First airdate: 3 April, 2005
Written by Richard Rosenstock & Barbie Adler
Directed by Joe Russo
A good rule of thumb is that Arrested Development is at its richest when it gives the most to Michael Bluth to do, and when Jason Bateman is operating at his most inspired. And “Meat the Veals” is one hell of a a great Michael episode. It’s present throughout every interaction he has with every other character, even when his only scene partner is himself (the little moment where he’s trying to get off the phone without saying “hi” to somebody is impeccable), but of course Bateman’s peak here, and not just in this one episode but maybe in the whole season, or series, is in his fumbled, nervous meeting with Ann’s parents: the paranoid, out-of-control attempt to avoid offending Pastor Terry Veal (Alan Tudyk) with all his aimless blather about religious nuts, punctuated by a magnificently swallowed “I’m not sure” in response to George-Michael’s alarmed “What are you doing?”; but why pick out a single great Bateman moment in an episode alarmingly overstuffed with perfect line readings and deer-in-the-headlights reaction shots. In the finest AD tradition, many of his best jokes recede into the background, failing to announce themselves as jokes at all: his appalled “That’s an awful thing to say” overlapping with Mrs. Veal’s (Ione Skye) “What a lovely thing to say”, his sputtered “you gotta lock that down”, his somewhat confused objections when Mrs. Veal attempts to make secular love to him on the balcony, and every desperate conversation he has with George-Michael, babbling like a psychopath until he runs out of air. It is perfection. It is, if one could dare to select such a thing in a show where Bateman had so much great work across three seasons, maybe my favorite single Michael episode.
That would be impressive no matter what, but there’s so much going on “Meat the Veals” that even without any of that, it would still be one of the funniest episodes of the second season. The Veal parents are, themselves, comic perfection: Tudyk especially is such a natural fit for AD that it’s a real pity he only appeared this one time (his pronunciation of the word “liquor” is outstanding). Tobias’s impersonation of Mrs. Featherbottom is at its height here, combining great physical comedy with some truly great filth (“Here in the States, you call it a sausage in the mouth” is one of my all-time favorite “Tobias is gay” jokes), and the hilariously bad pun that is made genius through David Cross’s delivery, “pounding that sweet piece of Veal”. Maeby the studio executive is at its Season 2 peak (“I don’t have anything to wear for my premiere. The premier. Of Canada. He’s going out with my gym teacher.”).
And, of course, there’s Franklin Delano Bluth.
It is, in the face of it, illogical that Gob should have had a puppet all this time: given how quickly Franklin is absorbed into the flow of the show, it feels wrong that there’s been absolutely no mention of him before this – functionally, it feels unmistakably like when a TV show tries to introduce a new regular character by having everybody else talk about him like we’re the idiots for not being caught up (*cough*Lost*cough*). And that might actually even be a problem, if not for the tiny detail that Franklin is fucking hilarious. One of the funniest characters in the whole of Arrested Development, in fact, and “Meat the Veals” doesn’t even show him off to best effect (why, we haven’t even gotten to his album yet…).
He’s possibly the most satiric single element of the series: a parody of white people’s conception of black people (big tell at the end of the episode: during the chaos of the final sequence, the cops naturally assume that Franklin is the criminal, and that he’s making a threatening gesture, as subltle and perfect a joke about racial profiling as I can imagine. He’s also one of the most wonderfully absurd touches: at this point, anyway, every single person he encounters treats him like an actual, autonomous, sentient being, such that Gob has to clarify for his father not to choke the puppet, since it’s only going to hurt Gob’s wrist. And not to be reductive about it, but hearing Will Arnett adopt a lousy blaxploitation accent to do his atrocious ventriloquism, being powerfully obnoxious (“Franklin said some things Whitey wasn’t ready to hear… He also said some thing African-Americaney wasn’t ready to hear, either”), is just damn funny, all on its own. But we’ll have plenty of chances to talk about Franklin in the future.
All of this going on, and “Meat the Veals” should be a candidate for best-ever episode. The only reason that, for me, it falls short, is because of a familiar problem for AD: having spent two acts constructing a beautiful farce, the episode resolves in a hectic chase scene, the third time by my reckoning that an episode has been hobbled by a third act that basically falls apart. It’s funny slapstick, beyond doubt, but the beats are familiar (George Sr. escapes with a wig, again), and slapstick has never been the mode where AD was at its best. Obviously, the episode has to resolved itself somehow, and “Meat the Veals” does a good job of summing up a lot of different plotlines in time for the season’s endgame. But the conclusion is nowhere near as good as the opening, and that would have been true even if the opening wasn’t some of the best material AD ever presented.