First airdate: 14 December, 2003
Written by Abraham Higginbotham
Directed by Joe Russo
To whatever degree Arrested Development lost its footing after a strong first few episodes, it was back on the top of its game with “In God We Trust”, which I’d be inclined to say is the episode where the show takes on, more or less, exactly the form it will have for the next two seasons: marvelously well-cast supporting characters, utterly silly comedy and inventively crude innuendo, an increasingly catholic pool of references, unnaturally sophisticated editing, for a sitcom, and a sense of scope in both the number and size of locations, as well as the detail of the props, that is nothing less than daunting, and fully explains why this show had such an absurd price tag per episode that, at no point in three seasons, it was able to justify through ratings. Obviously, AD already had some or all of these things in every episode, but they coalesce here in a way that hadn’t been previously seen: when the producers see fit to stage a Living Classics pageant with a huge crowd of extras and a giant set right in the middle of suburban California, we’ve gone past the expansive location shooting of earlier episodes into some magical land where no amount of ambition or money is too much in service of what amounts to a one-off sight gag. It helps that virtually every member of the cast gets something great to do – it’s the first episode where Alia Shawkat gets a good chance to show off since the pilot – and the whole thing feels complete in a way that the previous handful of episodes really didn’t.
There are a few obvious reasons for that: one is that David Cross shows up after a three-episode break (we finally learn what those cut-offs are about: the psychological condition of never-nudism, which is exactly what it sounds like), restoring a sense of cartoon logic to the show. In terms of other important cast members adding to a sense of where the show was headed, Henry Winkler, friend and Happy Days co-star of AD‘s executive producer and narrator Ron Howard, makes his first appearance as lawyer Barry Zuckercorn, who is very good; John Michael Higgins shows up for the first time as the much less fêted attorney Wayne Jarvis; and between the two of them, these men add a real sense of there being a world around the Bluths just as strange and extravagantly warped as themselves. Not that Arrested Development was ever an especially realistic show, but there had, prior to this, been no sense of the world it took place in other than a general “like ours, but goofier”. We can actually start to see the shape of that now, not just in the two featured lawyers, but the cop who remembers the day he knew he’d be a dancer, or the glorious delivery of the line “There is no God!” by a random Orange County woman. Or the simple fact of the Living Classics pageant itself, such a ludicrous parody of the strange behavior of the idle rich that I imagine it has to be grounded in some real-world event.
World-building isn’t exactly something you notice while the episode is playing, of course; it’s much too busy being funny at a breakneck clip for that. It’s not quite as inventive as the show’s outright masterpieces, but it’s still working on quite a few levels, from dick jokes to incredibly tiny background gags (the two best of which involve Lucille’s put-upon housekeeper Lupe: wearing a hand-me-down Halloween sweater at Christmas, thus setting up one of the showest finest running gags that it never, ever calls attention to; and hastily hiding her lunch as Gob throws a fit about Mexican food). There are moments of impeccable acting, from characters well-established (Gob’s snitty response to being told “I love you”; Lucille’s guileless, cold-blooded manipulation of her children) and new (Higgins’s sad, shaming headshake at being asked to behave unprofessionally; Winkler’s underplaying of “It’s never the ones you hope”, making him the second and infinitely sleazier of the show’s two crypto-homosexuals). A recurring gag about the location of Portugal, the first time that someone decides to teach someone else a lesson, and generally solid one-liners… it has a bit of everything. It’s not as deep or complex as some of the best episodes, but it almost doesn’t have to be.
It’s also, like “My Mother, the Car”, a little bit nasty. The interplay between Lucille and her children is awfully dark, even for the standards of Arrested Development; and the episode-ending exchange between Michael and Lindsay is a bit harsh, without being tempered by the cushion of an “On the next…” segment (one of the very few episodes without one). None of which is a criticism – acidic humor played at high speed is one of the things that the show, especially in the form of Jason Bateman, does best. Just pointing out that the eagerness with which AD was at this point embracing everything that would keep it perpetually on the edge of cancellation: the humor, yes, but also the savagery which made that humor possible. It’s funny-mean, but the show was generally at it best when it was a touch more aceribic, and a touch less bitter.