First airdate: 11 January, 2004
Written by Jim Vallely and Mitchell Hurwitz
Directed by Joe Russo
Is there even any point to considering that “Pier Pressure” might not be the best episode of the first season of Arrested Development? Because it is, and that’s sort of all there is to it. The first episode co-written by Jim Vallely, who had a credit on some of the show’s very best episodes, it has some of the most iconic, readily-quotable lines and moments from the entire run, unimpeachable work by Jason Bateman, Michael Cera, and Will Arnett, terrific small gags, and maybe the single best “Michael Bluth wants to protect his son” plotline that was ever trotted out; and there is no shortage of episodes where that is the primary conflict.
The thing that really sets apart, I’ve come to think, is how relatively classical it is: it is the purest farce in the whole of Arrested Development, with an unusually simple and clean plot for that show. Not that either “simple” or “clean” are exactly appropriate adjectives to describe a scenario that involves as many switchbacks and wrinkles as “Pier Pressure” does; I mean that the episode is relatively free of the over-stuffed creative details and narrative digressions that make so many episodes such daunting, densely allusive packages. Which makes it sound like those things are problems, which isn’t the case; nor is it the case that an episode which takes time to describe the dippy progressive grading system of independent schools (“I know you got a ‘crocodile’ in spelling”) or supply two different flashbacks as well as a photo montage with Buster Bluth gnawing on the Randy’s Donuts sculpture is entirely devoid of the loopy flourishes that make Arrested Development all that it is. Still and all, there is a clarity and focus of purpose to “Pier Pressure”, which has one A-plot and one B-plot and very little else, and makes excellent use of that simplicity to make the A-plot as complex (but not complicated) as it dares in 22 minutes.
And so we come back to that very straightforward farce: numerous people lying about numerous things, and while everybody knows that everyone else is lying, they are mistaken about what those lies consist of. Thus their attempts to explode the lies go wildly wrong. It’s all pretty terrifically elegant how the pieces fit together: every single action leads directly to the next, and the plot is handed off from one character to the next, one at a time; Buster needs pot and asks George-Michael, who asks Gob, who tells Michael… There is great momentum to the beat-by-beat development of this story, and that sweeps us right along into the necessarily over-the-top fallout when everything goes to hell in the third act.
Matching its narrative coherence, the episode is yoked to a single thematic concern, which is basically: “teach your kids to do right, but do it from a place of love and not authoritarianism”. This plays out in different ways, of which the most iconic is undoubtedly the introduction, in flashback, of one-armed man J. Walter Weatherman (Steve Ryan) – his growling “And that’s why you don’t yell” is something of a Masonic handshake among AD fans, or at least among the ones I know – and the freakishly violent pranks he and George Sr. play on the Bluth children; but most of the plot points throughout the episode are at some remove, typically not a very far one, about parenting, something the characters do incredibly poorly: Lucille’s bored, unsubtle emotional abuse, Lindsay’s immediate switch from trying to discipline Maeby to using her as a pawn, Michael’s charming but nasty “Very proud. Minus”. This isn’t exactly groundbreaking territory, especially for a show in which “parents are awful” is the backbone of the whole series, but it’s explored in “Pier Pressure” with exceptional focus and wit.
Speaking of wit, the presence of great jokes is just to be expected at this point, and even by this point in the show’s run, it’s easy to take unexpectedly nuanced and subtle gags for granted, but even so, there’s a huge concentration of some of my very favorite jokes from the entire series run in this single episode, though I have in my life committed the egregious sin of watching it so often that not all of them still seem funny. There’s the pair “And that’s why you…” lessons, of course, amidst a cornucopia of great one-liners delivered with terrific timing and emphasis: “My gut is telling me no. But my gut is also very hungry”; the song “Big Yellow Joint”, “I was gonna smoke the marijuana like a cigarette”. “Because I’m… don’t want to”; virtually every thing Lucille Walter says to Alia Shawkat, Bateman’s peerlessly dismissive reading of the line “That’s okay, you’ve only been a Jew for about two days”, and my favorite single line-reading of Arnett’s career as Gob or anyone else: “Oh no! It’s the cops! And, a, construction worker.”
All in all, “Pier Pressure” so confident in the story its telling, and so demented in its humor, that it’s easy to forget about the absence of David Cross or an “On the next…” gag, or very much of the self-referential meta-humor that drives so much of the show’s best outings (in fact, it’s so self-contained, other than having a good sense of who these characters are, that it’s a great way to turn people onto the show, and I did in fact once use it to that purpose). It’s even possible to mostly forget that this episode boasts one of the sloppiest continuity gaffes in Arrested Development: the pot-buying plot is intercut with the Maeby at Lucille’s plot in such a way that we’re to understand that they’re happening in tandem, but whole night and day pass in the former as the latter takes place over what is presumably meant to be just an afternoon. So gifted is the show’s sleight-of-hand in drawing attention from that fact, I had never noticed it, in the 10 or 12 times I’ve seen “Pier Pressure”, until watching it for this review. Glaring mistake or not, that’s pretty damn impressive.