Chances are that since you’re reading this site, you’re already cool enough to know that Arrested Development was one of the greatest TV shows of all time. A big reason for that was their “Family Ties” episode which featured a high end escort named Nellie, played by Justine Bateman. As with every episode, there are tons of in-jokes and funny plot lines but we’re going to stick with discussing the strictly sex work aspects and Nellie’s all-around awesomeness.
Let’s start with presentation. Nellie is impeccably clad in sexy, elegant dresses without any gauche hallmarks of conspicuous consumption; she looks like a beautiful businesswoman during after work hours. (Indeed, we eventually find out that she started escorting because of her business school loans.) She’s not blonde, doesn’t bare generous amounts of cleavage, or conduct herself in an embarrassingly transparent manner while in public. In other words, she’s barely a recognizable TV prostitute at all. She’s articulate, dignified, unpretentious, and capable. By the end of the episode, she’ll have triumphed over everyone’s uncharitable assumptions and saved the day.
The cleverest running joke of the episode is that Nellie barely has sex with her clients at all although she’s certainly not afraid to be sultry. (When Michael Bluth, the show’s protagonist, tells her that he respects her too much to have sex with her, she responds, “I’ve got an outfit that’s going to turn that respect into something fun,” and her nonchalant litany of expletive-laced boundaries is sheer delight.) Most of her clients, however, only want to talk or cry during their time with her. There are several cutaways to scenes of her sitting on a bed, clothed and bored, as her client weeps and complains from his seat on the floor.
When Michael first meets Nellie, he too finds himself talking uncontrollably, and we’re told by the narrator that he felt a connection with her like he’d never felt with anyone in his family. Meaning: damn, this girl is a pro! Adorably, convincingly, Nellie validates every boring thing Michael tells her with “you’re kidding me!” and “that is wild!” Then, Arrested Development seals the deal on owning my heart forever when the narrator tells us, “Nellie was just an excellent listener. Most prostitutes are.” Swoon.
The best is still to come. Near the end of the episode, Nellie’s accused of stealing a massive amount of money. But in fact she invested it in a way that helps the beleaguered Bluth family avoid further legal troubles, improves their family business, and she only took out her fair wage ($10,000) for all her time and effort. Sensibly, Michael offers to hire her as a business consultant but closes it with a patronizing aside that prostitution is “not a great way to make a living.” She replies, unfazed, “I make $300,000 a year.” Guess Michael forgot that when he printed out his father’s computer entry with Nellie’s contact information, it specified “tough negotiator.”
As great a television prostitute as Nellie is–and you make a valid case for her awesomeness–I’m also terribly fond of Illeana Douglass’s portrayal of Wendy Ward on the short-lived series Action. Like Arrested Development, Action skewers television is general and Hollywood in specific, and like Nellie, Wendy Ward plays a smart, funny, acerbic woman who twists the trope of the hooker with the heart of gold. Nellie is basically Wendy Ward written by someone with ten more IQ points and the freedom to bleep.
You just have to respect a television character who knows how to do that thing with the hat and is proud to itemize it using Windows 98.