First airdate: 10 February, 2006
Written by Jim Vallely & Mitchell Hurwitz
Directed by Rebecca E. Asher
One last blast of political commentary for Arrested Development before it all came to a close: “Exit Strategy”, the penultimate episode of the show’s three years on Fox, is the only time that the third season played around very much with Iraq War satire of the sort that was all over Season 2, but boy, does it make up for it in quantity. Even just from the title it’s pretty clear that this time, the show is going to fully commit itself to that subject, and that’s before we find that the characters actually travel to Iraq in the second half of the episode, there to be nonplussed by the American attempt to mold that country into something more familiar (literally: part of the humor is that there are fundamentally identical jokes about traffic jams and mentoring programs in both countries, in addition to the mirror image Bluth home that anchors the plot). It’s also the episode in which Michael realises with a shudder that his brother isn’t in a regular ol’ Iraqi prison, but a U.S. military prison, and there’s no telling what could be going on there. The more things change, and all.
Anyway, all of this politically-tinged humor – and there is so very much of it – does have the unfortunate effect of making “Exit Strategy” feel a bit quaint; not exactly dated in the way that the Jamie Kennedy Experiment parody in “Notapusy” or William Hung references in “Fakin’ It” are dated, but it rather lacks the timeless creative energy of Arrested Development at its very best. There’s absolutely no denying that the moment that a Saddam Hussein impersonator suddenly apologises to his guests with a genial “I am behaving like an Uday look-alike” is terrific, one-of-a-kind comedy writing – it is maybe my favorite single gag in an episode with a good collection of one-liners – but even just a few more years down the line, and it’s going to be just like all those Howard Cosell and OPEC jokes that make otherwise sparkling ’70s comedies feel a bit awkward in patches. Hell, it’s only eight years later, and it already triggers more a sense of warped nostalgia than anything that can fairly be called comedy (if the show had been full-throated in its devotion to satire, like Dr. Strangelove say, perhaps this would all still be fresh and hilarious; but as AD never really used satire as more than a garnish, it just ends up weird).
There’s no “besides that part”, because that part is such a dominant thread in the episode, but for argument’s sake: besides that part, “Exit Strategy” is an intermittently great and always good episode that suffers more than its share for coming so late in the series run. One gets the impression – I get the impression, leastways – that most of the the patching that had to be done when Season 3 was sliced from 22 to 13 episodes fell upon this episode, which consists almost entirely of closing off plot arcs, whether they were short, contained little things (Buster’s fake coma), or series-spanning themes of great significance (not only do we finally learn that George Sr. really was innocent of the light treason mentioned so long ago, we also get to the long-gestating emotional climax of the George-Michael and Maeby cousin love plot). That’s a hell of a lot to cover even in an episode that gets to squeeze out a few extra seconds due to the weird structure of the show’s four-part finale night, and not everything comes together equally well: the subplot wherein George-Michael accidentally reveals to everyone in Hollywood that Maeby is a teenager has never felt to me like anything but a desperation gambit to get that arc set up for the final episode by any means necessary, even if it does include the casual line where the narrator finally makes it pretty much clear that he’s actually the real Ron Howard. The perfunctory wrap-up of the treason plot does work for me, rushed though it is, given how robustly it mocks governmental inefficiency (and makes the C.I.A. look decidedly less glamorous than the techno-hive usually presented in TV series).
As isn’t unusual, the best stuff is kept safely away from the plot arcs: the somewhat on-the-nose but nonetheless funny joke about those Hollywood shows with their big production design budgets, seconds before David Cross makes a big show of looking thoughtfully through a cabinet that is virtually empty (a double joke that I didn’t get at first: not only is there the obvious irony, but the one prop that is included is a sytrofoam cup that looks like what a PA would grab in a hurry when the set decorator needed “something for coffee”) is one of my favorite things in Season 3, and in the same scene, we get my favorite Tobias line since the high water-mark of “Ready, Aim, Marry Me” in Season 2: “If I look like a man who made love to his wife last night, it’s because I almost did.” And there’s some really great business with a sandwich that Lindsay rests her head on, Michael is about to throw out, and Gob takes a bite from, all of it done through purely physical comedy and great reaction shots. In fact, as I think about it, the first scene of the episode is really strong, not least because the only Iraq joke in the whole thing is a riff on heightened Biblical language. But there’s plenty of other stuff that works: the inversion of the old chestnut where a television or radio is turned on just in time to see the plot-advancing news story is pretty great, for a start, and the “On the next…” joke with Maeby and George-Michael finds Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera doing impressive comic acting by not acting.
Funny as it is, though “Exit Strategy” mostly leaves me with the feeling that it’s awfully plotty. That’s not a bad thing; it’s part of what happens with serial shows. But nestled in between the witty, complex “Family Ties” and the magnificently off-the-wall “Development Arrested”, it has the feeling of a story that they had to tell, and told it as well as they possibly could; there’s plenty of inspiration here (the house of Saddams is just brilliant, any way you cut it), but not enough to break into “classic episode” status.
10 May: “Development Arrested”