“Out on a Limb”
First airdate: 6 March, 2005
Written by Chuck Martin & Jim Vallely
Directed by Danny Leiner
“Hand to God”
First airdate: 6 March, 2005
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz & Chuck Martin
Directed by Joe Russo
The longest protracted period of weakness in the history of Arrested Development came to its swift end with the series’ third, last, and best two-part episode, “Out on a Limb” and “Hand to God”. And just like that, “Ready, Aim, Marry Me” and “Burning Love” have become less than a hazy memory, because both halves are pretty fantastic all around: “Hand to God” gets my vote for being just a little bit better (mostly because it’s odder), but the show is fully back in top form from the very first (and hugely wonderful) scene of “Out on a Limb”, which introduces us to the popular Sunday brunch spot Skip Church’s (not to be confused with Friday night watering hole Miss Temple’s), and the everything-on-the-menu-in-a-skillet Skip’s Scramble. Don’t order the Skip’s Scramble!
Everything that’s great about Arrested Development is crammed in as tightly as possible: prop-based visual jokes, ironic editing (Michael’s breezy assertion that he and his son keep no secrets, to George-Michael’s terror at being caught skipping work), passive aggressive parenting (“if you want to keep it open an extra hour…”), some top-notch Michael-dismisses-Ann humor (“Didn’t mean ‘who’. I meant ‘her?'”), Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat blowing it out of the water: he with the sad-sack neuroticism of the excellent line “I like not having fun. I like your idea of fun. I mean, our idea of fun. I like not having that”, she with the bit about getting drunk on virgin Bloody Marys. And that’s just in the first scene!
These are the episodes that I wanted “Altar Egos” and “Justice Is Blind” to have been: certainly, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Maggie Lizer is a hell of a lot funnier as an established character than a gimmicky joke, and though the shtick over the course of the two episodes is immensely repetitive – she and Michael cross swords, he accuses her of lying, she gets defensive, he feels guilty, and then she turns out to have actually been lying – Louis-Dreyfus and Jason Bateman have such terrific chemistry that it never gets the least bit old. The nugget of the A-plot is a little overfamiliar, and Michael’s problems with women are typically my least favorite of all possible stories for the show (there’s a nice little throwaway gag where George-Michael apparently agrees with me, promising that Michael doesn’t need to keep vetting his girlfriends with his son), but when it’s played with such zest, and such unbridled cynicism about the human capacity to lie (the obvious overriding theme of the dyad, as reflected in the title of the second episode – ironically, “Hand to God” is far and away less concerned with God than “Out on a Limb” is), it’s only pleasurable to watch it play out. And boy are these cynical episodes: even the most consistently decent character in the series, George-Michael, is given to sneaky, passive-aggressive behavior to shed himself of a wearying relationship with Ann.
Anyway, though the A-plot is good, it’s the details lying around that really elevate these episodes, as is so often the case: I’m particularly fond of the rare glimpse of Lindsay and Tobias’s marriage in a happy, healthy place, as they cheerfully share each other’s company and have fun, though being Bluths, it’s no surprise that their shared joy lies in breaking into a woman’s house and then insulting her wardrobe. “It was weird” flatly states the narrator, who becomes hugely present in these episodes, including what I believe to be his first ever first-person statement; warming us up perhaps for the radical extension of his personality in the last run of episodes in the season. There are the expected bits of character jokes for the characters who don’t get a huge role to play – Gob gets some foreshadowing for a plot yet to come with his long-forgotten wife, and the scene where he fails to recall her name is a tremendous mixture of wordplay and in-jokes and great performance details; the way that Will Arnett pounces on “Crindy” as the (non-) name of his spouse is comedy genius. And the episode that introduced “You’re high!” “You’re drunk!” into the AD lexicon will always have a very special place in my heart.
But enough dancing around the elephant in the room. For all that’s great in each episode individually and as a combined unit, “Out on a Limb”/”Hand to God” is above all else where Buster Bluth loses his hand to a mammal-eating seal in a yellow bow tie. The most heavily foreshadowed event of the entire series, stretching back into Season 1 (is it possible that the Wife of Gob was made a seal trainer specifically to set up this development? That Lucille was so named solely to enable the “Loose seal!” gag? Probably not the latter, though it’s a tremendously magnificent joke anyway, a willfully stupid pun that also plays in symbolic ways with the character relationships), with foreshadowing continuing even in this very pair of episodes, with the famous “Arm Off” bench, and Oscar’s mumbled “The hand” in reference to something completely different, accidentally clarifying which part of Buster got chomped off, and it’s presented in the ballsiest formal joke of the show’s first two seasons. By this point, Arrested Development fans had gotten used to the “On the next…” gags as punctuation marks, goofball absurdity that has no relationship to the show’s overall continuity, but rounds off whatever plotlines had been left hanging. So the mere fact that an actual, significant plot detail is buried in there is absolutely shocking, particularly given that the narrator’s bright line delivery doesn’t significantly differentiate “and then a seal bites off his hand” from “Barry gets a big break on his case” – and by the way, note that the joke where Maggie sues Michael for paternity is the regular sort of “On the next…” plot point that clearly isn’t meant to be taken seriously, making it even more unexpected when the hand is lost.
If I had to pick just one gag from all three seasons to exemplify the show’s heightened reality, and it’s profound sense of detachment from its live-action cartoon characters, this is the one I’d pick. Perhaps the most important plot point in between the pilot and the finale, and it’s positioned within the episodes to read to us as disposable information. It is the perfect AD joke: the entire series is predicated on a family of venal people whose priorities are screwed up, and who don’t realise how low-stakes all of their petty rich people problems actually are, and by this point, 33 episodes in, the show itself mirrors that, by reducing to the status of afterthought an actual crisis.
Of course, “Hand to God” very quickly establishes that there are repercussions, with Lucille’s fantastic hospital breakdown (favorite part: her shrieking attempts to mother George-Michael), and Buster’s hook becomes an interesting plot point from here on out, as a reminder to the characters of real-world consequences, but we’ll get there.
These are dense, very funny episodes, and I’ve left a lot of favorite moments completely untouched, but one thing I want to throw out there, just as a sign of how damn smart the writing is, and because I’d never noticed it before: in “Out on a Limb”, Tobias refer to Maeby as a Frankenstein monster (in a joke that echoes, but does not match, “selfish country music-loving lady” from “Beef Consommé”), and in “Hand to God”, Buster, after a moment of horrified self-reflection, starts storming around and ripping apart Lucille’s apartment in an explicitly Frankensteinian rampage. A little grace note, in the company of so much high-quality gag writing, but it’s precisely because of how minor it is that it show just how much though went into creating this show.