Original airdate November 23, 2003
Written by Brad Copeland
Directed by Anthony Russo
Production Code #1AJD04
“Gob checks himself into his father’s prison with the intention of breaking out for a publicity stunt. During lhis, Michael is tasked with escorting Gob’s girlfriend to an awards show, where he develops feelings for her. Also in attendance at the event is Lucille’s best friend and rival Lucille Austero, who comes to a similar realization about Buster when she sees him without his glasses on. Meanwhile, Lindsay joins an environmentalist’s fight to save a tree.”
NOTE: Deconstructing Arrested Development openly discusses spoilers when relevant (which can include episodes that come later in the series). Readers who have not seen the series in its entirety are advised to proceed at their own discretion.
We’re little over one hour into Arrested Development’s total runtime, and while the series has showcased many of its most distinctive elements by now, there’s one big thing that wouldn’t yet be evident to new viewers: Its approach to continuity. At a time when sit-coms were expected to wrap things up neatly at each episode’s end, Arrested Development’s heavy serialization was an adventurous move. It’s not like the genre was devoid of continuity before – story arcs have long been used as a way for sit-com writers to generate new episode ideas – but Arrested Development’s application has much more in common with, say, a modern drama. A lot carries over from episode to episode. Rather than returning the characters to the same A-point, episodes will often end without characters finding resolution, sometimes even winding up in a completely different situation to where they started. There are frequent permanent changes, and the events of episodes matter. The show may be true to its name in that the core characters rarely grow as people, but it doesn’t really have a “status quo” beyond the base character dynamics.
I bring this up as Key Decisions establishes many of the first season’s pivotal storylines. Top Banana and Bringing Up Buster both work well as stand-alone episodes (and an extended introduction to the show alongside the Pilot), but it’s here in episode 4 where the first season really begins to kick into gear. At the time these episodes were being produced, the show had only been picked up for 13 episodes. It wasn’t until filming the last of those 13 episodes when they learned the network was extending the order to a full 22 episode season (it would, sadly, be the only instance during the Fox run in which this happened, with both seasons 2 and 3 initially being picked up for 22 episodes and then subsequently having the order reduced). Multiple story arcs that begin here would be not see conclusion until the the Marta Complex/Beef Consommé two-parter – specifically written so it could function as a finale if the network chose not to order any additional episodes – making Key Decisions one of season 1’s most crucial installments.
First and foremost, this episode serves as our introduction to Lucille Austero, A.K.A. “Lucille 2.” Of the show’s vast bench of supporting players, few would ever prove as important to the narrative (she’s the catalyst for at least one major story arc each season, with the exception of season 3). The Bluths don’t have much in the way of friends, and Lucille 2’s status as such is debatable, but her delightfully vicious back-and-forth with Lucille 1 gives us a lot of insight into their complicated relationship. The lives of the Bluth and Austero families would become further entangled over time, but it’s evident from their earliest interactions that there’s already a rich history between them, with the beats of Jessica Walter and Liza Minnelli’s banter feeling as lived-in as the show’s strongest family relationships. Lucille 2 would come to mean many different things to many different characters, allowing Arrested Development’s writers to utilize her in a variety of ways throughout the series, while also being one of the most tangible links between the Bluth family and their former lifestyle.
Not to be content just introducing a vital supporting player, Key Decisions also establishes the staircar, which might be the most iconic visual associated with the show. This episode derives a considerable amount of humor from the vehicle’s blatant impracticality, but the writers would continue extract a remarkable amount of material from the staircar over the years, finding comedy in every nook and cranny possible. The staircar is as vital a part of Arrested Development “lore” as the model home or the banana stand, and provides the show with just as many plot points as it does laughs. In fact, the staircar ties together most of this episode’s narrative threads, serving as a way for Lindsay to reach (and then become stranded in) the tree, the Achilles’ heel in Gob’s escape plan, and Michael & Marta’s method of transportation to the Desi awards – a setting which itself factors into multiple characters’ storylines (as does the hospital in the final act).
Additionally, this is the episode where Michael realizes he has feelings for Gob’s girlfriend Marta. The love triangle between the three of them fuels several upcoming storylines, most notably the two-parter mentioned earlier, Marta Complex and Beef Consommé. Love triangles are well-charted narrative territory for sit-coms, even if they don’t often involve family. Arrested Development would come to put some unique spins on the well-worn trope during this story arc (perhaps most memorably with the “hermano” plot), though I can’t deny it’s usually an exercise in futility to invest in the Bluth family’s romantic relationships. The show has quite the revolving door there, particularly with Michael in its early years (only one of his season 1 love interests returns later). Granted, it wouldn’t be in the spirit of the show to have Michael actually settle down with someone, but at least Sally Sitwell and Rebel Alley went on to become recurring characters. Maybe that’s for the best, though; while her arc is enjoyable and well-executed, Marta herself just isn’t as memorable as the show’s other recurring characters.
