Borderline PersonalitiesOf all Arrested Development’s main characters, George Sr. is probably the one you’d imagine would be least likely to be able to carry his own individual episode. It’s not that he’s not a great character, and Jeffrey Tambor is a supremely talented comedic actor who’s great as the Bluth family patriarch. It’s just that he always seemed to work best when existing as part of a scene, rather than having to do the heavy lifting. The likes of Buster, Tobias, Gob or even Lucille could come in and steal a scene, but George Sr. was a character who always worked best just being another funny part of it. Maybe it’s something to do with his eccentricities not being quite as pronounced as those other characters, while at the same time he’s not quite as grounded as a Michael, George Michael or Maeby. Either way, a George Sr.-centric episode isn’t the most attractive prospect going in, and so it proves to be.

Sensibly Mitch Hurwitz at least takes as much pressure off the character as he can. At just over 28 minutes, Borderline Personalities is the shortest episode of the 15, and although George Sr. is definitely at the fore, the load is shared with twin brother Oscar. The two are brought together on the US-Mexico border when George discovers that his business rival, Ed Begley Jr.’s Stan Sitwell, is aiming to secure a huge government construction contract and erect a wall to keep Mexicans from entering the US.

When George bumps into Oscar (who sadly can no longer grow that luxuriant mane) and his friends at the Balboa club shortly after, they invite him down to the border where they’ve been snacking on the hallucinogenic maca plant and have built a makeshift sweat lodge. George gets an idea. He tells Oscar that he doesn’t want to be the “best businessman in Southern California,” he’s instead going to be “the best brother in Southern California” by buying the land. Of course that’s not really the case, and he and Lucille hatch a plan to gouge the government on the land, undercut Stan Sitwell’s bid, and at the same time fake a divorce so as not to get into any legal trouble. And when the wall-building plan stalls, George sets up a business in the meantime selling lemonade to CEOs for $10k after they’ve dehydrated in a sweat lodge.

Quite why Oscar would be disgusted at George’s real plans but yet is happy to go along with his deeply dishonest business is left unexplained. In fact, I had to revisit the episode once more just to establish quite how the plot worked at all. It’s far more complicated than it needs to be, and seems largely designed in order to link a series of sketches. So we get George and Oscar swapping places out of the sweat lodge in order to fool the businessmen, which is okay. There’s the much more successful scene between George and Stan Sitwell in which George brilliantly lords his few remaining hair follicles over the bald Sitwell. That’s Tambor’s best moment in the episode, but it’s undercut by a weak George W. Bush joke that only serves as a reminder of the sharp political satire of earlier seasons, toothless by comparison in this episode. A later scene in which George and Oscar envision a spirit whilst chewing on the maca falls entirely flat.

The scene that perhaps encapsulates best what does and doesn’t work about the episode is the one at the Balboa club, where Oscar introduces George to his friends. It kicks off with the kind of superb meta commentary AD is best at, with George telling Oscar, “I’m going to sit opposite you, so it doesn’t look bad.” It places Jeffrey Tambor momentarily back into an ensemble, albeit a new one, and even though he’s making up two parts of that ensemble he seems completely at ease in both roles. At times in previous seasons, Jeffrey Tambor had the two brothers so distinctly well defined that I’d forget it was one actor on screen and just believe in the two characters. That’s the case here and it’s great while it lasts, but it only makes the decision to deliberately change their personalities later on in the episode all the more frustrating.

Completing the ensemble are three new supporting characters. Mary Lynn Rajskub’s Heartfire was a character I enjoyed immensely. A mute spiritualist whose messages never get across is a funny concept to begin with, and she completely sold the joke with a series of exasperated facial expressions. Her attempts to wordlessly order a drink in the background of one scene may have been my favourite moment of the episode. John Slattery’s drug-addled Dr. Norman was also great, if a little underused. He reminded me of great supporting characters of the past (like Larry Middleman or Bob Loblaw), in that the character concept leads to some pretty out-there scenes, but the actor’s wisely playing it completely straight. It’s a genius bit of casting. The less said about China Garden, however, the better. What’s the joke there? Did anyone enjoy a single second that she was on screen?

The main failure of the episode though, and this may be symptomatic of it being the first of two George Snr. episodes, is that not only does it fail to provide any resolution to the story, but it doesn’t do much character development work either. In Flight of the Phoenix we saw Michael undergo a definite and believeable transformation within a contained story, and that’s not the case here. We’re told that George has changed when the narrative jumps forward a year, but not why. His sweat lodge business is failing, but there’s no update on the wall-building plans other than Oscar discovering them. We’re left in storytelling limbo come the end credits.

But isn’t it typical of Arrested Development, that even in an episode that by and large doesn’t really work, there’s still some amazing stuff going on around the fringes. Henry Winkler’s son Max portraying a young Barry could have been little more than gimmick casting, but boy does the young Max Winkler (who’s showed on New Girl that he’s also an extremely talented comedic director, for the record) knock it out of the park. Then there’s the hilarious sight gag when we cut to modern day Barry dressed as a sailor, a frustrated John Beard experiencing cutbacks on his news reports, and that standout scene in which Lucille repeatedly blows cigarette smoke into Buster’s mouth. Those are all jokes on a par with anything the show has done before. What a shame then that Jeffrey Tambor couldn’t be given similarly good material, and quite frankly I’m dreading watching his second episode again in a few days time. Maybe it’s better the second time around. Maybe.

Any Other Business:

– The sweat lodge that Heartfire orders on the internet was “used in a televised Veal show.” That’s some nice foreshadowing right there.

– A couple of nice cameos for Community creator Dan Harmon and Cougar Town/Freaks and Geeks alum Busy Phillips. Is Mitch Hurwitz trying to tip his hat to as many other comedies as he can in this season?

– The slow reveal of the empty seats at Lucille’s trial is already wearing a little thin. We know exactly how that joke’s going to play out, so why keep cutting back?

– George Snr.’s in-flight magazine interview was for the First Class mag, We2, as opposed to Michael whose piece went out to economy customers. Michael’s article is teed up on the We2 front page, though. It features in the section: ‘The Best of Altitude. (What they’re reading behind you)’.

– Is there a continuity error in the scene where Lucille is blowing smoke into Buster’s mouth. He’d already received his bejewelled hook by the time of the family meeting, but here he’s wearing an old one.

– So Halliburton Teen is a new running joke… but I didn’t get it. What’s the punch line?

– Yesterday I made a plea for someone to make a gif of Michael trying to kick the tumbleweed, and then came an email from a lovely man called John from who’s done just that! You can view all of their AD Season 4 gifs here.

Grade: C