And now, the story of an Arrested Development fan/admirer who likes the fourth season more than some people and less than others.
I binged-watched the first three (and, until 2013, only) seasons of Arrested Development over the summer, marveling at the volume and velocity of the gags, the spiraling awfulness of the main characters, the casual brilliance of the social criticism, the comedic transcendence of the actors in peak form. The first two seasons whizzed by in a nearly flawless blaze of acidic, frequently self-referential hilarity. The third season, while funny and arguably more absurd and labyrinthine than the first two, seemed more desperate to be liked than its predecessors, and the comedy suffered as a result. (The metacommentary began to swallow the show’s plot, and the less said about the “For British Eyes Only” arc, the better.) Nonetheless, I finished my binge satisfied with the fruits of my “labor.” (The “Next Episode” button doesn’t press itself, after all.)
I started the first season right around the time that the fourth season dropped on Netflix. I didn’t have a chance to decide whether the show’s three seasons were sufficient before another one was in the works. But when I finished “Development Arrested,” which mirrors the pilot and offers a surprisingly satisfying conclusion to the saga of Annyong, I didn’t find myself clamoring for more. Especially with a show as densely packed as Arrested Development, there’s value in concentrating the brilliance.
Mitch Hurwitz, the show’s creator, had other ideas. After abandoning the fight for the show’s continuation on another network following its 2005 cancellation, Hurwitz tried and failed to replicate the show’s madcap success with the dismal Sit Down, Shut Up and Running Wilde, neither of which lasted more than six episodes despite the presence of Will Arnett. Discouraged by his inability to re-create lightning in a bottle, he decided to scrape the bottom of the bottle for lingering jots of electricity.
His original plan was to produce a feature film that would reunite the cast and catch up with the Bluths years after the incident on the Queen Mary. But Hurwitz quickly realized this ambition was misguided. First, acquiring the financing for a movie adaptation of a low-rated television series that had been off the air for five years and counting proved to be impossible. Even more troublesome: Hurwitz had groomed an ensemble so ready for future success that assembling the entire cast at the same time would be even harder than recovering from a run-in with a Cornballer.
A few years later, a partnership with Netflix and a frenzied production process led to the fourth season you can stream on Netflix right now. A different beast entirely from the show’s original structure, these fifteen episodes track a monumentally complex story in piecemeal fashion, working around the actors’ limited availability and employing a puzzle structure that snaps the story into focus only after the season begins to take shape in the latter half. It’s an ambitious undertaking, so much so that it’s almost unfair to complain that it doesn’t always work and that it occasionally seems like more trouble than it was worth.
It’s almost unfair, but I’ll do it anyway.
I watched the first four episodes of the new season in August, thoroughly underwhelmed in one concrete sense: I barely laughed. Something felt off: the timing, the pacing, the structural integrity. A few months later, I decided to give the show another chance. After some serious difficulties with plot recall (why is Michael hanging out with Ron Howard? Oh, right), I watched one episode each day until I was finished. At this pace, I had an easier time figuring out why I hadn’t liked the early episodes – and what made some of the later ones genuinely excellent.
The episodes fall victim to the freedoms of the Netflix model: with no time limit, Hurwitz and his crew had no obligation to end each episode at the 20-minute mark. The shortest episode is 28 minutes long; the longest is 37 minutes long, an eternity in the context of the original show’s breakneck pace. Bits and setpieces start funny and turn stale after they’re repeated or extended beyond the point of freshness, as with Gob’s stutter in the otherwise funny episode “Colony Collapse.” The stories take far too long to get to their most interesting developments, as with George Sr.’s interminable sojourn on the line between the United States and Mexico. These fifteen episodes could have been tightened into ten exceptional installments. Instead, they’ve come up with fifteen intermittently satisfying ones.
But unlike some people who soured on the entire endeavor, I found that many of the satisfying elements made the disappointments more tolerable. It was nice to be in this world again. A few episodes, “Senoritis” and “Off the Hook” in particular, nimbly balanced their obligations to the overarching story with surprisingly resonant narrative arcs for their central characters (Maeby and Buster, respectively). And I marveled at the intensity and richness of the ambition. I couldn’t possibly explain what happens in these episodes, nor could I describe which events came first and how they all tied together, but the show’s inscrutability works in its favor by the second half of the season.
One of the must frustrating realizations is that the season fails to come to a conclusive climax, despite appearing to build to one for most of its run. I fully expected the Cinco celebration to serve as the unifying culmination of every character’s scattered arc, but the final episode instead zeroes in on Michael and George Michael’s conflict, leaving most of the other characters’ stories hanging. Hurwitz has repeatedly said in interviews that he wanted to use these episodes as a springboard for that feature film he keeps yammering on about. That’s not a suspicious motivation, necessarily, but it would have been nice for these fifteen episodes to wrap having told a complete story of some kind, even if plot threads were left dangling. The characters’ emotional journeys, let alone their actual journeys, feel incomplete. George Sr. and Lucille are set for a divorce, Gob still hasn’t found out who sabotaged his magic at Ann’s wedding (whose wedding?), and Lindsey’s dalliance with Herbert Love is still up in the air. For a season with so much narrative smoke-and-mirrors, a sense of emotional closure would have been ideal.
Aside from the novelty factor, the season wastes the talents of many of its impressive guest stars, some of whom were saddled with uninspired characters and forced to play the straight man to the main cast’s occasionally untenable wackiness. Terry Crews, Isla Fisher, Kristen Wiig, Seth Rogen, John Slattery and Maria Bamford have all proven their talents in other movies and TV shows, but the show seems mostly content to provide them with two-dimensional character sketches and let them run in whatever direction they choose. Most of these guests are appealing, but it’s clear that Hurwitz had much more affection and enthusiasm for the Bluths and not enough creative juice to fill out the world around them. (Guest stars from the original three seasons fare much better – it was nice to see the likes of Henry Winkler, Scott Baio, Judy Greer and Ben Stiller again.)
The fourth season has other problems as well. Ron Howard’s voiceover narration, while frequently delightful, reiterates some of the same plot points far too many times, even within a single episode. The greenscreen and other editing techniques designed to mask the fact that many of the actors filmed their scenes at separate times fall flat entirely too often. The season is scattered narratively and thematically – without a unifying episode to tie the disparate stories together, the episodes vary in tone to the degree that a cohesive narrative through-line never emerges.
But for all of its faults, Arrested Development is still funny. The actors seem to be enjoying themselves. The plot engines clearly haven’t been exhausted. If only to see this season’s stories reach a conclusive endpoint, I’m intrigued to see where the show goes next, in whatever form it will take. (Netflix claims it’s interested in producing another season, even though Hurwitz claims he wants a movie. I applaud storytelling ambition and an attempt to make a product that doesn’t merely trade on nostalgia for a beloved cult favorite. Consider this Development temporarily and tentatively un-arrested.