Even before this month’s surprise drop of a Season 4 Remix on Netflix, it would have been near impossible to rank every “Arrested Development.” (Our hooks off to those sites that have.) Some installments take much different paths to the series’ most satisfying moments, so it’s difficult to put into context whether the show’s more intricately plotted episodes are (in some cases below, those overlap pretty heavily).
The episodes that would take up the bottom of a full ranking still have their moments (though, George and Lindsay’s Season 4 stand-alones are best left remembered in the past). But far more satisfying than figuring out the middling installments on the low end of the show’s quality, we thought we’d highlight the best the show had to offer.
One thing you won’t see on this list: the Season 4 remix. Though an admirable experiment, we opted to use the episodes as originally intended (and, in case you haven’t heard yet, are still under the “Trailers and More” sectionion the Netflix menu). Still by volume and by proportion of legendary episodes, most of these are from the show’s initial three-season run, replete with spies, bananas, and double entendres.
So, with the arrival of a new season of the Bluth family winding paths toward uncertain disaster, here’s our attempt at a primer. Whether you’re watching the series for the first time or merely looking for a quick refresher course as new episodes make their way to Netflix, we’ve collected our picks below for the standout episodes from the first four seasons.
25. “It Gets Better” (Season 4, Episode 13)
Sure, the format of Season 4 was a risk, but it’s easy to underestimate the giant swing that the show took with George Michael’s in-hiatus development. Giving the rare Bluth family member a chance to really change made the reversion to some of his old ways hit that much harder. Along the way, having the wood block be the object of George Michael’s musical and technological obsession is the payoff for a joke nearly 10 years in the making. The P-Hound roommate voting scheme from the season premiere gets a nice callback here, too, bringing together the full-season trajectories of Michael, Maeby and George Michael (the three non-GOB characters who had storylines worth following in Season 4).
24. “Justice is Blind” (Season 1, Episode 17)
No “Arrested Development” list would be complete without Maggie Lizer. Popping up in two different seasons in two different cases, Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ jury-manipulating prosecutor presents the show with some interesting moral predicaments, especially from Michael’s point of view. But beyond the labyrinthine plot of deciphering who’s telling the truth about being able to see versus who isn’t, there are two series-best nuggets to be found in “Justice is Blind.” Tobias doing everything in his power to escape Maggie’s detection (“on all fours….like a cat”) might be his best moment in the entire series. And GOB’s “…shape up or…shhhhhhhhip up” is such a wonderful confluence of joke-writing and line reading that it would be criminal not to include on here somehow.
23. “Sword of Destiny” (Season 2, Episode 15)
While the GOB/Tony Wonder showdown was a Season 4 high point, most of what made that memorable has its origins here. Magic has always been for a way to feature these characters’ hubris in an even more heightened way than normal. From their respective intros to their overarching need for acceptance, these rivals have more in common than they even realize here. (Though, Tony explaining his girlfriend says a lot: “My brother’s widow. It’s f—ed up.”) The easy misdirection transfers over to Michael’s doctor, who subtly downgrades his credentials with each passing encounter.
22. “Meat the Veals” (Season 2, Episode 16)
Few shows could knowingly pull off something like Mrs. Featherbottom for three whole episodes. It helps when you have a game David Cross doing his part to set up the Mary Poppins umbrella gag, falling right through the model home table. Maybe the best part of it all is how quickly they see through Tobias’ gambit while at the same time treating GOB’s puppet Franklin like a separate human being (not to mention the show, when it gives him his own ominous zoom-in). The show’s detour into a slapstick/absurdity-heavy middle of Season 2 didn’t always succeed. But seeing Maeby’s executive career escalate and watching Oscar/George face-off get thwarted by the idea that they already know each other’s moves is the best-case scenario of that momentary shift in focus.
