First airdate: 8 February, 2004
Written by John Levenstein & Jim Vallely
Directed by Joe Russo
First airdate: 15 February, 2004
Written by Richard Rosenstock & Chuck Martin
Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar
A milestone in the lifespan of any TV series: we now come to the first two-part episode in the run of Arrested Development, though being a lightly serial show and all, that means something different than the high-stakes cliffhanger it might in other places. Mostly, it’s simply a matter of the situation of the first episode, “Marta Complex”, not fully resolving itself, though if there had been no immediate continuation for a couple of episodes, I don’t think it would have even registered as being out of the ordinary.
Anyway, “Marta Complex”, as its title makes clear, ramps up the story of Michael Bluth’s crush on his brother’s girlfriend, the Spanish-language daytime soap star Marta Estrella. In grand stakes-raising fashion (and as we are now just past the halfway point of season 1, some raised stakes are very much in order), the episode starts with a scene in which Marta discovers that all along, she’s been in love with the wrong Bluth boy, thanks to a speech Michael gives at a spectacularly unsuccessful Valentine’s Day Party/anniversary for the horribly broken marriage of Lindsay and Tobias.
Unlike the previous Marta-centric episodes, this ends up having very little to do with Michael’s feelings of guilt about stepping on Gob’s relationship; mostly, it’s a farcical mystery, in which the two brothers try to track down the mysterious hermano Marta refers to on the phone, not realising that this is the Spanish word for “brother”. It’s the best expression of a gag that runs through all three seasons of Arrested Development, in which none of the Bluths, not even designated good person Michael, has even the vaguest grasp on Hispanic culture, despite living in southern California and interacting with Hispanic people pretty much every single day. One of the overriding themes of the series, of course, is that the Bluths are phenomenally oblivious, disconnected people; adding, implicitly but unflaggingly, a suggestion that this includes a egree of racial privilege in addition to the more overt class privilege is a good way of underlining how much of a bubble they live in.
On a much less theoretical front, “Marta Complex” boasts a magnificently dense script, the second co-written by Jim Vallely, already setting himself up as the show’s most important writer after showrunner Mitch Hurwitz (not that John Levenstein was a slouch: he didn’t write as much as Vallely over the course of the show, but most of his scripts were awfully damn solid). By the end of the extraordinary first act, one extended party scene, we’ve had had hilarious but genuinely mean dark comedy (“I deceived you, Mom. ‘Trick’ makes it sound like we have a playful relationship.”), a layered flashback whose punchline is that it reuses one punchline twice, snarky narration played with utter sincerity, callbacks both obvious and subdued (I had never realised that Lindsay’s delivery of the line “He’s on the balcony having margaritas with Carl Weathers” was directly paired with “He’s at a weekend stage-fighting workshop with Carl Weathers” from “Key Decisions” until this viewing), gags using graphics, the first appearance of the legendary “You’ve got a stew going”, the brilliantly corny “No. I love it.”, and the wonderfully heightened absurdity of the Caged Wisdom tapes. Plus a healthy serving of genuine humanity, filtered through a demented lens, but still tender in its weird way.
The farcical escalation of the rest of the episode doesn’t match this, either in creativity or laughs, but “Marta Complex” remains one of the first season’s outright funniest episodes, in my estimation, owing no doubt in part to its freedom: though it does, in a small way, resolve the hermano confusion, it leaves a healthy amount of the plot on the table, and gets to be all about set-up, without having to grind through too much plot. And great set-up it is, bringing the Fünke marriage to the forefront and giving us a great sense of that specific dynamic, while bleeding over enough that Michael Cera gets some of his best material yet to work with.
It’s as mechanically complex and funny as anything the show had done to that point, and all dedicated almost solely to being as funny as possible; that’s not a luxury afforded to the follow-up episode, “Beef Consommé”, which is perhaps inevitably not as great. And it’s exactly the part of the episode that has to do the most to wrap up plot threads that ends up being the weakest part of the whole (relatively weak, you understand), though that has more to do with the way that this wrap-up involves a protracted chase/fight scene that’s simply not that inspired as slapstick. Nor was slapstick anyway something that Arrested Development did nearly as well as its verbal gamesmanship and subtle visual gags.
That being said, it’s only the third act where “Beef Consommé” starts to drift, and prior to that point is full of generally high-quality writing (it is not, compared to many episodes, particularly heavy on visual or formalist humor, though there’s a fun bit that calls attention to the show’s documentary conceit), virtually no jokes that have made it into the AD lexicon, but many that are as good as any other second-tier episode. The one exception that I can think of, of a joke that is truly iconic, is perhaps Tobias’s “selfish country music-loving lady”.
But anyway, it is full of good smallish moments, including a terrific recurring use of “Love Is in the Air, and a wonderfully lewd description of where babies come from. Michael Cera continues his ascendancy to becoming perhaps the best actor in the ensemble cast, back before he decided to run his shtick mile deep into the ground; his quiet, nervous “I was never actually clear on that” regarding Tobias’s cut-offs, is by no means one of the most quotable lines in the show, but it is perhaps the one that has made me laugh the most. And as is increasingly the case, just about every member of the principal cast is pretty great pretty consistently, with Will Arnett getting a bit of extra focus this time around, and continuing to develop a Gob who is maybe the most genuinely awful of all the Bluths.
“Beef Consommé” was designed as the final episode of the initial 13-episode order of the show, and it does undoubtedly play a bit as a summing-up; not just because it resolves the Marta plotline that had been simmering for quite some time, but because of how much it cranks many things up that had previously been a bit subdued: there are more callbacks here than in all the previous 12 episodes combined. Part of that, no doubt, is that there were only now enough episodes for there to be that many callbacks; but for something that hasn’t really been part of the show’s structure to very suddenly become very important does speak to this episode functioning as something of a mile marker (incidentally, my favorite of the callbacks is also an uncharacteristically subtle one: Lucille saucily asking “How do you like them eggrolls, Mr. Goldstone?” just one episode after her affection for the musical Gypsy is indicated in a drunken montage).
Perhaps it’s this same sense of buttoning things up a bit that keeps me at a bit of a remove from the episode; the show is at its best when it’s at its biggest, and most sprawling, and while “Beef Consommé” is certainly big in its closing moments, that comes more as it functions as a climax to a two-part story than because it is expanding the show’s net of references or deepening its fictional world. In fact, on the whole it’s an episode that contracts, not expands: getting rid of one long-term sideplot, and apparently resolving another in the Tobias/Lindsay marital problems (that the show knew that where it left them wouldn’t work is clear by the way that it is rolled-back without any further mention that they ever successfully had sex), even daring to suggest that George-Michael’s crush on Maeby is going on the backburner. It’s funny as hell – only in its very darkest moments is Arrested Development less than that – but its function in the overall narrative of the show is to mess up the forward momentum of the thing; the good news is that this break in momentum wouldn’t carry over to the next episode, but it’s still not great for the feeling of this episode, which for all it’s terrific writing simply isn’t half as memorable as the episode it’s partnered with.