It’s 2018, and the summer of scam is in full swing. From Patron Saint of Credit Card Fraud Anna Delvey to lesser deities like the Portofino Pirate and the potentially felonious Vogue assistant, first-rate scammers are everywhere you look. It seems fortuitous, then, that the moment should coincide with the return of one of TV’s most exemplary con-women: Arrested Development’s Maeby Fünke (played to perfection, as always, by Alia Shawkat).
Arrested Development is a show about a family of grifters, some more effective than others. Yet while Maeby comes by her scamming honestly — her family includes the slippery con man George Sr., the ice-queen manipulator Lucille, and the bumbling illusionist Gob — the second youngest member of the Bluth clan has always gone above and beyond when it comes to inventive, identity-contorting schemes.
Ever since we first met kid Maeby, a plucky teen who couldn’t even see Les Cousins Dangereuxs at the theater without a fake ID, Maeby has been running scams with the panache of a seasoned pro. How could we forget Surely Fünke, Maeby’s fake sister, a wheelchair-bound high-schooler afflicted by the fictional disease ‘BS,’ which she was using as a way to garner donations from her schoolmates? (As she put it: “I figure I’ll kill her off just before graduation, just so everyone gets really sad before prom.”) Then, of course, there was her side hustle as a movie exec at Tantamount Pictures, born primarily of a desire to have someone else do her homework, where she sold the family’s rights to Ron Howard, and coined the ultimate catchphrase to derail anyone who questioned her age (“Marry me!”).
Over the seasons, Maeby proved to be one of the family’s most talented fakers and schemers, a curly-haired mischief-maker who spins lies as easily as she breathes. In addition to all the times she kissed her cousin — to teach her parents a lesson! — she has also pretended to be Christian (to miss school), moonlit as a shaman (to get her mother to pay attention to her), and repeated senior year of high school three times (to get her parents to pay attention to her). Unlike the haphazard Bluth brothers, she often finds her plots succeeding, making her the true heir to her grandmother’s manipulative, scheming ways. Yet even when she is fleecing high-schoolers and old people, she never comes across mean-spirited. Her heists and high jinks are infused with a sense of joy and play, which is why she’s so easy to root for.
And so I am pleased to report that in season five, Maeby is back and better than ever. While in previous seasons Maeby’s plots often felt a little tertiary, this season she serves as one of the show’s most reliable comic anchors. I’ve got to admit that not every character is pulling their weight in season five. The barely-there Lindsay is being green-screened in from God knows where, pretty much all the men have put their foot in it recently, and I’ve been fast-forwarding the Tambor scenes (which, while making it confusing, is still less confusing than season four). Yet whenever Maeby is onscreen, she puts a smile on my face. Older but not necessarily wiser, she’s come completely into her own as a seasoned mistress of deceit. Scamming is integral to her identity. As Maeby says cheerfully, after George Michael embarks on a harebrained scheme of her invention: “Who knows where we get these ideas from, right?”
“Well, you. I got that one from you. It’s always from you,” George Michael replies.
Maeby is unfazed. “Oh yeah, I was going to say that sounded like one of mine.”
It helps that Alia Shawkat looks like she’s having a blast in the part, aided by a series of wigs and false teeth that put Philip and Elizabeth Jennings to shame. In the first eight episodes of this season, she sports a slick gray bob to serve as her mother’s campaign manager, commissions a pair of meth teeth for a stunt (in which she kisses her cousin to teach her parents a lesson, duh), and dons a purple wig to play Lucille Austero’s sexagenarian sister Annette so she can live for free in a luxe old age home.
The joy I feel watching Maeby onscreen reminds me of Jia Tolentino’s recent piece in The New Yorker about which grifters capture our hearts. As Tolentino writes, we mostly appreciate scammers who fail (so, pretty much all the Bluths) instead of those whose deceptions succeed. But we also appreciate a sense of good showmanship and pleasure, which Maeby, mistress of wigs and age-defying stunts, has in spades. After all, Maeby is a true confidence woman, always happy to spin a convincing yarn even when she has no idea what she’s about. As she says chipperly to George Michael, after watching too much Fox & Friends at the old-age home: “It’s not like you’re actually lying to your dad; you’re just letting him believe something that isn’t true, like how people think the world’s melting because people drive cars or that Hillary should continue to roam free.”
Dressed up as Annette Austero, with her purple wig, long lacquered nails and impressive pilfered pain pill collection, Maeby is clearly having a blast, which helps to stoke viewer joy in turn. Later in the season, once she finds herself in too deep, Maeby must bid farewell to her alter ego. “Good-bye, Annette,” she says, lovingly fingering her character’s props, from dentures to a pile of gold jewelry. “Good-bye, two-hour teeth that make it look like I’m smiling so I don’t have to. And you, I’ll miss you most of all, neighbor’s pain medication,” she says with nostalgic affection. Maeby — whether she’s kissing her cousin (to teach her parents a lesson!!!) or playing as an old woman to get free digs — has always been in it for the joy of the heist.