“Character” is the operative word when discussing Key Decisions, as it’s the second consecutive episode to focus primarily on the characters. In fact, many of the things I said about Bringing Up Buster in the previous deconstruction apply here. Despite the broader gags Key Decisions is best known for, a big portion of its runtime consists of intimate one-on-one interactions between characters. Even the episode’s most outlandish storyline – about a magician staging a breakout from prison – is brought down to Earth by turning it into a story about a strained father/son relationship (not unlike how the similarly absurd Lindsay/Johnny Bark plot has a pretty conventional sit-com premise at its core: two quarreling characters getting confined in a small space together). Pairing Gob and George Sr. is a smart choice considering their dynamics. It makes perfect sense that Gob would be the first Bluth to join George Sr. in prison as more than just a visitor; nothing motivates Gob more than his desire for his father’s approval (with George Sr’s neglectful treatment of Gob undoubtedly being a major factor in Gob’s own neglectful treatment of Marta). There’s immense tragedy at the core of Arrested Development, and this episode’s ending packs one of the hardest emotional gut-punches the show would ever land.
The strongest unifying theme of this episode, however, is right there in the title. “Key Decisions” isn’t merely a reference to the key Gob swallows (and/or the staircar keys Michael hands Lindsay), it’s the very concept at play here. This is an episode about characters reaching crossroads, putting them in scenarios where they must make choices about their lives. These choices either provoke the characters to look inwards, or wind up having repercussions down the line as the season unfolds, making their decisions every bit as pivotal as this episode itself. While Arrested Development transitions from its early stages of establishing its premise into a more serialized affair, it’s laying down narrative foundations that can be built on later. Part of this process involves examining these characters’ flaws more thoroughly; after all, the more we know about what makes the Bluths tick, the more narrative territory the show has to explore. And when viewed in that context, Key Decisions is an episode that unlocks a lot for Arrested Development.
“Great, so now we don’t have a car or a jet? Why don’t we just take an ad out in I’m Poor magazine?”
LINDSAY: Well what about the trees?
MICHAEL: Oh, we’re just gonna cover them with blankets.
LINDSAY: I’ve always been deeply passionate about nature. Perhaps you remember Neuterfest?
MICHAEL: I’ll never forget your wedding.
LINDSAY: I care deeply for nature!
MICHAEL: You’re wearing ostrich skin boots.
LINDSAY: Well, I don’t care about ostriches.
“He’s a beautiful boy. They don’t appreciate him. It’s his glasses. They make him look like a lizard. Plus he’s self-conscious.”
MICHAEL: I just haven’t met anybody who’s not completely self-absorbed and impossible to have a conversation with.
LUCILLE: If that’s a veiled criticism about me, I won’t hear it and I won’t respond to it.
“What is he protesting? The expansion of high-cost, low-quality mini-mansions, like this one here…”
“… You gotta be kidding me.”
“Listen, after we get that lot cleared, we’re going to have enough money for you to neuter thousands of animals. You can make dogs and cats a complete thing of the past. No more dogs and cats.”
Gob announces his break-out during Marta’s interview – news that appears to take Marta by equally as much surprise as it does the news crew’s camera and boom mic operators:
“… Say that to them in Spanish.”
The key-swallowing montage:
“I thought you said throwing the ball against the garage door by yourself was how you got accuracy.” – An easy-to-miss joke that perfectly encapsulates George Sr. and Gob’s father-son relationship.
Orange County Prison’s most terrifying inmate is coined a new name:
MARTA: I hope you don’t mind driving. I took a cab here. I just couldn’t find my keys.
MICHAEL: Well, my brother may have eaten them.
LINDSAY: Look, I’m an activist, too, and I appreciate what you’re doing for the environment. But we’re not the only ones who destroy trees. What about beavers? You call yourself an environmentalist, why don’t you go out and club some beavers?
JOHNNY BARK: … You don’t really get nature, do you?
“Can I get a vodka tonic, please? I’d like a vodka tonic, please. Vodka tonic, please?”
“A sea of waiters and no one will take a drink order.”
