Watching "Arrested Development" has been a lot of fun. I was going to do a Top Ten list of favorite episodes after finishing off the third season, but one thing that the show does particularly well, which is difficult to talk about in discussing specific episodes, is all the callbacks and self-references. So I decided to write up a list of my favorite running gags and multi-episode subplots that reward the most loyal viewers. Spoilers everywhere!
The Blue Man Group - This is a pop culture reference that may go stale with time, but you'll never find a more thorough exploitation of it. Tobias's unsuccessful attempts to start an acting career lead him to an understudy role with the Blue Man Group, so he's frequently covered head to toe in blue body paint, leaving blue handprints everywhere in the model home and camouflaging himself by standing next to blue objects. This is especially helpful when he starts impulsively spying on people. Eventually George Senior and other characters get in on the Blue Man act, literally, ruining Tobias's dreams.
Buster's Loss - Buster's hand is bitten off by a seal in the second season, leading to all kinds of fun gags with hooks and fake plastic hands, but the event is actually alluded to repeatedly in advance. Nowhere is this more apparent than in one later episode, where Buster's trying not to think about the trauma, only to spy his beloved hand-shaped chair, recovered earlier in the season, and then the stuffed seal he won from an arcade claw game in a different episode. This one's great not only for the delivery, but how quickly it manages to connect the dots and reveal everything was set up from the start.
Annyong - The Korean boy adopted by Lucille Bluth in the first season initially had one schtick: the only word he says is "Annyong," which the family assumes is his name, but which actually means "Hello" in Korean. He was shipped off to boarding school after a few amusing appearances, only to return briefly in a series of shocking twists at the end of the third season, revealing himself as both the mysterious informant, Mr. F, and the grandson of the original frozen banana vendor who George Senior ripped off and then had deported. Alas, the show ends before we get to see the fallout of his revenge.
Maeby's Secret Career - Maeby is a tough character because her rebel nature can make her unsympathetic. So I was glad when the writers gave her a bizarre subplot of her own - a secret career as a Hollywood studio executive in charge of feature films. Mistaken for a grown woman, Maeby first takes the job as a way to get out of doing homework, but soon finds herself up to her neck in scripts and spouting Variety speak. It provides the perfect opportunity for the writers to satirize the hand that feeds them, and get us to sympatize with Maeby too, who is pushed to her limit keeping the act up.
Michael Bluth v. Ann Veal - Just when you thought that Michael was an all-around good guy, his son George Michael gets a girlfriend, one that Michael does not care for at all. He finds Ann so unmemorable, that he constantly forgets that she exists and will be unable to recall her name five seconds after George Michael patiently explains (again) who she is. Michael has called her Egg, Bland, Yam, Plain, and Plant. He's inadvertantly abandoned her in Mexico. As the show rolled along, Ann's staunchly devout Christian personality came out, but Michael still can't seem to get her name right on the first try.
Steve Holt! - High school jock Steve Holt! is George Michael's rival for the attentions of Maeby. Held back from graduating twice, he's nonetheless extremely popular with the immature crowd, and has a certain charisma that attracts the wrong kind of woman. Does this sound like another character we know? I wonder if the writers planned this one from the beginning. If they didn't, I fully credit them for figuring how to keep Steve Holt! involved in the non high school storylines - by revealing him to be Gob Bluth's illegitimate son and making the kissing cousins love triangle complete.
The Worst Doctor Ever - Doctor Fishman, who always seems to be the attending physician when any of the Bluths are rushed to the hospital, is absolutely awful at communicating the status of his patients to their anxious relatives. He tells the Bluths that George Senior is gone after an apparent heart attack, which the family takes badly until they realize he means that George Senior has escaped from the hospital. Then Buster losing his left hand to the seal prompts Fishman to declare that he will be "all right." Of all the doctors who have appeared on the show, however, he's probably the most competent.
John Beard as John Beard - Southern California residents will recognize John Beard, a real local news anchor who had long stints with both NBC and FOX. In the "Arrested Development" universe, he plays himself presenting a fictional newscast, conveying important news updates whenever the script requires them. This includes appearances in several flashbacks, in a series of bad wigs, to match. While the show was on the air he was at FOX, so there's a good chance that commercials featuring his real newscasts might have run during the ad breaks of "Arrested Development" in the Los Angeles area.
No Touching! - During the first season, George Senior's visits with his family in prison were strictly supervised by guards who liked to enforce one rule above all others: no touching! There were a couple of good variations on this turn of phrase, but then George Senior escaped, so that particular gag disappeared for a while. Eventually George Senior was caught, and Michael arranged for him to stay at his mother's apartment under house arrest. Affection starved Lucille was overjoyed, and George Senior considerably less so. Michael left them alone together, after declaring "more touching."
Dance, Chicken, Dance - Finally, a minor running gag, but one of my favorites. It started with Gob's ridiculous chicken dance that he used to goad Buster into a fight. Then it was revealed that the same chicken dance got him in serious trouble during a visit to Mexico, for offending the locals. Then sister Lindsay performed her own version in a different episode. Then Lucille revealed hers. And George. Even Michael finally resorted to clucking at his family. Every reappearance of the playground taunt just cements the fact that the Bluth family all share the same basic immaturity and flair for the ridiculous.