First airdate: 30 January, 2005
Written by Chuck Martin & Lisa Parsons
Directed by Paul Feig
When a Roman imperator was celebrated with a triumph in the city, through all the fanfare and pomp of the parade in which he was the central object of focus and veneration, the one man who rode with him the whole length of the celebration was a slave, who whispered into his ear “Remember, you are mortal”. No matter how bright the present moment seems, no matter how great the acclaims, there is always the chance of failure and the inevitability of death. For Arrested Development, perhaps the most breathlessly acclaimed (by a very small audience, it is true) sitcom in television history, its memento mori was “Burning Love”, the first episode of the show that’s actually sort of bad.
As I’ve said before, but never with quite this level of desperation, these are all relative terms. Even the worst episode of Arrested Development – which “Burning Love” is not – is better by far than even a middling episode of a middling sitcom. There is certainly plenty of rock-solid comedy to be found: this is the episode in which we first hear of the mysterious “club sauce” served at the Balboa Country Club, delivered by Will Arnett in a sultry purr that will not stop being funny until the heat death of the universe, if nothing else. It’s also the source of a line that never quite managed to become one of the great AD quotes, though frankly it deserves to have been: Lindsay’s lusty “I’m going to see if I can get a wrench to strip my nuts”, one of the most outlandishly filthy-sounding things ever said on the show, safe from the censors largely because it makes no damn sense.
But these and other fine jokes (Moses Taylor, wielding the Second Amendment in a novelty gun; a wonderfully strained performance by pre-fame Jack McBrayer; the excellent Lucille put-down “Did ‘nothing’ cancel?”; Michael’s panicked insistence on getting a portable air conditioner today because “I’m not here tomorrow”) just aren’t enough to make up for an uncharacteristically forced, hand-holding episode that has only a couple of ideas for jokes, repeated at nauseam (first time Michael is embarrassed to look like an adolescent in front of childhood crush Sally Sitwell (Christine Taylor) = charming. Sixth or eighth or whatever time = forced), along with what is, no doubt about it, the worst expository writing the show ever wrote, bad enough that I’d like assume it’s a parody. The scene between Michael and Gob at the banana stand is a total disaster: already weak in that the joke about “stick it to her” has to be repeated so patiently after being introduced just fine in a flashback, but it goes from weak to terrible once Sally leaves, and in short order we have to deal with the lines “Smooth, Michael. Like her father’s head, chest, arms, legs and ass… He’s hairless, Michael. It’s a condition” and “Like you did with our biggest shareholder, Lucille Austero?” The former at least redeems itself with Gob’s terrific I hate the guy, but at least he’s got [bleep]. Satiny and smooth, probably”, but these are both examples of the worst kind of expository dialogue: the “let me clarify something for you that we both already know” kind, and in a show that if anything goes too far in assuming that the audience can keep up with details being recalled from past episodes, that’s a colossal disappointment.
The A-plot is fine, if somewhat redundant with “Charity Drive” in the society women auction climax; the B-plots are all somewhat to extremely poor. George Sr. buying a hot tub in particular just doesn’t work: there’s simply too much story for what amounts to an early afternoon’s worth of chronology, and the point at which George lies choking on scalding water and dizzy from too much heat is far too graphic to be funny (it’s Jeffrey Tambor’s wheezy, scratchy voice that kills it – it is an effective reminder of the fact that this man has badly scalded his esophagus, and if you find that remotely hilarious, your sense of humor is even darker than mine, which is impressive). But I’m also not a huge fan of the Christian music-burning party: Michael Cera does excellent work with the lead-up, but the party itself suffers from some crummy writing (Steve Holt’s! “I burned, like, 10 CDs” is one of the most galling examples of the episode’s tendency to tell its jokes and then explain its jokes), not to mention that it’s predicated, far too much, on a single pun, and one that hasn’t aged well (Iraq War jokes are fine, but gags about teenagers using physical media? Sooooo mid-aughts). The bit with Lindsay being shot in the ass with about four ounces of horse tranquilizer is a low point for the “Lindsay’s sexual humiliation” plotline of Season 2 that had already gone stale and officially jumps the shark, for me at least, with this episode.
That’s a lot of not-very-good stuff to overcome, and no matter how delightfully Jason Bateman plays a tongue-tied, embarrassed Michael, or how excellent Liza Minnelli and Will Arnett’s interplay is (her squeal of sexual delight at the though of elevating the knees on her Posturepedic is maybe my favorite moment in her entire performance of the character), it’s just not enough. The good stuff is more or less standard issue for the show, with virtually no special creativity; the bad stuff is wildly below-par, and thus considerably easier to notice. And there we’re left with the rarest of all Arrested Development episodes: one that isn’t much fun to watch.