21. “Storming the Castle” (Season 1, Episode 9)
A collision of two of the stronger Season 1 throughlines — the confusion over Marta and Buster/Lucille redefining their relationship through Lucille Austero — this episode is also one of the best convergences of Tobias’ curiosity and blissful ignorance (“I am looking for the magic”). Between the “Gothic Castle” mixup and the misunderstanding about the legs, it’s an episode that really dials in on the word-by-word buildup to the final point that brings all the strands together. There’s also room for some great slapstick, with Michael falling out of his chair and fumbling with pilfering furniture from the Bluth Company office.
20. “Out on a Limb” (Season 2, Episode 11)
“Out on a Limb” isn’t the funniest “Arrested Development” episode (it’s probably not even the funniest Maggie Lizer episode). But as a prime example of the show using so much foreshadowing that it almost fades like a Magic Eye poster into the background, look no further than the saga of Buster’s missing hand. Even before the “loose seal!” ending, the David Schwartz music that pops up whenever someone references the war helps build up the idea that something ominous is on the horizon. Not even a Balboa Bay Magazine cover could escape the tiny hints of the appendage that Buster was about to lose. Bless Lucille for giving us the versatile and ever-useful “I don’t know who that is and I don’t care to find out.” (And for what it’s worth, it’s helpful to have this time capsule reminder of what the Amazon website layout used to look like.)
19. “Marta Complex” (Season 1, Episode 12)
There are few things in life, much less this show, as joyous as Carl Weathers being the thriftiest guy in the world. “Baby, you got a stew going” is a philosophy, the closest thing this series has to a life lesson worth following. After Carl’s arrival throws the Buster/Lucille co-dependency into disarray, it’s nice to see the mother of the family get a rare moment of happiness. The best moment of the episode, though, might be the entire family gradually chanting “Speech! Speech! Speech!” to no one in particular. Doing the right thing for the wrong reasons is the Bluth way, after all.
18. “Colony Collapse” (Season 4, Episode 7)
While other solo episodes in the original Season 4 cut led to some unmemorable misadventures, this half-hour focus on a broken GOB made the whole experiment worth it. From him short-circuiting like a robot trying to do his trademark “$[X] suit” bit to the encroaching strains of “The Sounds of Silence,” there’s enough variety in here to make it feel as close to the spirit of the original run as anything in what’s come since. The wedding illusion, capped off by the reveal of the “HER” hanging letters above the altar, capitalized on another return cameo from the always-welcome Alan Tudyk. As those momentary highs give way to rock bottom (or “a trending downward moment that just, I don’t know…”), GOB descends into a pitiful stint in a storage locker that sustains through his short-lived stint in the entourage of a Bieberish pop star. Blend in some hopeful optimism from the maligned Steve Holt and “Runaway” — the biggest earworm in TV history — and you have the perfect counterexample to anyone who says Season 4 was worth skipping.
17. “Beef Consommé” (Season 1, Episode 13)
The apex of the Season 1 Marta storyline, this episode is proof that some of the recurring jokes they knew to go out on top. Working in every kind of combination of brother including “…brother of prime rib,” this episodes-long tension between Michael and GOB comes to a head in an extended fight sequence that feels chaotic and cathartic all at once. Elsewhere, Buster’s list of adult goals (“I wanna dance, I wanna make love to a woman, I want a checking account!”) might be Tony Hale’s most precise/concise characterization from the entire first season. Aside from the rest, there might be no better metaphor for “Arrested Development” than George’s frustrated escape attempt: The craziness of the inciting incident, the crazy detour, and ending up right back where he started is basically the entire first season in microcosm.
16. “Forget Me Now” (Season 3, Episode 3)
GOB’s relationship to Flunitrazepam has skirted the line between sensitive, tired, and illuminating, but with this first experiment in selective memory loss, GOB gets another spotlight moment. (His final “…I will” is a trademark slice of the character’s tragicomic sweet spot.) Speaking of element of “Arrested Development” that have somehow managed to weather some changing external contexts, this episode has the arrival of Bob Loblaw, bringing with it the secretary transcript of Lindsay’s flirtatious phone call later on. Though not the standout Rita episode, this still has the inverse of the British stereotypes from the week before, layering on “This is what the British think of Americans” right before giving Michael the series’ only chance to say the title of the show.