First airdate: 23 November, 2003
Written by Brad Copeland
Directed by Anthony Russo
Such a huge list of firsts with “Key Decisions”! Behind the scenes, it’s the first episode of Arrested Development that was neither written nor co-written by series creator Mitchell Hurwitz, and the first aired out of its original production order. Onscreen, it is the first appearance a host of elements that will end up becoming important touchstones in the series’ development: the staircar, Liza Minnelli’s Lucille Austero, Michael’s infatuation with Gob’s telenovela-star girlfriend Marta (Leonor Varela), the particularly Oedipal tang of Buster’s relationship with his mother (“we’re not dating”, delivered with a disquieting semi-giggle), a call-forward to the future importance of actor Carl Weathers, and certainly not least, Gob’s miserable pronouncement, “I’ve made a huge mistake”.
It’s a confident and forward-looking, then, though not quite as great as the episodes preceding it; if nothing else, it lacks the structural gamesmanship of a really top-tier Arrested Development installment, and there are a couple of moments where it commits the comedy sin of explaining why a punchline is funny (the big offender: responding to Michael’s complaint about being surrounded by narcissists, Lucille responds with the awesome “If that’s a veiled criticism about me, I won’t hear it and I won’t respond to it”, who which Michael unnecessarily retorts “Hm. Maybe I’m wrong”).
But those are little quibbles: “Key Decisions” is, throughout, a tremendously strong 22 minutes with constant, sharp dialogue, and a cast that had by this point gotten comfortable enough with their characters that they could be really outstanding: Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi, Tony Hale, and Jessica Walter are all essentially flawless here, and the rest of the cast suffers only from having very little to do (Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat get two lines apiece) or being absent altogether, in David Cross’s case. So what if it’s not as inventive and aggressive as “Bringing Up Buster”? It’s an absolutely terrific 22-minute narrative regardless, telling a complete and satisfying pair of stories while planting the seeds for stories to come, and doing it an a frequently hilarious, character-driven way. One doesn’t necessarily think of Arrested Development much as a classic sitcom, but in its first season especially, it had a number of very strong episodes based on a very classic model, and that’s precisely what we get in “Key Decisions”.
Except, it’s not really as classic as all that, despite its conclusion in an awfully typical, “I have learned lessons and adjusted my behavior as a result” gesture. For one thing, it doesn’t have an A-plot to speak of; instead, each of the Bluth children get a plot all to themselves, two of which overlap quite a bit but have distinct beginnings, middles, and ends (this seemingly fruitful way of structuring an episode doesn’t to my immediate recollection, ever come back; while the show is good as juggling multiple plotlines, it’s rare for the siblings to be so neatly segregated). Each plot is, to some extent, about them confronting the fact that they are not, at present, who they want to be: Michael is tired of being single, Gob is tired of being in a relationship, Lindsay has lost the thread of being a young idealist, Buster wants to stop being such a manchild, cowed by his mother. The key decisions of the title, then, refer to the moment that each of them decides to act or not act on changing their life; and it’s telling about the series’ generally sardonic view of its characters that only one of them manages to pull off anything remotely like a constructive development, and it’s the most sad and pathetic of them all.
Certainly, I prefer my Arrested Development with more meta-humor than “Key Decisions” offers up, but as a strong character-driven sitcom episode, they don’t come much better than that. It’s a relative simple entry in the show’s history, but nonetheless a pretty terrific one.
I’m still, for now, avoiding the urge to let these articles descend into “LET ME QUOTE MY FAVORITE LINES!”, but I have to say, “Key Decisions” has more than its fair share of outstanding gags that don’t just serve up a good laugh, but manage to crystallise all that we know about these characters. At the risk of becoming a listmaker, I wonder if I might just share my favorites:
“Perhaps you remember Neuterfest?” -Lindsay
“I’ll never forget your wedding.” -Michael
“We’re not the only ones who destroy trees. What about beavers? You call yourself an environmentalist. Why don’t you go out and club some beavers?” -Lindsay
“I know she’s a brownish area. With points. And I know I love her!” -Buster
Gob’s weak “ta-da” after “breaking out” of prison. Also: “I’m… white.”
Lucille’s outrageous self-amusement at her “this is why people hate hospitals” line, laughing like a psychopath as she walks away – one of Jessica Walter’s best moments in the whole series.