Plenty of television shows have tried their best to lean into absurdity over the years. An issue that inherently pops up all the time, though, is that it’s really, really hard to be good at that, and you can always tell when a television show is trying, but failing, at making that its brand. One such show that managed to master making the absurd its calling card in a way that worked was Arrested Development.
The show’s first three seasons are damn near unassailable. Sure, there are plenty of things that did not age particularly well by nature of being a source comedy in the mid-aughts — the entirety of the storyline involving Charlize Theron and the various jokes about Tobias’ sexuality during Season 3 stick out — but despite the ratings slide that saw it meet its premature demise, Arrested Development‘s first three seasons managed to stay fresh and funny thanks to its writing and a powerhouse of an ensemble cast. To celebrate it, we decided to rank the show’s 10-best episodes.
Two quick things before we dive in:
- These are the ten episodes based on my most recent rewatch of the show. If I were to rewatch through some other time, there is a good chance that ten other episodes would make up this list. The show has that many outstanding episodes, so if your favorite(s) is/are left off, know there is a very good chance that I, too, love them, and this is merely a list of the episodes that I enjoyed the most right now.
- You’ll notice that Season 4 and Season 5 don’t have any episodes on this list. One thing I wanted to determine going in was whether or not I actually thought they were merely fine or if the constant haymakers thrown by the first three seasons made the most recent two feel like feeble jabs. My answer: I still have zero idea. Someday I’ll go back and watch them both without enjoying the rest of the series beforehand, but regardless, they don’t quite reach the highs of the initial run of episodes.
Anyway, thank you for indulging me. Now, a list about a television show that tells the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son that had no choice but to keep them all together.
10. S3E9: “S.O.B.s”
The story: The Bluths need to raise money for a lawyer and decide to hold a celebrity-heavy party. Lindsay takes up cooking, which horrifies George Michael, who goes to a new school. Gob gets a job by accident. Tobias and Maeby bond. We met the entire Richter family.
Why it’s on the list: The best episode of season 3 hits on all the notes that make a good episode in the series: every main character has something to do, a few different storylines come together at the end of the episode. It is also completely ludicrous and the zillion nods to “hey this show is not going to be a thing once this season ends” hold up well, even years later.
9. S1E19: “Best Man for Gob”
The story: Gob holds a bachelor party … kind of. Michael tries to take George Michael fishing. The Funkes restart their family band, which does not go particularly well, in part because Gob’s wife — one of its biggest fans — falls for Tobias.
Why it’s on the list: I, personally, am a sucker for any and all scenes that involve Dr. Funke’s 100 Percent Natural Good-Time Family-Band Solution, and this is where it debuts. Also, there is a fake bachelor party that involves Buster drinking fake blood (it’s juice) and a narcoleptic stripper in a cake who was supposed to get fake murdered in an attempt to prevent someone from testifying against George. Why this show was canceled is beyond me. (Ok I know the answer, but still.)
8. S1E7 “In God We Trust”
The story: Barry Zuckerkorn temporarily gets George out of prison, while Michael tries getting a new attorney. Tobias, it is revealed, is a never-nude. Some members of the Bluth family pass around the role of Adam in “The Creation of Adam,” alongside George, who plays God, right up until he tries (and fails) to run away. Buster and Lucille 2 go on a date.
Why it’s on the list: Our first look at Barry Zuckerkorn gives us a glimpse at perhaps the best non-Bluth character in the entire series. This episode also highlights how each member of the Bluth family will always try to do something that benefits themselves, only for it to backfire terribly — everyone who wants to be Adam next to George has their own reason for wanting the role, while the idea of getting George to see Lucille on a date explodes in Michael and Lindsay’s faces when they realize she’s spending time with Wayne Jarvis, not Barry. Oh and also this is the first never-nude episode, which, come on.
7. S2E10 “Ready, Aim, Marry Me!”
The story: The Bluths all believe Lucille 2 and Stan Sitwell are trying to take over the company, so George recommends Uncle Jack comes (and his assistant, Dragon) and helps. Lindsay goes on a romantic getaway with Uncle Jack, thinking it was a date with Dragon. Michael and Tobias go on a date at the same time. Buster and Gob fight over Lucille 2.
Why it’s on the list: Martin Short’s cameo is so delightfully unhinged that this episode had to make it on the list somewhere. Plus, this episode does a great job highlighting two sides of Michael: the Bluth who is just as shallow and willing to compromise to get his way as everyone else in his family, and the person who is able to see the err of his ways, even if it happens a little too late. And we get Gob and Lindsay’s chicken dances, so what’s not to like?
6. S1E4 “Key Decisions”
The story: Gob goes to prison for an illusion — he gets stabbed — which prevents him from attending an awards show with Marta. While there, a few people fall in love: Michael, with Marta, and Lucille 2, with Buster (sans glasses). Those aren’t the only lovebirds, as Lindsay meets environmental activist Johnny Bark, who falls for her. It is not reciprocated.
