“I think movies are dead. Maybe it’s a TV Show.”
For three wonderful, beautiful shortened seasons on FOX that aired from 2003-2006, Mitchell Hurwitz and an extraordinary team of writers and performers spun comedic gold out of the misadventures of the spoiled, selfish, oblivious Bluth clan. (I describe them as shortened seasons because only season 1 was a full season of 22 episodes. Season 2 consisted of 18 episodes, while season 3 was only 13.) Arrested Development stands, without a doubt, as one of the finest television shows ever made, absolutely hilarious but also fiendishly brilliant in its complicated structure of long-running gags, subtle call-backs, and jokes piled upon jokes piled upon jokes. It certainly ranks among my very favorite TV series of all time. (I know some who feel that season 3 was a small drop in quality from seasons 1 and 2, and while that might be true, it meant that the series went from being solid-gold perfection to being merely genius and hilarious.)
Fans like me were crushed when the show was cancelled after that truncated third season, and dreamed that the show’s final scene (in which Maeby pitches the idea of a TV show about her crazy family to Ron Howard, who dismisses the idea but then muses “maybe a movie…”) might some-day become a reality. I never believed we would ever see any more Arrested Development, so like everyone else I was delighted and stunned when the news broke that, while plans for a movie were still in-the-works, the show would be returning on Netflix for fifteen brand new episodes. Not only were we actually going to get more Arrested Development, but rather than a two-hour movie we’d be getting fifteen new episodes?? Phenomenal!!
I tried to moderate my expectations, but as the day of the show’s release on Netflix grew nearer (as I suspect everyone reading this knows, Netflix released all 15 episodes of season 4 all at once), I found my excitement building to great heights. I resolved not to rush watching all of the episodes all at once, but to try to space them out. (This was made easier by how insanely busy I have been lately, meaning that I couldn’t have watched all 15 episodes that first weekend, even if I’d wanted to!!)
Having now finished watching season 4, I can report that while this Netflix season is without a doubt the weakest season of the show — it really doesn’t hold a candle to any of the three original FOX seasons, even the often-maligned season 3 — I still found it to be terrifically entertaining. There was, of course, the level at which it was just a thrill and a delight to see all of these characters again, both the main cast and so many of the supporting players who, I was delighted to see, were brought back. But more than that, I thought for the most part that these new episodes were all very funny, far funnier and cleverer than pretty much any other comedy currently airing on TV these days.
The biggest weakness of this new series is its format. Because most of the show’s actors are currently involved in other projects, Mr. Hurwitz and co. weren’t able to get them all to be available at the same time. As a result, Mr. Hurwitz structured the show so that each episode of this new season would spotlight a single member of the Bluth clan. That’s an interesting approach, and if that was the only way to allow season 4 to happen, then it’s hard for me to complain. But this structure led to two problems that I don’t think season 4 was ever able to overcome.
First, the greatest pleasure of Arrested Development was always its ensemble. Watching these incredible actors bounce off of one another gave the show its special frisson. With only one or two scenes in the whole season featuring the whole Bluth clan (the post-Queen Mary gathering and the family legal strategy meeting/birthday party for George Michael), I deeply felt the lack of getting to see the whole ensemble assembled. And while some of the episodes managed to pop up frequently throughout the season, I really missed GOB and Buster especially, who we hardly saw until their spotlight episodes late in the season.
Second, not all of these characters were, I felt, really able to carry the show as the focus of an episode. Lindsay, Tobias, and (surprisingly, to me) George Senior’s installments were noticeably weaker than the other episodes. Even Michael himself — who had always been the centerpiece of the show — struggled at times to carry an episode on his own. Michael is a good case-study, actually, for the problems of season 4. I loved and still love the character of Michael, and Jason Bateman remains a spectacular comedic performer. But Michael worked best when paired with the rest of his crazy family. On his own, I found myself less interested in Michael’s stories, and I also found the character to be a little off-putting. Michael seems crazier and more oblivious than he’s ever been before, but that’s probably just because the character isn’t being juxtaposed with his far-crazier family. Without the rest of the Bluth clan surrounding him, there’s something off, and suddenly the Michael character isn’t quite as lovable, or as funny, as he had been. This is true of most of the rest of the ensemble, I think.
One aspect of the structure of season 4 that I loved, though, was the incredibly complicated interconnected nature of the story-lines and the episodes. From episode to episode, we’re constantly jumping around in time over the seven years between the end of season 3 and the Cinco de Quatro celebration that represented “now” in season 4. Over and over we would get parts of scenes, the other half of which we wouldn’t get until many episodes later in the year. I loved this sense of mystery and interconnectivity, and while I wasn’t so interested in the question of who was pushing on Lindsay’s seat (it was pretty obvious to me that was Tobias), I delighted in waiting to find out, say, why Maeby was seen running out of the hotel at the moment that GOB’s attempt to sabotage Tony Wonder goes awry, who GOB had slept with in the model home, why Maeby was disguised as a guru in India, and lots more. Even better were the times when I thought that I had the full story, only to discover by the end of the season that what I had thought was going on was not at all what was really happening. (It never occurred to me that George Michael wasn’t actually developing FakeBlock software, and the revelation of the app that he and P-Hound really WERE creating was fantastic.) I also suspect that, when I re-watch this season (which I surely will), there will be lots more things in the early episodes that will play a lot differently now that I have seen what comes later. (One example: I read on-line that GOB makes a comment to Michael early in the season about putting his mask back on, something that obviously wouldn’t make any sense until you see Ann’s manipulation of GOB and Tony Wonder later on.)
