First airdate: 4 January, 2004
Written by Brad Copeland
Directed by Greg Motolla
I’ve already mentioned when, for me, it became obvious that Arrested Development was actively great television and not just a darn funny comedy: the third episode, “Bringing Up Buster”. And I will now tell you when it became true love: in “Storming the Castle”, when we stop hearing all the hints dropped about Gob Bluth’s magic show, and actually get to see a full-on stage performance, and it is the most astronomically bad thing in the world. The ridiculous synth-pop anthem “The Final Countdown” by Europe playing and color filters saturating the stage, as Gob writhes and flails and clenches a knife in his teeth gazing with orgasmic delight at his own hands, with Will Arnett hamming it up like he’d never be in front of a camera ever again. It is the perfect combination of excessive and tasteless, and by this point in the show, it’s completely obvious that, yes, this is exactly the kind of tacky, spectacle-heavy and talent-light magic show that the Gob we’ve come to know would try to put over.
As great as that scene is – which is pretty fucking great – it’s merely the first among equals in an episode that is remarkably overstuffed with top-notch, often iconic AD scenes; it is, pound-for-pound, my favorite episode of the show since that same “Bringing Up Buster”, and one of the clear highlights of the first season. I have been trying to avoid letting these essays turn into “let me list my favorite jokes”, but “Storming the Castle” is so brilliant and so overt and bold in its brilliance that nothing I could say about how funny it is could possibly to justice to:
-The tart, genuinely nasty interplay between Michael and Lindsay, who have not patched their relationship back up since “In God We Trust” (especially the “false sense of superiority” exchange, and Jason Bateman’s impeccable reaction).
-The elegantly timed visual joke of Lindsay’s “less meat / less fish / more meat and fish” charity events.
-Michael Cera’s wan sadness as his smooth, girly legs; and, too, his not-remotely casual delivery of the line “Yeah, I’m gonna need a leather jacket for when I’m on my hog and need to go into a controlled slide.”
-The Lovecraftian horror suggested by Buster’s oddly reflective comments on Lucille 2’s lack of “surprise”.
-The design of Playtime Pizza Theater, and especially the sad and horrifying Spinny the Clown.
-One of the great moments where Tobias doesn’t monitor what comes out of his mouth, being delighted to know that “leather daddy” is a well-recognised subculture (less so “Gothic Arsehole”, which is a bit forced, though it sets up a peerless “On the next…” gag)
-Lucille’s slack-jawed response to her husband’s newfound Judaism, which is less offense at his particular brand of religion than confusion that someone could be motivated to be nice and moral.
-Tony Hale’s outstanding, choked delivery of the moment where Buster realises that his act of rebellion against his mother has backfired utterly.
It’s especially great because, in keeping with the best of Arrested Development, there are several different registers here: complex wordplay, outright filthiness, dry absurdity, shockingly unexpected swerves, well-timed quips, and many, many moments that are funny above all because they are so specific to the characters involved. A man choking himself on his own bondage gear is inherently amusing; Tobias Fünke choking himself on what he doesn’t even know to be bondage gear that he’s proudly wearing in front of his daughter and nephew is crude genius.
All that being well and good, and certainly, I don’t throw around phrases like “clear highlight of the first season” without having first satisfied myself that the episode in question is thoroughly hilarious. But what pushes “Storming the Castle” that last little bit isn’t just the ingenuity of the jokes, but the character story at the heart of it; this is one of the most unique human dramas in Arrested Development, anchored as it is not on Michael Bluth’s attempts to keep George-Michael safe and happy (far and away the most common emotional situation for the show to rest on, but on Michael’s direct confrontation with the kind of man he wants to be. It’s a delicate scenario, that can’t exist as an episode in isolation, but has to be situated within the movement of the series more generally; it’s the single best story in the entirety of the “Marta arc” of the show, in which Michael constantly re-evaluates how to balance his own desires and needs with his series-defining wish to be the stable, righteous Bluth who makes sure that all his relatives are kept whole and healthy (among other things, it’s also the first time that Patricia Velazquez, Marta #2, gets anything really active to do).
For all its superfluity of plotlines – and if “Storming the Castle” has one significant weakness, it’s that there are a lot of scenes that don’t tie in thematically, but are only there for the funny – this is ultimately about a very specific situation: Michael is tired of being selfless, and attempts to train himself to be a bastard. That’s a theme that suits the distinctly cynical Arrested Development to a T, and gives Bateman some unusual things to play with. It’s done terrifically well, without sentimentalising, and ending on certain ambiguous note; and it’s kind of great how the show encourages us to root for Michael’s attempts to be bad (his theft of an office chair is scored by the the David Schwartz original song “You Here with Me”, which is always used in the show to signify genuine, positive emotion, instead of the shallow selfishness that is the Bluth’s default), rather than to call him out on how obnoxious he’s being. Part of this is just the show’s cynicism, and its pattern of hiding Michael’s character flaws in plain sight, depicting him as the stereotypical sitcom Good Dad when he’s just as venal in his own way as any of his wretched family. But part of it is allowing the viewer to notice that we feel just like that, sometimes, and we too want to break the rules because it feels like being good never lets us get ahead. Pointing out that selfish frustration is an important part of being a human, and we’ve all been there; aye, that is a quintessential Arrested Development moment.