First airdate: 19 September, 2005
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz & Jim Vallely
Directed by Paul Feig
The final season of Arrested Development‘s tenure on network television began with a sustained blast of witty filth like nothing before or after it in the show’s run. There’s not much I enjoy more in this world than a really well-crafted double-entendre that feels like should not possibly have been able to get by the censors without a huge fight (presumably, the fact that AD was basically a charity case for Fox in this season, watched only by a tiny cluster of vocal devotees, the network wasn’t inclined to hold it to any real standards), and “The Cabin Show” – for that is what the third season premiere was called – is a treasure trove of smutty puns, smutty wordplay, and just plain smut.
The most blatant is probably Oscar’s desperate wail about life in prison, where he has been mistakenly locked away in the two months following Season 2 finale “Righteous Brothers”: “-and they cover it with soap, and you’re supposed to thank them, like they’re doing you a favor!” The boldest and cleverest I think to be Michael’s ages-long pause after Lucille’s dismissive “How am I supposed to find someone willing to go into that musty old claptrap?” The subtlest is almost certainly Michael’s aghast “This is not a Volv-o“, and more particularly Lindsay’s follow-up “It’s so boxy”. The most obliquely hidden is the name tag reading “Tobias Swallows”, and his shift manager, a certain David Spitz. The one that makes me laugh the hardest is pretty consistently “This is a good chance for you to rub off on her”, but that’s probably because incest jokes are, in general, my favorite kind of AD sex jokes.
Anyway, that’s at the forefront of why “The Cabin Show” feels like an exceptionally aggressive episode of the show, and it’s a pretty solid introduction to what is surely the most aggressive season; having finally concluded that there was no value in trying to spread their audience and thus finally committed to nothing but “one for the fans” episodes, the almost entirely new writing staff for Season 3 (Jim Vallely and showrunner Mitchell Hurwitz, the pair that wrote this very episode, were the only holdovers) doubled-down on the most quintessentially insular sort of AD humor: the double-entendres, the call-backs (though they are very few in “The Cabin Show”), the irreverent black humor. “The Cabin Show” is almost as rich in truly nasty jokes as it is in sexual puns; it contains my pick for far and away the most offensive joke in the whole run of the show (far more than mental retardation jokes to come later on, a sticking point for some people), when a flashback to a news report of the 1994 Susan Smith case, in which a woman murdered her children by drowning them in a car, is used to set up a punchline about how downright psychopathic Lucille gets when she’s not pumping her full gamut of drugs (also, John Bead in a goofy wig). That the joke is hilarious takes some of the sting out, but of course the sting is the whole point: here is a show that is that dedicated to taking nothing seriously, particularly the sanity and decency of its characters.
At the same time, “The Cabin Show” has as its spine a typical family sitcom situation: it’s ultimately about abandonment, on both sides of the parent-child spectrum: Michael’s self-discovery that he’s repeating his father’s sins with his son, his relief at finding out how much better of a dad he is than Gob, Lucille’s ticking countdown to flat-out snapping at her beloved Buster. And abandonment in broader ways, too: Oscar’s abandonment by his family to rot in prison (setting up the terrific imoscar.com, an exceptionally great cutaway joke), Tobias’s abandoment by Lindsay, Gob’s abandonment by Michael (that thread includes my actual favorite line from the episode, dirty puns and all “Taste my sad, Michael”, and the later “Taste the happy, Michael. Taste it.” / “Tastes kind of like sad.”).
It’s a tightly unified episode, thematically and narratively and visually: the use of shots echoing each other, or reference other shots in the show’s past, give it a complexity that even the show’s extremely high base-line can’t reach. “The Cabin Show” is so dense, an attempt to both wrap things up and kick things off and open the show’s third season – which was not at that point known to be the last on one Fox, though surely Hurwitz knew he was living on borrowed time long before this – with a manic statement of intent, that Arrested Development was going to be even more difficult and thick with tiny details (the number of background jokes, visual puns, and such is at a new high ebb here, enough that I couldn’t even start to list things, though the pairing of Steve Holt! and Gob with the “He came…” statue and the Bluth family’s stalwart Grizzly Adams sleeping bag are two that I feel compelled to point out) and simply a much richer but also more alienating experience. At a certain level, “The Cabin Show” is just a standard reintroduction episode, like season premieres will be – “this is Arrested Development, here’s how it works – but it’s also a dare: as hard as this show could sometimes to be to follow, it’s just going to get harder, so you’d better be prepped for it. For a lot of people, that involved a degree of navel-gazing that hurts the show’s creativity and comedy; for me, that’s when the show is at its best, and while “The Cabin Show” might be in a lot of ways a needlessly mean and complicated episode, the reward for unpacking it is that some of its most hilarious jokes are the deepest.