First airdate: 30 November, 2003
Written by Barbie Feldman Adler
Directed by Greg Mottola
I had never really observed before now that two consecutive Arrested Development episodes “Visiting Ours” and “Charity Drive” (the order in which they are consecutive depends on the particular viewing format) were both directed by Greg Mottola. This means awfully little in episodic television, where the individual director rarely has a tremendously significant impact on a given episode’s quality compared to the writers and showrunners, but it serves to underline something I’ve always informally felt about these two episodes, and to a lesser degree the next one coming up, that they’re a kind of matched set: the “drawing a deep breath” phase of the first season of the show, for want of a better way to describe. I mean, basically, that like “Visiting Ours”, “Charity Drive” has always struck me as being a bit cooler and lower-key than much of the series, as though having demonstrated in a sublimely confident pilot and three structurally complex, absolutely funny episodes that followed it, what Arrested Development at its peak could be, Mitchell Hurwitz and his team needed, however briefly, to regroup. In hardly any time at all, the show would be back at the top of its game, where it would largely reside except for the odd misfire, until it went off the air; but at this point it was idling a little bit, gathering up energy for the next big push.
That said, “Charity Drive” is a clear step up from “Visiting Ours”, and at any rate, idling means something different here than it does with other shows. The show’s fallback position – the default position of all family-oriented sitcoms – of relying on just letting the character loose in a situation where their natural tendencies will be given a good chance to shine is in strong form here, especially for twins Michael and Lindsay, whose very separate approaches to “doing good” form the spine of the episode (another reason it’s an improvement over its immediate predecessor: the various subplots are all thematically linked, if in a vague way, by the idea of charity; a bow is put on this idea by the last lines of the episode proper, said in the back of a police car: “I was just trying to be a good guy.” “Me too.”): Lindsay’s faux-liberalism is given its most strenuous workout yet in watching as she wanders the wetlands, confused and resentful (tiny gag alert: she’s wearing a Neuterfest shirt, relic of another misguided attempt at fixing the world), and Michael’s attempts to keep the Bluth family together no matter what are summed up by his sister in the single most insightful description of his character ever offered by another person onscreen: “You don’t do it for us, Michael. You just do it because you love being the guy in charge. ’Cause you love saying no”.
That sounds a bit heavy, which isn’t the case at all: if “Charity Drive” doesn’t have the sprawling comic majesty of a “Key Decisions”, but it has more than its share of solid lines, if none that really land in the pantheon of great Arrested Development quotes – I am partially to Lucille’s cringingly awful dismissal of her new Latina housekeeper, Lupe (B.W. Gonzalez, who gets much more to do later in the series), “They didn’t sneak into this country to be your friends” – including the best of the first season’s few jokes handed off to the narrator who was still being used as an actually narrative device at this point and not one of the many elements of itself that the show parodied and inverted. There’s also a brief, joking reference to having an “exit strategy”; just cribbing from the cultural discourse back in 2003, but as the show increasingly played up the links between the Bluth family and the Bush dynasty – we’ll have lots of chances to talk about that in season 2 – it turns out to be one of the show’s many great pieces of foreshadowing, right at the start of when they began doing that sort of thing in earnest.
The plot itself is airtight: a farce constructed out of disparate pieces that all end up building up into the same narrative shape, excepting the continued development of Buster’s unfortunate romantic confusions with his mother’s best friend and rival, Lucille Austero; Liza Minnelli gets her first great moment in this episode, attempting to read a casual voice message from a notepad and screwing up her own lines. That all being said, the comic highlight of the episode, to me at least is Gob’s ludicrous Mr. Banana Grabber pitchman for the Bluths’ frozen banana stand, which shows up many times in little places over the rest of the series, less a running joke than a tiny detail to establish the continuity and realism of this most arch, unrealistic universe.
And one last note before I drift away from an episode that simply doesn’t loom very large in my imagination: the genuinely sweet ending between Michael and Lindsay, which feels garishly out of place in the context of where the show would end up going, as Lindsay absolutely ceased to be any kind of sympathetic figure, works. It’s often said that Arrested Development struggled to find an audience because the characters were all unlikable, but moments like the end of “Charity Drive” call that into serious doubt. And maybe it could only earn that ending by being so much less savage in its comedy, but it earns it still.