were supposed to be frozen.
Michael: I can't help you, Mom. I've got a job. I've got to make some money so you can buy more things and destroy the evidence.
Lucille: You're right. I'll ask Lindsay.
At first, Lucille and Maeby get along well, thanks to Lucille's constant disparaging of daughter Lindsay and her (non-existent) weight problem. But Lucille proves too mean for even a rebellious teenager (telling her, "that chubby wrist of yours is testing the tensile strength of this bracelet"), so Lindsay and Maeby reconcile:
Maeby: I'm glad you're my mom. [...] I can't believe you had to put up with her your whole life.
Lindsay: Honey, that's so sweet! (they hug)
Lessons learned, parents and children understanding each other... why wasn't this show a hit?
• Lucille is best known for her acid tongue, but my favorite Jessica Walter moment in the episode is when she greets Maeby with something close to warmth. It's as if she's reflexively smiling due to a deeply buried maternal gene, but the rest of her face is wondering, "Why am I happy to see this brat?"• But no one can beat Lucille when it comes to what TV Tropes calls "I resemble that remark."
Lucille: (about Lindsay) Oh, she thinks I'm too critical. That's another fault of hers.
• Michael has no clue how much he can sound like Lucille, even without a drink in his hand.
(about George Michael's test) A-minus?
George Michael: Are you proud of me?
Michael: Very proud... minus.
• Michael also shows sensitivity when his younger brother talks about Lucille Austero's illness.
Well, it's not like you made a commitment to her or anything.
Buster: No, not a commitment... but I did refer to it as "our nausea." But that was when we were going at it pretty hot and heavy.
Michael: Well, now it's my nausea.
• Arrested Development generally runs at 30 Rock speed, but it knows when to slow down for a moment, as when George Michael gradually and reluctantly pulls his finger out of a textbook that Michael has ordered him to put away.
• Arrested Development is sometimes classified as a mockumentary because of Howard's narration and the occasional suggestion of a film crew, even though the characters never break the fourth wall. This means that the flashbacks to Michael's childhood must be re-enactments, with very good casting.
My own theory is that Howard is playing a filmmaker who had hoped to make an epic documentary about the Bluths as some kind of statement about wealth and the American Dream (like The Queen of Versailles). But he was defeated by the Bluths' inexplicable behavior and is instead just reading from his notes with bemusement. This raises the possibility that everything on the show is a re-enactment and that the real Bluths are physically as well as morally appalling. (Maybe Lindsay really is fat.)
Following this logic, I like to believe that the actors playing the Bluths have immersed themselves too deeply in their characters. So "Jennifer Walton" has developed a drinking problem just like Lucille's, and the actor playing George Sr. will only speak to the cast and crew in character, much like Daniel-Day Lewis in Lincoln.
• Sorry, no clip or complete episode on YouTube, but Arrested Development live-streams on Amazon, Hulu, and Netflix.