First airdate: 11 April, 2004
Written by Jim Vallely & John Levenstein
Directed by Paul Feig
Full-fledged political satire comes to Arrested Development with “Whistler’s Mother”. Political satire and fart jokes. And oh, how I wish I was more excited by this development – I mean, it’s a great step for the show to have taken, and it’s well-executed, although what seemed likely in 2004 and 2005 has come to pass, and the more overtly topical bits and pieces of Arrested Development simply aren’t as funny or vital as the more ephemeral and timeless themes of the spoiled members of an affluent family barely being able to tolerate each other any more. Still, the George W. Bush years were recent enough that those of us who were lefty-type adults at the time can still appreciate the way that AD poked fun at the days when the Iraq War was still a fresh new outrage, and even without the exact specific cultural details the show was mocking, the jokes are broad enough here to remain funny. But I find myself not so interested in talk about the show’s lunge towards commentary of a kind that was still a bit tender in the spring of 2004, as in the new development: Oscar Bluth makes his first appearance! George Sr’s twin brother, so idly name-dropped in “Missing Kitty”, crops up quite casually and unexpectedly, and with him comes a whole new dynamic to the show, though one that wouldn’t be explored in any depth until the second season.
It’s hard to argue with a straight face, given the rabidness of the AD fanbase, that any element of the show has been under-praised, but I still don’t know that Jeffrey Tambor tends to get as much credit as he deserves for his dual portrayals of George and Oscar. Because he deserves so much credit. Speaking for nobody but myself, obviously, I find that I very frequently lose sight of the fact that they’re both being played by the same actor: in the very opposite of a show-off, virtuoso way, since Tambor’s portrayal of Oscar is so sleepy and laconic, and since Arrested Development, by its nature, doesn’t permit anybody to play an especially realistic human character. It’s more that there’s so little overlap between the two brothers, including the make-up that Tambor is wearing in either case, that it simply never occurs to me that they might be something other than twins; besides, in a show with as much heightened cartoon logic as this, twin brothers are such a managable element that it reads as subdued and realistic and not really worth poking at. But it remains, Tambor is doing truly excellent acting here, and it is something which proves to be one of the show’s best strengths as it moves onwards.
The episode surrounding Oscar’s introduction is a solid one, if not especially adventurous (it’s the last in a run of first season episodes that have the feeling of settling in as everybody involved has reached their comfort zone, testing the edges of the show without expanding them), with some ingenious business involving the titular whistles – it’s amazing how funny an offscreen whistle sound effect can be, in context and with perfectly-timed editing – alongside a great many fine bits, few of which reach the highest heights of the show; those that manage to include Gob’s purposefully obtuse conversation with his wife about her desire to leave him for Tobias, and Lindsay’s transformation of a “Free Speech Zone”, a tiny metal cage in the middle of nowhere, into a cage dance (the whole matter of the Free Speech Zone and the unseen Free Press Zone are an obvious, but not therefore unsuccessful, jab at the anti-democratic atmosphere surrounding the prosecution of the Iraq War; only slightly less obvious is the show’s effective joke at the expense of liberal activists in it to make themselves look and feel good, not to actually change the world, and that’s a bit of satire that has only gotten sharper as the years have clicked by. That said, my actual favorite piece of political humor in this episode is Maeby’s angry observation that Lindsay initially confused the first and second Iraq Wars). Also the glorious exchange between Michael and an uncharacteristically kindly, family-oriented Lucille: “Why are you squeezing me with your body?” “It’s a hug, Michael. I’m hugging you.” “Why?”
Then, too, there’s at least one clumsy moment: Lindsay’s meeting with her war-bound stylist is expository in an unusually bald register, and it includes one of the few lines of dialogue in the series’ entire run – “These salon wars have got to stop” – that absolutely does not work. But that is a little thing, in the middle of a whole lot of good things: Gob and Tobias trying to start a coffee business without any clue what they’re doing, leading to one of the better snarky narrator lines of the season; or the running gag in which various folk icons of the ’60s couldn’t stand Oscar’s banal “All You Need Is Smiles” (“He wrote one song that made Joan Baez call him the shallowest man in the world”, and based on what we hear, that’s about right), or Jessica Walter’s top-notch work across the board, the best thing she’d done in several episodes.
Too much is too funny, and there’s a major new character to take into consideration, for “Whistler’s Mother” to exactly feel like a make-work episode; but it’s also too simple in its basic narrative and too insubstantial in its self-contained themes to feel like anything else. It’s exceedingly easy to like without doing much of anything that makes it a classic episode, but the writers were probably saving themselves up for the final push; and indeed, the first season of AD was to close on an absolutely terrific pair of episodes, that wiped away all the memory of the handful of examples of the show running at a very solid but not exactly brilliant level, like this.