First airdate: 14 March, 2004
Written by Brad Copeland
Directed by John Fortenberry
Speaking entirely personally, “Staff Infection” is a one-of-a-kind episode of Arrested Development, in that out of 53 episodes, it was the only one that I couldn’t recall in any kind of detail when I launched into this marathon. This is a bit of shame on the one hand, for some of those details turned out to be quite important and wonderful: the first appearance of Gob’s mocking chicken dance (and the first time that another character irritably points out that he neither looks nor sounds remotely like a chicken), and the debut of prison warden Stefan Gentles, a starfucker played in a tremendously generous, self-mocking turn, by Inside the Actors Studio host James Lipton. On the other hand, “Staff Infection” isn’t anywhere near the best of what the show had to offer, with an ill-defined spine on which various subplots hang, presenting none of the characters to their best advantage, and simply not including nearly as many great gags as your average first-season episode (and if I’m not mistaken, a slightly more odious racial tinge than the show ever trafficked in: Annyong’s broken English takes us perilously close to territory I’d rather not get to).
That’s not the same thing as saying there are no great gags, of course: the chicken dance alone makes sure of that, particularly given Buster’s angry response. I’m also a fan of Lipton’s merry little twinkle when he talks about an inmate due for execution that evening, and there are quite a few good Buster moments (Tony Hale is the only cast member who waltzes through the episode basically unscathed), of which my favorite is probably his dazzled enthusiasm at the salty language (“my bottom!”) on the construction site where he’s been obliged to work. There’s a quick incest joke that Will Arnett plays off flawlessly, and David Cross, back after a one-episode break, has terrific repartee with Lipton (his mystified, slightly put-out expression at being asked to hand a script to Carl Weathers especially). Besides, a middling Arrested Development is still Arrested Development, and while we will eventually stumble across episodes that I actually don’t like, we’re not there yet.
We are, however, in a place that’s rather more lazy and repetitive than the show at its most creatively inspired. For example, I had forgotten how quickly the “annyong” running gag ceased to be actively funny, functioning as part of the background fabric of the show instead of actually gunning for laughs (of course, comedy being subjective and all, I’m sure plenty of people find it to be quite hilarious even still). And then there’s the matter of the most main plot of several jockeying for attention focusing, as several have, on the Michael & George-Michael relationship, with the not entirely fresh observation that Michael’s work makes it hard for him to be a good dad. This basic scenario has worked before, and would work again in the future; somehow, it does not work very well here in “Staff Infection”, I think because so many different plotlines are jostling for prominence, between Lindsay’s attempts to co-opt Michael’s position, Gob and Buster’s adventures in actually working for a living, and the rare appearance of a Tobias/George Sr. plot thread. There’s no throughline for any of this, and insofar as the whole episode has the feeling of coherent structure, it’s largely due to the sheep motif winding through all of the different corners of the show, anchored by the charmingly dim country twang of the David Schwartz original song “Get Along, Little Sheep”.
One thing that does distinctly set the episode apart: it’s the first time that the general air of “let’s make fun of the clueless rich” gives way to an actual, pointed bit of social commentary, in the form of the construction workers, the feeble attempt to replace them with illegal immigrant scab workers (“Laborers? I’m a professor of American studies at the University of Mexico City!”), and the tremendous lack of sympathy or care that any of the three Bluth siblings feel toward the two separate groups of people they’re screwing over. It’s still a half-hour sitcom, not a liberal political tract, so this is all chiefly played out as comedy at the expense of the protagonists, but as Arrested Development went on, it became more and more overt in its criticism of the state of American society in the mid-’00s (the way that the Bluths stand in the for the Bushes was a well-worn observation by the time the show’s first season had finished airing), and this is an early flourish of that tendency. It’s not something that makes it any better or worse, but it’s interesting, at least.
Anyway, they can’t all be perfect comic gems, and while “Staff Infection” has, I’d be inclined to guess, fewer outstanding jokes than any other first season episode (even Lucille can’t muster better than a flimsy masturbation gag, not even a particular ribald one by the standards AD had already set for itself), it’s still better than most of what passes for comedy on television. It’s a low point in a vague slowing-down period that hit the show in the back half of the first season, but there are low points, and there are low points, and no 22-minute stretch that includes Michael Cera’s sad little “He’s making a sandcastle?” can be a low point.