First airdate: 17 March, 2004
Written by Barbie Feldman Adler
Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar
“Justice Is Blind”
First airdate: 21 March, 2004
Written by Abraham Higginbotham
Directed by Jay Chandrasekhar
In each season of Arrested Development, there’s one episode that just doesn’t work for me, as a whole, and unfortunately in Season 1, that episode is a two-parter: “Altar Egos” and “Justice Is Blind”, the former airing on a Wednesday instead of the show’s customary Sunday timeslot, in an attempt by Fox to make something of a “Why aren’t you watching this outrageously well-reviewed show?” promotion. It speaks to the series’ customary fortunes that this attempt at broadening its audience fell on the shoulders of one of the most sitcommy, most obvious, and frankly dumbest comic scenarios the writers ever cooked up.
We’re still talking about Arrested Development here, of course, and the show’s basement level of accomplishment – which neither of these episodes represent – is still awfully high. “Altar Egos” – the better of the two – might be a lull, but it’s a lull with the extremely giddy flashback to young Michael Bluth (Michael Bartel) performing the part of Peter Pan, prosecuting attorney, in a school musical, with the deathless lines “You’re a crook, Captain Hook / Judge, won’t you throw the book / At the pirate-“, with a truly bold snippet of foreshadowing that works as a simple joke the first time and a breathtakingly clear sign of how much thought went into this show the second (though even this highlight showcases problems within the episode: a truly great episode would have cut into the flashback a little more gracefully and with more punch). Also with straight-arrow Michael attempting to lie his way into a girl’s pants and fumbling into the fake name Chareth Cutestory. And with Gob’s accidental marriage (which has more of a sorrowful tang now than it did nine years ago, with Will Arnett and Amy Poehler having gotten divorced since she jumped into this lovely bit of stunt-casting), though the best is certainly yet to come in that subplot.
The issue, as I see it at least, is that the arc of the two shows (which, unlike the show’s other multi-episode storylines, is almost impossibly to judge in terms of it being two separate episodes – in fact, that’s one of the things that bothers me most about the whole affair, that the “On the next…” joke in “Altar Egos” is actually footage from “Justice Is Blind”) hinges on such a flimsy comic conceit: Maggie Lizer (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) a blind lawyer who isn’t blind with a seeing eye dog who is. It’s gimmicky in a way that the show can absolutely do better than, and it’s presented with only a modicum of actual cleverness: the sequence in which Tobias breaks into Maggie’s house as she tries to chase him out without giving up the game is impeccably choreographed, but it feels unbelievably musty and broad, like something I’d expect to see in a good but not particularly classic ’60s ensemble farce made by Blake Edwards. Louis-Dreyfus certainly gives her all to the character, and she’s a great fit for the show’s comic sensibility; I just wish, so much, that she’d had something better to do than engage in such limp, shticky jokes as she gets here. The good news is that her return in Season 2 finds the character in a much more enjoyable, interesting, funny place; but that’s a cold comfort here.
It’s a pity that the central narrative of the two episodes is such a misfire (and I’m not terribly fond of the overriding B-plot either, in which we find that Maeby has created a sick twin to bilk her classmates out of money; Alia Shawkat does her best in one of the few Season 1 episodes that gives her a large part, but the best joke is the conceptual one that Maeby’s invented twin is named Surely), because the filigree is often good and frequently great. The Peter Pan musical is the best of what made it to air; tragically, the best single scene in either episode is a deleted scene from “Altar Egos”, found on the DVDs, consisting of a basic “they’re not talking about the same person, to comic effect” scenario, but given an incredibly nasty edge. The recap opening of “Justice Is Blind” contains a very silly but nevertheless funny escalation of title cards, and a terrific running gag in which nobody has any clue what the Ten Commandments are (“Number seven”, says Michael sagely, to a Hamlet quote). And it’s here that we learn that faith is a fact, which is for some reason that I cannot begin to explain, the AD quote that I have used most often in casual conversation over the years (probably because “come on!” – which we haven’t met yet, and I am shocked to realise how such an essential part of the show took this long to arrive – is unspecific). And the narrator’s snarky tendency to pip Gob for lying proceeds nicely.
But it turns out that even great jokes need something to anchor to; otherwise they’re just so many quips floating off into the ether. And the Maggie Lizer plotline just isn’t that anchor; she’s a cheap and obvious character, not a creative one, and the farce that these episodes build around her is simply not very creative. It’s mechanically solid, I guess – and like I said, even sub-par Arrested Development is still some of the best TV comedy ever (besides the very worst episodes yet to come show off just much “Altar Egos” and “Justice Is Blind” are merely weak, not truly bad). But since the very first time I watched the show, this dyad struck me as too low-energy and dragged-out, and too straightforward to stand with the show’s already-estimable peaks. Nearly a decade of time to think about it hasn’t shifted me on that opinion one iota.