LUCILLE 2: Lucille? Lucille! Aren’t you something, showing up here without your husband. Shame be damned! Caution to the wind!
LUCILLE: That’s so sweet, darling. I’m here to support you. You’re the one who’s all alone and likely to stay that way. My husband’s just a phone call away.
LUCILLE 2: That’s one call per day, isn’t it? Gee, I should think he’d want to save that for his lawyer.
LUCILLE: At least he’s in prison, not an urn.
“Well, I could ask the guys to leave, but, uh… you know, they’ve been locking the doors lately.” – It’s easy to see where Michael gets his sarcasm from.
“I’m sorry. You really deserved to win in there. …Did you win? I don’t speak Spanish.”
GEORGE MICHAEL: You know, I can see why your mom likes it. It is a really nice tree…
MAEBY: We’ve got to get it torn down.
GEORGE MICHAEL: …that must die. Stupid tree.
LUCILLE: Buster’s out of control!
MICHAEL: What, another panic attack?
BUSTER: Me? No. She’s just wigged out because I have a girlfriend.
LUCILLE: A waiter hands him a note, suddenly he’s Steve McQueen. He doesn’t even know what she looks like!
BUSTER: I know she’s a brownish area. With points! And I know I love her!
And from later in the scene:
MICHAEL: How serious are you about Marta? I get the sense that there’s not much of a future there. Am I reading that right?
GOB: Let me ask you something. How would you feel if I came down on you hard?
MICHAEL: You’re saying I’m not reading this right.
GOB: No, I’m saying move the bike. I need to jump on you to break my fall.
GOB: I’m a complete failure.
GEORGE SR: Where’d you get that kind of talk?
GOB: From you. You always say that about me.
GEORGE SR: Well, maybe you’re not entirely to blame. I haven’t always been the best kind of father either.
GOB: Dad, you’ve done a pretty good job of being a father to everybody in here. What have they got that I don’t? I mean, you’ve never even… thrown a ball around with me.
GEORGE SR: Great, now you’re an athlete.
Lindsay lets Johnny Bark down lightly:
(If it’s any consolation to Johnny Bark, she says the same thing to Tom Jane next season in The One Where They Build a House)
WHITE POWER BILL (while stabbing Gob in the back): White Power!
GOB: I’m… white…
“Oh my god, Gob has been stabbed in the back!”
Easily the biggest laugh of the episode:
“Has your hair always been that pointy, Miss Austero?” is a very funny line in its own right, but Tony Hale’s arm gestures really do take this moment to a whole new level:
Lucille’s extended cackling at her own joke as she leaves down the hospital hallway always puts a big smile on my face.
As does the slapping match between Michael and Gob.
Gob learns how he survived his stabbing…
A camera makes it into view in the wide shot of the model home driveway, peeking out from behind the gate before Michael hands Lindsay the keys to the staircar:
Gob says he’s never played a game of catch with his father, and doesn’t seem to have much experience throwing a ball. This contradicts Season 2’s Switch Hitter, where Gob is considered the Bluth softball team’s best player, with George Sr. even acknowledging as such.
During Michael’s talk on the stairs with Martaat the Desi awards (a possible callback to Michael and Lindsay’s talk on the stairs in the Pilot), Marta’s lips are significantly out of sync with the audio when she says “You know, commitment.”
There’s an amusing background gag where the prison guards are raiding the melting ice cream sandwiches, which is sadly ruined by a continuity goof. In one shot, a guard is collecting ice cream sandwiches from the floor with both hands, and the next, his hands are empty and he’s fiddling with his walkie talkie.
This is the first Arrested Development episode to be produced out of order. Its production code – 1AJD04 – indicates it was made between Visiting Ours (1AJD03) and Charity Drive (1AJD05). However, it needs to be seen before those episodes, as they directly reference and follow on from its events. Most likely, the episodes were simply produced in this order for scheduling reasons; ie. cast/location availability.
This is the first episode of the series where Mitch Hurwitz does not receive a writing credit, and the first of six episodes to be penned by Brad Copeland (the others being Storming the Castle, Staff Infection, ¡Amigos!, Queen for a Day and Sword of Destiny). Brad Copeland has also served as a writer/producer on Grounded for Life, My Name is Earl, The Inbetweeners (the US remake), and Life in Pieces.
As mentioned earlier, this is Lucille 2’s first appearance. She is played by Liza Minnelli, who was Mitch Hurwitz’s “dream casting” for the part from the character’s conception. They were able to get her on the show through Ron Howard’s connections – she used to babysit him as a child. And Liza Minnelli does all her own stunts!
