I’m starting to think that the secret ingredient in Arrested Development’s brilliant comedic recipe is obsession. If we think of sitcoms as intricate crossword puzzles, the bad ones are filled in scattered, incomplete fashion. The good ones have the longer, thematic clues filled out completely, and the important adjacent squares lend coherent support to the main motif. But Arrested Development? Not only is the crossword finished, down to the most remote squares in the far corners, and not only do the most irrelevant, forgettable clues strengthen the main themes; look within each square, magnify it under a microscope, and you’ll find another entire crossword puzzle contained within its boundaries. And it will be a perfect logical extension of the larger puzzle, and suddenly your mind will be blown by the crucigrammatic equivalent of a man staring at himself staring at himself in a mirror into infinity, and now imagine this added wrinkle: It’s fucking hilarious.
What this means, of course, is that the obsessive writers are rewarding the obsessive viewer. They know that the details they spend hours on will flash across the screen in seconds, unnoticed by the majority. It would be easy to just leave one or two things unfinished; nobody would know, because we’re not expecting them in the first place. But the AD writers are obsessives, and thank God, because it’s the subtleties that transform this show from genius to sublime.
Episode 11, “A New Attitude,” is the second installment belonging to GOB, and revolves largely around his plot to enact revenge on rival magician Tony Wonder for locking GOB in a boulder when he was trying to simultaneously perform a Christian magic trick and escape his imminent wedding to Ann. (We don’t know this for sure, but it probably wasn’t Wonder at all; Gob found a cross locking up the escape mechanism, and thought it was a T that stood for Tony.) But throughout the episode, we get these excellent little Easter eggs that you can only truly appreciate if you pause the episode, get really close to the screen, and transcribe everything you see until your wife thinks you’re a psychopath who can’t enjoy anything like a normal person.
Example 1: When Gob and Tony are at a gay bar discussing GOB’s failure at the church, Tony mentions that the gaffe was chronicled in Poof Magazine. Poof has been mentioned before, so this is a callback—and a slang name for a gay man in Britain, for the record—and the page with GOB’s failed stunt flashes across the screen. We see a picture of him at the bottom in the “Goof of the Week” section, but that’s not all. At the top of the “Poof’s Woops!” page, in print so small you can barely make it out, is a section called “Dove and Animal Deaths.” Here, on a page of a fake magazine intended for comic relief in an otherwise serious magazine about magic, we learn that El Fantastico suffocated an Egyptian dove named China, Guapo the Clown killed Skip, a long-eared rabbit, also by suffocation, and The Mysterious Zane suffocated an exotic dancer named Lacey. In addition, “white mice 1278-1299” were killed by various magicians by suffocation, drowning, and fire.
In the center column, titled “Singes and Milk Spills,” we have this incredible item:
Hair spray to fire bolt in front of children
Johnny Storm (T. Funke)
See what I mean? Given a chance, the writers will create a truly mind-blowing callback to a very brief scene with Tobias dressed up as Johnny Storm trying to entertain children, knowing only weirdos like me will even notice. How can you not love a show like this? They care so much, and in their obsession, we’re rewarded with excellence. This line already sounds corny in my head, and I realize I shouldn’t even write it, but it feels a little like an act of love—or, if you prefer something less exalted, high artistry. To fans of comedy, watching new episodes of this show is like getting a Faberge egg from a master jeweler.
(Also, you can drive yourself crazy wondering—which detail came first? Was this all planned in advance?)
Example 2: When it’s revealed that GOB sold all of Michael’s empty houses to sex offenders who want to live in off-the-grid locations without children or the Internet, we also learn he made the sale by placing an ad on the Orange County Sex Offender Map. Which is hilarious all by itself, but then we see the actual map (interactive, of course, with the locations of all sex offenders moving into the new development), and it appeals to sex offenders with lines like, “As featured on TV’s ‘To Entrap a Local Predator.’” And at the bottom, GOB lists himself just above Michael, as “President of the GOB Bee Company.”
Example 3: When Michael and GOB are fighting in the children’s play area, there’s an inspirational ‘80s-film-montage type song playing in the background about keeping your balls in the air. I listened at least 10 times, and according to my ears and the Netflix subtitles, it contains the following lyrics: “You raped and pushed and struggled.”
I’ve spent so much time chronicling the little things that I’ve totally neglected the plot. So, quickly, in a stream-of-conscious style rush: GOB uses George Michael as a fake boyfriend to lure Tony Wonder into thinking he’s gay, we learn that GM’s FakeBlock software has taken off, Tony Wonder hears this inside a beanbag chair and plots to steal his contact information and steal the software, there’s a lot of inside jokes about over-explaining plot points for the audience’s benefit that only AD could get away with, GOB and Tony Wonder learn they have a lot in common but misinterpret this new feeling of friendship as the budding of a sexual relationship, Michael tails GOB with Gene Parmesan because he thinks GOB’s “famous” new fling is Rebel Alley, GOB meets Ann five years after he left her at the Cinco de Cuatro celebration, brings her back to a model home, invites Tony Wonder, and with a mask-based ruse, Ann tricks them into having sex with each other. Michael finds out, so GOB gives him a roofie, causing him to forget that he just had sex with Lucille 2 to forgive his $700,000 debt and call her up planning to do it again. Also, GOB tries to hire illegal immigrants to build a wall designed to keep out illegal immigrants.
And there’s so much more, obviously, because this is Arrested Development. But like the never-ending crossword puzzle that folds in on itself to infinity, it’s impossible to summarize it all. The joy is there, in each moment, thought out with beautiful obsession by the most brilliant comedy writing team ever assembled.
Now I’m going to give you my top five lines of the episode, and after that, I’m going to unleash a gigantic spoiler that I figured out all on my own (okay, my wife helped). I’ve only watched up to episode 11 as of this writing, so this is not anything I found on the Internet or by looking ahead. It’s just one of those brief flashes of insight where for one moment, my mind briefly melded with the the collective brain of the writers on whatever distant stratospheric layer they occupy.
Top five lines from Episode 11:
5. (tie) “Siri, I’m gonna need the gayest…I NEED THE GAYEST LITTLE BALLROOM!”—GOB, to Siri.
5. (tie) “What about you? I didn’t hear from you your entire childhood!”—GOB, to Steve Holt, the child he abandoned.
4. “I have a list of men who could fill every opening you have.”—Tobias, to GOB.
3. “I do not get this lifestyle.”—GOB, walking into a children’s play area that he thinks is a themed gay club.
2. “The only thing I’m better at than f***ing women is pretending I’m gay.”—Tony Wonder, to Sally Sitwell, who seems to have inherited her father’s alopecia.
1. “Who wants to help me build a wall…to keep Mexicans out of America?” (Angry reactions) “Who wants to help me build a wall for no reason?” (More angry reactions) “It’s a different wall!”—GOB, to immigrant laborers who throw debris at him.
Spoiler: Go back to the first Lindsay episode. Look at the shaman’s face. Study it. Be amazed.