First airdate: 6 June, 2004
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz & Jim Vallely
Directed by Paul Feig
Who can say when, exactly, Fox started to give up on Arrested Development? And with seven years of healing and the impending premiere of 14 new episodes, I do not mean this so scornfully as I once would have; certainly, the network kept the show on the air a whole lot longer than it made any kind of business sense to do so. Still, there was a sense in the first season (the Maggie Lizer two-parter being a perfect example) of Fox at least attempting to get people to watch the series, and in the second and third, it’s pretty obvious that it was viewed, at best, as a prestigious loss leader.
Whenever that shift in thinking happened at the executive level, it became impossible to ignore the signs of doom with the debut of the first season finale, “Let ‘Em Eat Cake”, a lonely little orphan poking its head up out of the ground on the first Sunday of June, 2004, six weeks – and one crucial May sweeps period – later than the penultimate episode, “Not Without My Daughter”. It’s not exactly a burn-off, though with the show’s future still much in doubt when “Let ‘Em Eat Cake” was filmed (complete with a saucy “On the next season” episode-ending teaser), it wasn’t terribly promising either, and not a single one of the show’s remaining 31 episodes would be entirely free of a sense of living on borrowed time and getting away with something.
But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. At this time, we’re still uncertainly in the summer of 2004, with the show finally answering what had been, to that point, the closest it had to a central mystery: what was the exact nature of George Bluth, Sr’s crime of “light treason”? Selling houses to Saddam Hussein, it turns out, which also pays off several pieces of foreshadowing not just throughout the series, but within this very episode as well. This being the show it is – a comic serial in which continuity is used more as a foundation for jokes than a narrative that’s compelling in and of itself – this reveal is neither particularly climactic nor even especially important, except insofar as it gives an especially irascible Michael, short-tempered and surly as a result of a low-carb diet (the Atkins diet was going through one of its periodic spikes in popularity early in 2004), even more of a reason than he usually has to be pissed off at his family, precipitating a cliffhanger ending – though hardly presented that way – which finally pays off his longstanding threat to leave the other Bluths to fend for themselves, established all the way back in the pilot.
Arrested Development had a somewhat annoying habit of the very last episode of any given season not quite measuring up to the level it was operating at going in, and “Let ‘Em Eat Cake” is certainly nowhere near the outstanding “Not Without My Daughter”, though that’s a strictly relative comparison: it’s still near the top of the back nine episodes of Season 1. It’s just not as flawless as its immediate predecessor. The celebrated “Gob starts a bee business” subplot, for example, has never done all that much for me, and the very best thing it has to offer is Lucille’s knowing, earnestly sardonic “They don’t allow you to have bees in here”. Which is, admittedly, an excellent line in context.
The bee plot suggests the episode’s biggest overridding problem, if “problem” is a fair word for something more curious than it is actually bad. “Let ‘Em Eat Cake” has a lot of very weird, out of character behavior: nothing about Gob (whose obsessions are sex and magic) has indicated that he’d be such an enthusiastic bee fancier, and the evidence of the slack-assed Gobias Industries from “Whistler’s Mother”, just two episodes earlier, comes a lot closer to suggesting the opposite. And the Atkins theme, in its entirety, feels like it came from someplace entirely foreign to Arrested Development at its highest: the show’s vast reference pool typically didn’t involve anything like topical cultural parody (the Iraq War satire, which gets a big boost here, is clearly of a different order), but went much older and more obscure (there’s a background Nurse Ratched joke elsewhere in the episode, for example), and it’s an odd fit. To say nothing of how much it requires jettisoning the series’ core idea that at heart, the Bluths cannot be together in any way: since the first time I ever saw the episode, the idea that all of these people would be on the same diet together has struck me as just plain wrong.
These are not small issues, but there’s a lot of greatness around them: the first appearance of the supremely bland Ann (Alessandra Torresani), and Maeby’s suddenly vehement jealousy of George-Michael alongside it; the first appearance as well of the overly-literal Dr. Fishman (Ian Roberts), who sets up one of the boldest jokes in the show’s first season, in which the writers throw an unexpectedly sober and emotion-wrenching scene at us, knocking us off-kilter far more than anything else would have precisely because we know that this cannot possibly be the same show we’ve been watching. And of course a whole host of little lines and character moments show up; Gob and Lindsay’s “Beads – Bees?! – Beads! – Beads?!” exchange is priceless, and I love George-Michael’s awful joke, as well as the great cutaway to the very game John Beard that serves as its punchline.
It might not be quite as great a summing-up of the show’s attitude and formal creativity as “Not Without My Daughter”, though it’s still as stylistically bracing as any other comedy on TV at that point (the fact that two identical shots of a rest area can both serve as a visual punchline to two separate gags in the span of only a few seconds is its own kind of genius); and the absolute worst thing that can be said against it still doesn’t change how breezily it sent the show into its first hiatus, and how much promise it held for a second season just as bold and complex and hilarious as the first. It’s the kind of season finale that makes you hungry for the show’s return, and that’s the very best kind.