First airdate: 10 February, 2006
Written by Ron Weiner
Directed by Bob Berlinger
“It’s weird on so many levels”, says a shame-faced Michael Bluth at the end of “Family Ties”, and there’s never been a more perfect definition of Arrested Development itself. The series was always given to little in-jokes that worked outside the series as well as in, and that ends up being very much the spine of an episode whose plot – whose damn title – is all about how Jason Bateman’s sister Justine Bateman (late of, yes, TV’s Family Ties; note the cameo appearance of that show’s theme) guest-stars as a woman that Michael thinks is his sister, but who is actually a prostitute. This is not the kind of story that the series would be telling at this point in its run just to spin out a smutty farce (though it is a good smutty farce); it is a story built around the knowledge that Justine could be snagged for a guest spot, and AD being what it was, that guest spot had to be the smuttiest, most incesty thing the writers could come up with. Building an entire episode out of a casting in-joke, and then making it super-uncomfortable for the actors involved: yes, that is weird.
“Family Ties” isn’t, of course, the weirdest episode of the show as far as meta-jokes like this (“S.O.B.s” takes that in a walk) , but it’s got more than its share, perhaps emboldened by the Bateman & Bateman stunt, perhaps entirely as an accident (it could even just be that it’s easier to pay attention to the meta, since the whole episode is predicated on it). This is the only episode in the series run to make a joke about Jessica Walter’s most prominent film role, in Clint Eastwood’s 1971 directorial debut Play Misty for Me (though really, given how freely the show makes jokes about its stars’ past careers, the weirdest thing is probably that it took until the end of the series run to put in a joke with Lucille holding a pair of scissors menacingly), for one, but that’s kid’s stuff. Really weird is how there’s a joke in which George-Michael is bleeped out while mentioning Veronica Mars, which was one kind of in-joke at first (Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat guest-starred on that show in the 2005-’06 season), and then became a different, funnier in-joke when Fox demanded that the reference be stricken, which was done through the efficacy of a massive wall of text declaring that Fox had demanded the reference be stricken. Weirdest of all is an early joke that turns out to be ironic foreshadowing, but also turns out to be a callback, though you only realise that once the thing being foreshadowed is revealed. I don’t even know how to describe what it is, it’s that complex. Not to give things away, but “the beak on that bird” refers back to “looked like a falcon”, and both of them look forward to the last episode. And it’s so delicate and brilliant that the more simplistic foreshadowing about twins who can’t finish each other’s sandwiches, though clever in its own right, seems frankly lazy.
But, again, this isn’t “S.O.B.s”. Though it’s the densest of the show’s final four episodes (and partially for that reason, it’s also my favorite”, mostly “Family Ties” is typical AD humor, with strong narrative threads for most of the characters (the Buster in a coma plot never did much for me, and does even less so many years after Terry Schiavo was a major political story; though the narrator’s two “…oh, my” jokes are both very good), and pretty terrific performances across the board: Walter’s giddy delight at mocking her son-in-law is a major highlight, along with Tobias and Lindsay’s interactions everywhere (but especially the “list of can’ts”/”list of won’ts” moment), and Gob’s moment of self-disgust at his own “family discount” quips. The episode does a better job than almost anything else in Season 3 at bending the season’s plot arc to its benefit, rather than allowing itself to be carried along by the plot; having established already that Michael is convinced his parents are lying about “N. Bluth”, the remainder of “Family Ties” isn’t trying at all to resolve that question, but to play out a conflict that Michael stumbles into as a result of that question; it’s actually pretty self-contained, call-backs and call-forwards and all.
The resulting mistaken-identity farce isn’t the most spectacular, high-energy script in AD‘s history, though that’s almost to its credit: the marriage of ridiculous situations with character moments that are particularly real (for the given definition of “realistic” that we attach to this show), though it flattens the farce a little bit, leaves us with wonderful little scenes scattered all over the episode, like George-Michael’s horrifyingly inept attempts to flirt with Maeby now that they are legally married and her stone-faced reactions to the same (I literally just realised: the episode’s best B-material is all related to people trying to make sham marriages work, in two separate plotlines. God, this show).
Also, this episode boasts one of my favorite lewd jokes AD ever did: the play of words that brings us to “Nellie has blown them all away”. Not since “Get rid of the Seaward” has so much filth hidden behind such a complicated tangle of language. It’s a great moment in a rock solid episode that was, in its initial network run, the last Arrested Development episode that was beholden to nothing but itself, and being the funniest 22-minute chunk of TV it could.