Why it’s on the list: While much of the conflict up to this point in S1 is over silly things, this episode sets up the perpetual feud that engulfs the two eldest Bluth brothers. My only regret is that there aren’t more episodes with Gob going to prison as part of an elaborate illusion, but I can’t be too mad, because everything about that is hilarious. And besides, it gave us the first “I’ve made a huge mistake” of the series.
5. S2E4 “Good Grief”
The story: George dies, so the family holds a wake. Only Buster has no idea what is happening, up until he learns about it while Gob tries doing an illusion he desperately needs. George Michael, fresh off of a breakup with Ann, discovers that George is not dead, but just hiding from the cops. He gets moved to the attic, and eventually, Michael finds out. Maeby tries to get Lindsay to cheat on Tobias so she can get emancipated.
Why it’s on the list: A Bluth family wake is exactly as bonkers as it should be. This has the honor, I assume, of being the only episode of television in American history with multiple references to Charlie Brown and the arrest of Saddam Hussein.
4. S1E22 “Let ‘Em Eat Cake”
The story: Lindsay starts a bead business, Gob starts a bee business. Kitty pops back up, and Michael has to deal with that. George Michael meets Ann Veal, which Maeby does not like. The “light treason” George committed rears its ugly head. An old book Tobias wrote becomes famous again, which leads to more money and some tensions between himself and Lindsay. George goes to the hospital during a lie detector test.
Why it’s on the list: The final episode of season one sets up season two brilliantly while simultaneously highlighting two things: Michael’s loyalty to his family, and also that Michael is in a constant struggle with what is best for himself and his son, and what is best for everyone else. It is also the first time we meet the extremely literal doctor, perhaps the series’ strangest (and best) tertiary character.
3. S1E1 “Pilot”
The story: Michael prepares to take over The Bluth Company, only for the job to go to Lucille, and then Buster. George gets arrested and learns he has the worst f*cking attorneys. Tobias also gets arrested for unknowingly participating in a protest, which leads to a professional revelation.
Why it’s on the list: How often have you seen television series start off on the wrong foot, only to pick up steam throughout the first season and eventually find its footing? That is not the case for AD, which sets up the entire series beautifully. From the very start, the pilot episode sets the stage for major things that exist through the series involving its main characters — Lucille’s total lack of decency, Gob being an arrogant, self-conscious, and absolutely abysmal magician, George Michael and Maeby’s strange relationship, etc. It is a tl;dr on each member of the Bluth family, something brutally difficult to accomplish in a pilot. Unlike Lucille’s feelings for Gob, we do, indeed, care for this episode.
2. S1E10 “Pier Pressure”
The story: Michael and Lindsay disagree on the best way to raise their children. We learn about George’s old lessons involving a one-armed man named J. Walter Weatherman. Maeby is punished and sentenced to an afternoon with Lucille. Buster tries to score some weed to help with Lucille 2’s vertigo, asking George Michael for help. This leads to an elaborate fake score involving Gob and the Hot Cops.
Why it’s on the list: If you’re showing someone one episode of Arrested Development and want to highlight everything that makes it so good — the acting, the writing, the twists and turns that its best episodes take, the general absurdity that comes from the phrase “a fake pot bust involving the Hot Cops” — you are picking this one. Maeby learning that Lucille is viciously cruel is hilarious, but the plotline involving George Michael attempting to score some pot as a favor is aces. The insecurities that a handful of characters feel when others are involved pop up — George Michael’s biggest fear on earth is disappointing Michael, who wants to be the head of the Bluth family but cannot because he can never quite be his father, while Buster is horrified of Gob and Gob is horrified of Michael. The family dynamics on display are perfect, while the Hot Cops show up a few more times in the series and are hilarious every single time.
1. S1E2 “Top Banana”
The story: George Michael becomes
Mr. manager at the banana stand. That is, until it burns down. On that note, Tobias interviews for a commercial about a fire … sale. Michael looks for flight records but cannot find them due to his parents.
Why it’s on the list: The entire episode is hilarious from start to finish, but this one tops the list for the sheer number of hilarious individual moments that helped make the show so famous. Gob trying to throw a letter into the ocean, Tobias screaming about a fire sale, “DEAD DOVE DO NOT EAT,” and of course, “there’s always money in the banana stand.” It is an otherworldly cultural artifact, and that’s before we get into the things about the show that serve as recurring punchlines/themes within the series, like continuous miscommunications that make situations exponentially worse, Michael poorly throwing his weight around in an attempt to earn respect and do things The Right Way, George Michael’s perpetual fear of disappointing Michael, Lindsay and Tobias hitting various obscure bumps in the road in their marriage, and Gob desperately wanting Michael’s respect but also being a tremendous piece of garbage. It’s also the first time someone says “no touching,” the first time we get a glimpse of Tobias’ jorts and Gob’s Segway, and Patrice O’Neal is in it briefly as an arsonist.