First airdate: 7 March, 2004
Written by Jim Vallely & Chuck Martin
Directed by Joe Russo
Incest was an important part of Arrested Development from the very first moment that George-Michael Bluth starting hunting for ways to get a second kiss from his cousin, Maeby Fünke; but oh, how it gets pushed right to the forefront of “Shock and Aww”, the first episode of the back half of the first season and perhaps therefore the beginning of the middle of the show. It is, at any rate, with this episode that AD turns from a vaguely serial show in which events move, generally speaking, forward, to a show with an active plan for the future, for it’s with this episode that foreshadowing really starts to be an aggressive thing, though of course you’re not going to notice that the first time around. And it’s here that I must pause and ponder: I don’t want to say things that will ruin it for anybody watching the show for the very first time along with this marathon, but I also want to stop and point out some of my favorite bits of foreshadowing, when I can manage to do it without spoilers. Because the last thing I want to do is give away to any newbies why it’s so special that (THIS IS YOUR CUE TO JUMP AHEAD, NEWBIES) there’s a lecture on how “even minor crimes are punishable by brutally chopping off the offender’s hand”, or that Michael keeps thinking that he recognises Saddam Hussein’s decorations. And I dare not even point out the name on a poster in the background of the high school.
But I do believe I was talking about incest. Despite taking place in one of the spans of the show when George-Michael’s crush on Maeby is in abeyance (the DVDs have a deleted scene in which he’s even smug about it), “Shock and Aww” is obsessed with family members getting freaky with other family members, even by AD standards. Most obviously, and certainly most hilariously, is the speech that Lindsay is more proud of than anything she has said in her entire life, an ancient comic situation (two people think they’re talking about the same subject, but they are not) freshened up with utterly filthy sexual content, and given incredible potency by Portia de Rossi’s flawless performance of both registers of the conversation. There’s also the snippets of Buster humping Michael in his sleep, Maeby’s immediate recourse to “I have a new cousin – I will be romantic with him” as her preferred method of shocking those around her, the customary Buster/Lucille ickiness (though not as pronounced as it had previously been, and certainly not as much as it would eventually become), and the subplot in which Gob’s urgent desire to sleep with all the women that he thinks Michael has bedded quickly blossoms from a simple act of vengeance into something much more pathological; it is, admittedly, reading into where the show will be going rather than where the show is to look at this as sign of Gob’s sexual attraction to Michael, but this is a complex, forward-looking show.
As for what all of this incest humor is doing… honestly, I’ve never quite figured it out, beyond the simple level of establishing that the Bluths are, deep down, awful; even nice, quiet George-Michael, so fully corrupted by his family that while he can recognise his thoughts as inappropriate, he never really fights against them. But that’s not much of an explanation for something that dominates so much of the series. Perhaps we could stretch and say that it’s a symbol for how the various Bluths are all trying to screw each other? The good news is, we’ll have many opportunities to revisit this question, because it’s not a theme that’s going away.
Anyhow, I’d like to backtrack for a second, to what I identified as an ancient comic situation. It just so happens that recently, I was having a real-life conversation with a friend who observed of “Public Relations” that it’s an episode he doesn’t really love because, at heart, it’s a stock sitcom episode, with the exact sort of one-off conflict and basic “learn a lesson” framework and total lack of continuity that phrase entails. And this got me to thinking about “Shock and Aww” that it is, itself, basically a stock sitcom episode too: it hinges on a character, Heather Graham’s Beth Baerly, who never shows up again, and its situation is at heart incredibly simple: the adult protagonist and the kid son both love the same woman. Add in a good dollop of cute, and it’s the easiest thing in the world to imagine Andy Taylor explaining to Opie why he can’t have a crush on a grown-up. And yet “Shock and Aww”, to me, works so much better.
Part of the reason is undoubtedly that “Shock and Aww” isn’t so self-contained: it looks back to Marta, reminds us that Steve Holt! is a player in this world, while foreshadowing multiple plotlines even as it introduces the briefly recurring character of Cindi Lightballoon (Jane Lynch, who slides into Arrested Development‘s style of comedy with beautiful ease – it is a damned shame that they never brought her back), and the vastly more important Annyong Bluth (Justin Lee).
Part of it is maybe that “Shock and Aww” has a better script on a line-by-line basis, though that is thoroughly debatable – it has nothing that can match “I don’t understand the question, and I won’t respond to it”, though it does bring in the Klimpy’s restaurant chain for a tiny cameo. Certainly moments like the aforementioned Lindsay speech, or Gob’s “George-Michael, what are you doing at a high school dance?” or the terrific interplay of “Mrs. Whitehead was the civics teacher. We both had her.”/”Yes, we have, and now we’re even” qualify as excellent writing by any means.
What I think it really is, though is that “Shock and Aww” takes the basic sitcom form, and absolutely travesties it. “Public Relations” had its share of edgy moments, but “Shock and Aww” takes the musty old forms of a meet cute, a mistaken conversation, a farcical “everybody comes to the same public event” climax, and makes them as awful and vile as possible. The meet cute – Michael and Beth nervously laughing about Michael’s dead wife (a wonderfully-acted scene that redeems Graham’s entire not-quite-there character). The climax – a man in his late thirties idly throwing a “hi” out to the 18-year-old girls he’s slept with. Not to mention how enthusiastically the Annyong subplot underscores how truly demented the characters are: not just Lucille and Buster, nor even Maeby, but Michael himself, who dismisses the whole thing with a casual “She just had a little Korean dropped off”. Rather than being an episode that puts the Bluths in a stock sitcom situation, “Shock and Aww” perverts a stock situation by exposing it to the Bluths. And that makes all the difference.
One more thing and we’ll go: it wasn’t until this viewing that I noticed that the cause of Mr. Daniels’s stroke, which put Ms. Baerly in charge of the ethics class, and started the whole plot in the first place, is explained. And explained, moreover, such that no character ever comes close to finding out the connection; it’s a wee little background joke that’s probably more obvious than I’m giving it credit for, but there you have Arrested Development in a nutshell: a great gag that doubles as a plot point given so little desperate emphasis by the production that it’s entirely possible to miss it. Just one of the many jokes that acts as a test, to make sure that the viewer is smart enough to deserve the show. God, what a great series.