I was delighted to see so many of the show’s supporting players brought back as well. Carl Weathers, Kitty Sanchez (Judy Greer), Barry Zuckercorn (Henry Winkler), Lucille 2 (Liza Minelli), Annyong, Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller), Gene Parmesan (Martin Mull), Bob Lawblaw (Scott Baio), Prison Warden Stefan Gentles (James Lipton), Steve Holt, Ann Veal, Doctor Fishman, News Anchor John Beard, and lots more. I was really happy, in particular, to see how much great stuff Barry Zuckercorn had to do in the new season, and Ben Stiller’s work as Tony Wonder in the GOB episode “A New Attitude” is without a doubt one of the highlights of the season for me. I never expected Tony Wonder to play such a prominent part in the story, and I can’t believe how invested I was in that story-line, and how fall-off-the-couch hilarious all of his scenes with GOB were. I was a little bummed though that, after seeing her very early in the season, Kitty (Judy Greer) didn’t feature more heavily in the show. I thought we’d get to see a lot more of her interactions with Michael and Maeby at Imagine. Oh well.
The writers also brought back many of the recurring jokes/references from the FOX seasons. Occasionally these felt a little forced, but for the most part I was delighted to see, again, references to the Bluth chicken dance (though we didn’t actually get to see it! Dammit!), the Cornballer, Mister F, Pete Rose sliding into home base as a synonym for having sex, Ann “Her?”, “I think I’ve made a terrible mistake,” the Charlie Brown music over sadness, GOB’s “Forget-Me-Now” pills, Lucille’s delighted squeal when she sees Gene Parmesan, and lots and lots of other familiar jokes and phrases.
For all that season 4 was a little wobbly in places, it was chock full of so many things that I loved, including, but not by any means limited to:
Narrator Ron Howard clearing his throat at the very start of episode 1.
The caption on the “Imagine” sign.
Seth Rogen and Kristin Wiig as a young George Sr. and Lucille.
Michael’s strategizing over the 4-person room-mate vote, and his reaction to his loss.
Every second of GOB’s aborted marriage ceremony with Ann Veal, from seeing Alan Tudyk again as Ann’s father, to GOB’s terribly inappropriate Jesus dance, to the giant “Her?” sign over everyone’s heads.
Tobias’s appearance on “To Entrap a Local Predator.” (“Is there a little girl here all by herself? Daddy needs to get his rocks off!”)
The Grinch Who Stole Christmas origins of Cinco de Quatro.
GOB and Tony Wonder drinking water.
The sex offenders’ reaction to George Michael moving into the neighborhood.
The continued pairing of Ann Veal and GOB. (“So how did you like your egg?” “I told you, you were fine!”)
Tobias’ license plane, and that Lucille calls him that without even knowing about the license plate.
Mad Men’s John Slattery as George Jr.’s new stoned pal.
The Social Network parody featuring George Michael and P-Hound.
GOB’s continued mistreatment of poor Steve Holt.
George Michael on a segway.
The many-martini greeting that Lucille receives upon returning home.
Bob Lawblaw’s Law Bomb.
The blink-and-you’ll-miss-it glimpse we FINALLY got of George Michael’s mother!!
Light drizzle and thunder.
What surprised me the most about Arrested Development season 4 was that it ended on such a cliffhanger! I was expecting most of the dangling plot threads to have been wrapped up by then end of episode 15, but that wasn’t the case at all. Not only is there the mystery of the fate of Lucille 2, but we don’t know what happened with the building of the wall, or GOB’s relationship with Tony Wonder, or whether Congressional candidate Herbert Love survived being struck by Buster’s giant hand, or what happened to Tobias and Marky Bark and the bomb on their boat, or what happened to all of the Fantastic Four performers… and lots more! With the future fate of the show uncertain (Will there be a movie? Will there be a season 5 on Netflix? Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has said he’d be willing to make more, but who knows if that’s really a possibility.) I was surprised to see that, just like Michael did in the final scene we saw of him and his son George Michael (another unresolved story!), Mitch Hurwitz has doubled down on a risky gamble.
If the Cinco de Quatro riot is the last we’ll ever see of Arrested Development, then I am going to be extremely disappointed. But if, however, this new-format season 4 is just the stepping stone to a movie, or to a additional Netflix seasons, then you can count me solidly on board. So while my final evaluation of season 4 will be affected by whether or not this is the end of Arrested Development, I can say that I have quite enjoyed these new episodes. They are limited by their structure, and if you go in expecting the show to be at the level of genius that it originally was, then you are going to be let down. But if you moderate your expectations a bit, I think you’ll find Arrested Development season 4 to be a delightful reunion with these beloved characters, and if it’s not quite as funny or as clever as it once was, it is still pretty damn funny and pretty damn clever.