The prison storyline brings us several new minor cast members too: Rocky McMurray as Warden James Buck, David Reynolds as White Power Bill, and Alden Villaverde as Little Justice, all of whom return in some capacity later this season; James Buck’s 2nd and final appearance is in Visiting Ours (before he is replaced by Warden Stefan Gentles off-screen sometime between that episode and Staff Infection), while Little Justice and White Power Bill both come back in Staff Infection and Missing Kitty.
This episode also introduces us to Johnny Bark, portrayed by Clint Howard (Ron Howard’s brother). While this is his only appearance the Fox run, he would return for a surprise cameo in season 4’s Colony Collapse, with the extended Bark family playing a significant part in the season 4 narrative (most notably his son, Marky Bark, who also professes his love to Lindsay and asks her to start a new life with him – with Lindsay actually reciprocating this time around).
Additionally, John Beard returns here for his third appearance on the show, as do Stacey Grenrock Woods and Lenor Varela their second.
This is Leonor Varela’s final appearance as Marta (having appeared in a brief cutaway in the previous episode). The character would be portrayed by Patricia Velasquez for all her subsequent appearances in the season. The recasting was due to a scheduling conflict with Leonor Varela.
The change in performer is a little jarring, given the distinct differences in appearance and voice; it’s far more noticeable than the recasting of T-Bone and Ann, whose initial appearances were limited to one brief scene each (not to mention the two actually portray the character of Marta quite differently). It’s difficult to say who I prefer; I feel Leonor Varela had some very natural on-screen chemistry with Jason Bateman, whereas Patricia Velasquez played better off Will Arnett (and the latter’s accent and broken English opened up the doors for some amusing jokes).
It has prompted many to distinguish the two iterations of the character as “Marta 1” and “Marta 2” (much in the same way the show has named its two Lucilles). The show itself even gives a meta nod to this in season 3’s Forget-Me-Now, when a flashback depicts a third actress portraying what is suggested to be the same character.
This episode begins with a cold opening, which was rare for the show during its original run. The only other Fox era episodes to not begin immediately with the intro are the Pilot, S.O.B.s and Development Arrested; though in all those instances, there were deliberate creative reasons the show opened differently. Here, it seems like a genuine trial run at cold openings; something Arrested Development would not adopt full-time until the Netflix era.
This episode introduces one of the show’s most bizarre running gags: Whenever we glimpse a Spanish soap opera, adult actors are seen portray children by donning brightly-colored wigs and clearly drawn-on freckles. The image is practically synonymous with telenovelas in the world of Arrested Development.
It may possibly be a reference to El Chavo del Ocho, a Mexican sit-com from the 1970s which was known for having a roster of child characters all depicted by fully-grown adults (many of whom stood taller than the adult characters).
On a side note, the footage depicted in the image above gets reused in season 5’s Self-Deportation. During a scene set in Mexico, it briefly appears on a tv in the background.
We have our first instance of Gob stealing Michael’s food, in the form of a sandwich (not of the ice cream variety):
The Bluth siblings really do finish each other’s sandwiches!
The staircar makes it first appearance here – the first of many, as even casual viewers are likely aware. It appears often throughout all 5 seasons (and even some promotional material), and often proves important to the plot, in addition to being a seemingly bottomless source of comedy.
Side note: Much like the “professional magician” disclaimer at the end of Gob’s key-swallowing footage, the note at the bottom of that image also subtly reinforces the show’s mockumentary framework.
We are introduced to the term “hop-on” here. It refers to people who hitch free rides by jumping on the back of the staircar (though the phrase is actually first established in Top Banana, with the line “Do you wanna hop on your cousin’s lap there, please?”) “Hop-on” becomes one of the most notable entries in the show’s lexicon, used in multiple episodes across all 5 seasons: Queen for a Day, Sword of Destiny, The Ocean Walker, It Gets Better and Rom-Traum. There are also several episodes where we actually see the staircar get hop-ons (prisoners try escaping Orange County Prison using the staircar in Visiting Ours and Prison-Break, Lupe’s family rides it in Staff Infection, citizens of Mexico use the staircar to cross the border in ¡Amigos! and The Untethered Sole, and George Sr. climbs aboard it in The One Where Michael Leaves and For British Eyes Only).
More specifically, the moment above would later be mirrored with the cabin car in season 3’s For British Eyes Only (“Watch out for live-ins. You will get some live-ins.”).
