First airdate: 12 December, 2005
Written by Karey Dornetto
Directed by Bob Berlinger
My mantra has been, every time Arrested Development throws out one of its infrequent poor episodes, that the difference between “bad AD” and “bad television” is strong enough that even a its lowest, the show still had too much creativity in the writing and too talented a cast for any 22-minute span to be a complete wash-out. Boy, does “Prison Break-In” test that theory. It has a fair number of decent-to-great jokes, including what’s probably my single favorite moment in Jessica Walter’s performance of Lucille Bluth, as the family matriarch, touched by her son’s unexpected tenderness and preparing for a sexual assignation, muses “I want to cry so bad. But I don’t think I can spare the moisture”. Actually, the whole thing is a pretty strong Lucille episode, and Maeby gets a few great scenes (“…so, we don’t get dessert?”), which is good because none of the other principals come off very well.
There’s so much that incidentally goes wrong in “Prison Break-In” that I don’t quite know where to start with it, though it’s generally possible to break the episode down in to two broad categories: things that are too gross and morbid to be funny (the problem of the series’ second-worst episode, “Ready, Aim, Marry Me”), and lazy, formulaic storytelling. It’s the only AD episode credited to Season 3 staff writer Karey Dornetto, who logged time in the second season of the cultishly adored Community, which is alone enough to suggest that there’s something about her work that talented people admire, but it’s certainly not on display in the trainwreck she perpetrates here, which feels like a spec script written by somebody who took a crash course in the series’ tropes, rather than an actual story that enough people felt was strong enough, pushing the series in interesting new directions that it deserved to be on the air. It’s deeply repetitive, hanging on yet another George Sr. escape attempt using a much debased variant of the Wile E. Coyote logic of his balloon chair or jetpack plots from earlier in the season, and descends into a “substituting Oscar for George” gesture at the very end so unimaginative that even the characters seem aware of it. Nor is this the only point at which the writing flags its own biggest problem: the main narrative line is largely concerned with Michael’s terror at the thought of his mother cheating on his father, which Lindsay points out early on is hypocritical, given how sanguine he’s been about George Sr’s infidelities. The episode – the episode written by a woman – papers over this with “ew, old ladies having sex is gross!” jokes from Michael and Gob, but the point remains.
It goes even deeper than ageist sexism, anyway: at no point in the series – and it has come up – has Michael ever given a shit about his parents’ marriage, having tried to pimp her out to Uncle Jack in “Ready, Aim, Marry Me”, and so memorably suggesting that she go on a date earlier this very season, in “The Cabin Show” (that’s the set-up for the legendary “claptrap” joke, let’s not forget). This, too, is enough of a problem that the episode makes a feeble attempt to cover it by giving Michael the motivation that he’s heartbroken about the end of the Rita episode, and wants to talk it out with his mother (stomping all over the delicacy of the tender/clever ending scene of “The Ocean Walker”), as though anybody paying even cursory attention through AD‘s preceding 46 episodes might have gotten the impression that Michael is capable of even imagining that Lucille might have his back, emotionally, when he needs her.
The other thing is littler, but almost harder to over look: God Almighty, is Tobias gross in this episode. The freakish hair is one thing, the cadaverous grey pallor is quite another, and the video that Gob makes showcasing his brother-in-law’s various leaks and oozes is so far removed from anything that AD traffics in that you can no longer see the show’s typical brand of humor. I’m not saying that this kind of material is inherently unfunny – the “Mr. Creosote” sketch from Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life is enough of an argument otherwise – but it’s wildly outside of the Arrested Development wheelhouse, and nobody involved is very good at it. The show is dark enough and mean enough to begin with that plunging into all of this is really just too bleak to even be funny any more, and while the Tobias plot has been steadily getting grimmer and harder to take throughout the whole season, the leap in this one episode is considerable, and debilitating.
All of that might, by itself, be enough to put “Prison Break-In” near the bottom of the heap, but the episode compounds it with all sorts of details that go spectacularly wrong: the simplistic, explain-it-all writing in much of it (the narrator is at his all-time worst here, except for the great “best moment of George-Michael’s life” joke), the constant stream of jokes that feel like things the show had already done, with more energy and comedy, the odd and somewhat bitter parody of Fox’s Prison Break, jokes that were a bit confused and pointless even in 2005, and have only become worse with that series having largely evaporated from the public consciousness since it went off the air. All it has to offset are a few decent lines peppered here and there, the tremendous moment in flashback where George Sr. makes fun of Michael for wanting to support ovarian cancer research (that‘s how you write a dark medical joke AD-style), or the return of the Hollywood-besotted Warden Gentles, who gets almost all of the best lines and facilitates the grade-school reading of New Warden, in which little children dressed like convicts talk about prison rape and beatings with pillowcases full of batteries. That such an over-familiar sort of joke as “little kids behaving foully” is unambiguously in the plus column is as clear an indication as there is of just how much creative bankruptcy “Prison Break-In” suffers from.