Season 1, Episode 5: “Visiting Ours” – December 7, 20031
They say everything is negotiable, except nature. Which is like saying you can pick your friends but not your family. If both assertions are true, then negotiating with your family must be, to use a third and final cliché, like the meeting between an irresistible force and that old stalwart, the immovable object. Arguably, this is the challenge at the heart of every episode of Arrested Development, but in “Visiting Ours,” it’s the central conceit.
Michael visits his father in prison to uncover details surrounding some strange bookkeeping—a fairly benign premise. He attempts to bribe GOB to get the information out of the company’s secretary, Kitty. When this attempt fails, he’s forced to find other means—he tries kindness over subterfuge. He attempts to fulfill his father’s sexual needs (“Daddy horny, Michael”) and asks Lucille to meet her husband in an “intimate marital setting.” But to convince her to do attend this meeting, he must, per Lucille’s request, first compromise and reinstate the family’s golf privileges at the country club. When even this attempt at kindness fails, Michael uses the only tool left: leverage. Only by using George, Sr.’s wandering libido against him does Michael finally succeed in obtaining information concerning the international accounts, i.e., “light treason.”
To the vestal viewer, this business with the international accounts serves as a MacGuffin to set this episode’s events in motion. But the writers of Arrested Development are sly2; it’s rarely ever so simple. The veteran fan will realize that this MacGuffin is more than a plot mechanism, as the seemingly insignificant bookkeeping unravels into a conspiracy; the show itself moves beyond a clever sitcom and blooms into a biting critique of the the United States’ second war with Iraq circa the George W. Bush years (2001-2009).3
The writers always drop hints and plant seeds of social criticism, winking at us to their endgame. Often these hints are implanted in the background, as coy asides or random, unexplained gags. In this episode, we see Tobias’ cutoffs for the first time. They aren’t explained until the episode “In God We Trust.” What first appears to be nonsensical becomes a central character trait but only the dedicated viewer would discover what those cutoffs signified. It’s rare to see a television show respect4 an audience enough to take up its time and willfully withhold information from it.
Arrested Development and its writers take advantage of television’s serial format. Typically, sitcoms have single episode arcs. The story is self-contained. Writers may refer back to events from previous episodes, but they are rarely canny enough to hint at storylines, let alone gags, in future ones. This was the genius of AD but also its downfall. It was, perhaps, too good. Too smart.
Many television shows are diversionary and function as pure escapism, a reprieve from an overworked mind, which is why they are often so straightforward. When shows deviate from this straightforwardness, they can confound an audience and turn it away5. Most audiences want to be uplifted – to be ensconced in familiar tropes and storytelling tactics. They, like George Michael, expect The Wizard of Oz (1939), but when they encounter something unfamiliar, they find themselves haplessly curled up in fear, watching HBO’s prison series Oz instead.
Like so many shows, Arrested Development was canceled due to poor ratings, and it was said that these ratings were the result of unrelatable, unlikable stories and characters. There may be truth in this assertion. But it could be something else, too. Perhaps the reason the Bluth family took so long to catch fire (and how quickly they burned out) was not because the show failed to provide the audience with characters whom we could relate to or situations that we could understand.
After all, if you were to watch this episode of AD without any prior understanding of human interaction, you would come away believing that the only way to accomplish anything is through the use of sex and/or bribery. You would come away believing that when people converse, they rarely engage with one another but instead talk past each other. And if their reactions coincide into something that sounds like an actual conversation, it’s pure coincidence, not mechanics. But if this doesn’t describe ~80% of human experience, what does?
Perhaps the show did not fail because it was “un-relatable” but because it, like some art is said to do, held a mirror up to the world—our world—and we grimaced to see ourselves staring back in the reflection. Could it be that we all are just as cruel, crude, self-involved, and emotionally stunted as these characters? Could it be that we all simultaneously despise and adore our families, feel trapped in their embrace, feel foolish in their company? Could it be that we all dream of slipping away, leaving everyone and everything behind, only to compromise the promises we make to ourselves just one last time in order please the people who raised and scarred us along the way?
Yes. Yes, it could.
1. Although “Visiting Ours” was broadcast as the sixth episode of the series and appears on Hulu as such, the DVD lists it as the fifth episode, which means that it comes before “Charity Drive” in series continuity.
2. In his advice to screenwriters, the great director and writer Billy Wilder once noted, “The more subtle and elegant you are in hiding your plot points, the better you are as a writer.” He obviously wasn’t talking about AD, but he might as well have.
3. Perhaps, albeit unintentionally, the show also provides a prescient look at the housing crisis that would erupt a few years later.
4. Billy Wilder again: “A tip from Lubitsch: Let the audience add up two plus two. They’ll love you forever.”
5. A final note of advice from Wilder: “The audience is fickle.”