This is also the first episode where we see part of the model home break. The show would deploy this joke numerous times over the years; poorly-built homes being the result of the Bluth Company’s shady practices (and the Bluth family’s tendency to pocket as much money as possible from their business ventures).
While there has been at least one scene set in the prison in every episode so far, this is our first time seeing parts of the prison outside the visiting room (and the entrance, which we’ve glimpsed in establishing shots).
It makes sense that the prison gets explored more thoroughly once Gob checks in – there aren’t many ways to organically work George Sr. into the narrative without another family member going to see him. In most instances where the setting is expanded, it’s when other characters come to intrude on George Sr. (the next time we see this much of the prison may be during Tobias’s prison stay in Staff Infection/Missing Kitty – though the next episode, Visiting Ours, also shows us several new areas).
Orange County Prison may not be as frequently-visited a location as Balboa Towers, the model home, the Bluth Company offices or the banana stand, but it is still quite an important part of Arrested Development’s world. It’s a recurring location in both the show’s first and fifth seasons, and appears at least once in all the others (The Righteous Brothers in season 2, The Cabin Show and Prison Break-In in season 3, Red Hairing and Smashed in season 4).
Gob would try swallowing keys again in Spring Breakout and Notapusy. The results are equally disastrous.
This episode marks Gob’s first time uttering his trademark catch phrase…
For the first time, the “On the next” actually does depict a plot point that would be explored future episodes. While the next episode may not contain the scene with Buster knocking on Lucille 2’s door and saying “Let’s go for it,” the two do indeed attempt a romantic relationship over the episodes that follow, beginning in Charity Drive (though Buster is far more hesitant about it than he seems here).
It should also be noted that Gob’s story in the next episode, Visiting Ours, is a direct follow-up to what transpired to him here.
Tobias is notably absent from this episode, though Lindsay explains he is attending a stage-fighting workshop with Carl Weathers. Weathers would guest star as a fictionalized version of himself later in the season, making his first on-screen appearance in Public Relations (when we would learn that he never even showed up, and the entire workshop is a scam).
Key Decisions has a total runtime of 21 minutes and 42 seconds, and is rated TV-PG-LV.
The bird motif continues, with Lindsay’s mention of ostrich skin boots, and Michael making Marta an origami crane.
When Buster is greeting the chip table, he can be heard asking “¿Como estoy?” which translates to “How am I?” (“How are you,” which he is presumably trying to say – a nod to Tobias’s catch phrase from the Pilot – would be “Cómo estás“)
The Bluth family’s tenuous grasp on the Spanish language would provide quite a lot of material for the show over the years.
This is the first appearance of the “M. Sabino” guard uniform, which would later be seen in In God We Trust and Not Without My Daughter, on two very different-looking guards. The Orange County Prison budget appears to be stretched very thin.
Lucille responds to Buster’s uncharacteristic behavior by saying “I’m calling Dr. Miller.” Dr. Miller would actually appear several episodes later in My Mother, the Car.
Johnny Bark’s line, “That’s why you never leave the tree,” strongly resembles the lessons taught later this season by George Sr. and J. Walter Weatherman in Pier Pressure.
The deleted scenes for this episode contain a brilliant scene with the two Lucilles, in the form of a flashback set shortly after George Sr’s arrest:
LUCILLE 2: I just heard! Oh, you… At first, I thought it was just my television set playing tricks on me, but… Oh, I can tell by your face. it’s true!
LUCILLE: Oh darling, don’t you cry! You can’t afford to let those tears soften those sutures.
LUCILLE 2: Oh, you’re so sweet… But I’m afraid affording things is now going to be your problem.
LUCILLE: No amount of money can bring your husband back from the dead.
In addition to a much longer take of Buster talking to the chip table, there’s a great deleted scene with George Michael and Michael. The former is looking for a chainsaw to cut down the tree (thus getting closer to Maeby), and walks in on Michael as he’s looking at Marta’s IMDB page. Michael, seeking advice, then proposes a hypothetical to George Michael:
MICHAEL: Let’s say you like someone who shares your beliefs, but… this person’s off limits.
GEORGE MICHAEL: Off limits? Like, like what?
MICHAEL: I dunno, let’s say there’s a family member involved… Do you go for it no matter what anybody says?
GEORGE MICHAEL: No! Okay? It’s wrong! Alright, dad?! Fine, no matter what anyone says! Okay?! It’s always wrong!!
After George Michael storms off, Michael mutters”good talk,” which he also says at the end of a couple of scenes that actually made it into the finished episode.