First airdate: 26 September, 2005
Written by Mitchell Hurwitz & Richard Day
Directed by John Fortenberry
And so we arrive at what is undoubtedly the most contentious single plot development in the whole of Arrested Development: the five-episode Rita arc of Season 3, in which Charlize Theron guest stars as a new love interest for Michael, with a deep dark secret. Any time somebody advances the argument that this season is the weakest, it’s a fair bet that they’ll begin with these five episodes as part of the reason why; either because the plotline overstays its welcome and overloads the short season (which is certainly true, though I think that if Season 3 had reached 22 episodes, devoting five to one subplot would have been significantly less problematic), because it forces the show into too absurd of a direction (which I intensely disagree with, but then, the “living cartoon” element of AD is one of my favorite things about it), because it introduces a very touchy subject in a completely indelicate way (which is true, but cherry-picking: AD had made quite a habit of building jokes at the expense of sensitive issues), because it’s just plain mishandled (which is often true, particularly in the final episode). Suffice it to say say that I like the Rita plot, though I wish it had been an episode shorter and harder to predict; that I am hugely and irrevocably in favor of Wee Britain and the subsequent satire of American ideas of British life; and that I think any problems with Season 3 were exacerbated for those of us who were watching when the show was still on, and these five episodes that were meant to be watched straight through were dribbled out erratically over the course of more than two months, as Fox largely gave up on treating AD as anything but a punching bag. All that time to reflect and re-watch and wait made it far too easy to get ahead of the show and grow impatient with the material, and I have consistently found that revisiting the season on DVD obviates most of the frustration I had with it at the time.
Also, some of the show’s all-time most cunning foreshadowing involves the reveal at the end of this plot, and I simply don’t know how to handle it; I’d love to pick out lines and caress them and point out how cunningly the show is leaving little clues dotted all over that make it funny in all sorts of ways that a first viewing can’t reveal. But I also don’t want to assume that everybody reading this is an Arrested Development veteran.
Anyway, this is all a bit to the side of “For British Eyes Only”, an episode which finally commits the one sin that I’ve have though AD incapable of: it’s too damn overstuffed. That’s obvious from the very beginning, as the episode replaces the standard apocryphal “On the next…” sequence with a “Previously on…” sequence which does not, of course, depict much of the content of “The Cabin Show”, (except for a quick recap of Michael and George-Michael’s chat about G-M’s “stupid girl problem”, with some added dialogue), but instead quickly recaps the plot of a non-existent episode. I’ve always assumed that this was Mitchell Hurwitz’s way of quickly knocking out some of the plot that he was obliged to drop when Season 2 was cut from 22 to 18 episodes, and it’s an extravagantly bold gesture, the newest formal wrinkle for a show whose lifespan was devoted to tweaking the nature of a television sitcom. In fact, like much of “For British Eyes Only” and the other Rita episodes, it’s a brilliant idea that is kind of frustrating and even alienating in its weird execution.
From this point onwards, “For British Eyes Only” throws stuff at us and never lets up: new plot details, an entire social structure in the O.C. that we’ve never had a glimmer about and suddenly have to make sense of on the fly, the Bluth family mass chicken dance (a fine, if overstretched farewell to the running gag that probably couldn’t have survived another appearance), and its tie to the episode’s overarching chicken imagery, the massive assembly of call-forwards and call-backs on top of the standard-issue density of quips and jokes and random blasts of comedy. It’s overwhelming, and not always in a good way; as much as I love Wee Britain, a concept that strange could have been paced out a little bit more, to let us absorb it more than just being plopped in. It’s the final stroke that severs whatever line was still connecting AD to reality at this point, and while I’m in favor of it, it’s disorienting and bizarre, even without trying to get your head around the actual matter of the plot.
On the other hand, Wee Britain is fucking funny: “I’m Lionel, and the soup of the day is… What’s the soup of the day? …the soup of the day is bread” ranks inordinately high in my personal canon of AD quotes, and while the Merry Poppuns is obviously a ditzy parody, the narrator’s bland delivery of the line “struck by something he remembered from his childhood” is perfectly timed and conceived, and I will confess to laughing a full and lusty laugh at it, every time.
The parts of the show that aren’t mired in the whole plot-arc issue are fine, a little standard-issue but well-executed, as is naturally going to happen to any show in its third season. The other multi-episode arc that gets kicked off here, but doesn’t get discussed nearly as much, is the Tobias-with-hairplugs plot that extends even longer than Rita does, and about which I have solely negative feelings, though it’s not quite a problem yet in this episode (the gore is not exactly “funny”, but Lupe’s “Mr. Gay is bleeding!” absolutely is, so I’ll call it a wash). Gob’s terror of fatherhood gives Will Arnett something new to play for the first time in a long while, and a beautifully smutty line (the only one, after “The Cabin Show” was such a cavalcade of dirty jokes) in “I know what an erection feels like! It’s the opposite. It’s like my heart is getting hard”, and a sex-addicted Lucille casually mentioning her BDSM habits to Michael is my very favorite kind of Lucille.
All told, “For British Eyes Only” suffers from the definite sense that it’s setting pieces out on the board, and from giving far too few of its jokes room to breath; overly-ambitious, maybe, which is a good mistake to make, but it doesn’t keep it from being one of the weaker episodes of the season that will happily swing back up in quality almost immediately. It’s the kind of linking episode that you get sometimes in serial TV, and it has its share of funny moments, so it’s not remotely a waste; but it’s one of just a couple moments where I’m willing to admit that the critics of Season 3 probably have a good point.