First airdate: 10 April, 2005
Written by Barbie Adler & Abraham Higginbotham
Directed by Anthony Russo
The exceptional run of episodes that ended Arrested Development‘s second season contains several of the most layered, self-referential narratives in the show’s entire history, but even within the company of “Motherboy XXX” and “Sword of Destiny”, the season’s penultimate episode, “Spring Breakout” is working on a level of dense meta-narrative that even some of the show’s dedicated fans don’t quite approve of: one of the commoner criticisms of the show’s final season is that the narrator started to become too overt a presence, too overbearing relative to the light patina of irony he’d provided in the earlier episodes. This had been a trend for several episodes by the time of “Spring Breakout”, but that episode still represented a seismic shift in the narrator’s personality that could not be reversed once it had happened. And let it be clear, I am surely not one of those people who dislikes the more active narrator; it’s one of the biggest reasons that the third season of AD is probably my favorite, in fact. But this is a problem for some people, and they are not the sort who end up as transfixed as I am by the pissing match he enters into with the narrator of show-within-a-show Scandalmakers, the story of George Sr’s flight from justice that Carl Weathers convinced Tobias to sign off on back in “Motherboy XXX”. It’s funny stuff, with a healthy blast of vicious sarcasm (and the episode-ending line, in which he declares “And that’s how you narrate a story”, is beautifully delivered by a never-smugger Ron Howard), but there’s so much more to it than that.
The narrator has been a steadying presence for the last 38 episodes; it’s not clear at this point that the narrator is meant to be anyone in particular, but for the first time it’s suddenly quite unavoidably clear that he’s someone, and the utterly disorienting effect this has on the show’s reality is just about as bold as any single development in the series’ history. We all learned in high school literature class that narrators are constructed characters, but it’s not common for any medium, especially TV sitcoms (where narrators are vanishingly rare anyway) to make us as aware of that fact as “Spring Breakout” does, and because we’re used to thinking of documentary narrators as being in our reality and not the reality of the content they’re describing, it suddenly forces the cartoon nonsense of Arrested Development back into our turf – if the narrator is one of “us” (later episodes suggest that he’s the actual, flesh and blood Ron Howard), and he is now clearly within the show and not without it, what does that imply about our relationship to the show’s world? It’s not an accident, I am certain, that “Spring Breakout” includes two overt reminders that this is meant to look like non-fiction, the first time the documentary conceit has been visually insisted-on in quite some time: first, the camera tracks along with Lucille and then has to quickly sweep back to find her after she walks into a pylon; second, the camera operator covers the lens with his hand when Kitty flashes her breasts at the Bluth Company office. It takes a lot of ingenuity to insist on the series’ realistic nature in an episode that includes one of the most unabashedly surreal shifts in its behavior ever, but ingenuity is what Arrested Development is all about.
There’s a lot more to the episode than just that, of course. It somewhat fills the role of both sequel and remake for Season 1’s excellent “Missing Kitty”, bringing back that episode’s Girls with Low Self-Esteem, the H. Maddas cooler, and Gob’s desire to do great magic for a crowd of rowdy teenagers, though he never even gets as far as a show, this time, just a malfunctioning lighter fluid squirter. And, of course, the spring break setting, which is maybe not used as consistently or quite as effectively here, but it does lead to the great drink-off between Lucille and Kitty at Señor Tadpole’s (which qualifies as one of the more obvious references in an episode that builds a substantial gag around the long-forgotten 1957-’61 television Western Sugarfoot). The general shape of the conflict is even similar: Kitty needs to be outsmarted before she uses her knowledge to bring down the Bluths. They’re both sterling episodes: “Missing Kitty” is perhaps the funnier of the two, “Spring Breakout” the more audacious.
Of course, it’s still pretty funny in its own right. No episode could be accused of lacking comedy that includes the fantastic conversation that I cannot do justice to without quoting it in full:
GOB: “Well, gee, I didn’t think the woman I’d be checking out at spring break would be Mom.”
BUSTER: “She’s better looking than the whores you date.”
GOB: “Don’t call my escorts whores”
BUSTER: “Mom’s still got it!”
GOB: “I don’t date whores!”
LINDSAY: “Stop it, stop it! This objectification of women has to stop.”
MICHAEL: “It’s just Mom and whores.”
Offhand, I can’t think of another moment in the show’s run that encapsulates the nature of the four Bluth siblings more efficiently: the talking past each other, the obliviousness, the individual foibles (Buster’s Oedipal complex, Gob’s sleaziness, Lindsay’s self-righteousness, Michael’s superiority). And it’s hilarious, to boot, a perfect example of building one punchline after another: “the whores you date” is funny, “don’t call my escorts whores” is funnier still, and all the way up to Jason Bateman’s casual delivery of the button.
And God, so much else: the neat background jokes in the security camera footage, the triumphant return of the cousincest subplot after almost a whole season on the back burner, a particularly elegant callback to the $250,000 in the banana stand from “Top Banana”, the winking eye alcohol suggestion. In truth, “Spring Breakout” is probably one of show’s all-time most self-congratulating episodes, wielding its intellectual superiority over other TV with considerably more alienating pride than the show tends to, and that’s pretty big considering how famously its alienating pride in its own complexity is one of the reasons Arrested Development never found an audience. And it’s definitely more impressive than laugh-out-loud funny, in comparison to the other episodes late in Season 2. Still, there’s something admirable about a show that owns what it is so thoroughly as “Spring Breakout”, particularly when the results are this challenging and this rewarding. Why would they even go after that idiot demographic?