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Arrested Development – The Fourth Season

Cast of Arrested Development                                                                Netflix
     When it became clear in 2006 that Fox was going to burn off the last four episodes of Arrested Development‘s third season in direct opposition with the Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony on NBC, fans were understandably outraged.  The comedy was never a big hit with the mainstream audience, though with running gags that required the viewer to watch every episode to understand and an intricate, intelligent plotline running throughout, it could be argued that mainstream America was never going to catch on to the show.  The show developed a cult following of loyal viewers who would watch the show live even if it aired against the Super Bowl.  This rabid fanbase gradually grew bigger and stronger after the show’s cancellation through DVD sales in addition to general word-of-mouth.  Most agreed that the show was canceled too soon.  The show’s writers and directors especially agreed, as seen in the epilogue of the presumed final episode, with the show’s narrator Ron Howard appearing onscreen for a bit of meta-commentary: “I don’t see it as a series. Maybe a movie.”  

    With the Internet fanbase continuing to grow for the show and excitement over increasing rumors that a movie was being written, Arrested Development had become more of a mainstream success than it ever was in its original airings.  When Netflix announced in 2012 that they would be streaming a full season of new episodes of the show, fans were ecstatic beyond belief.  I’ll admit, I was one of them.  Who wouldn’t want to see one of the best comedy ensembles of all time in addition to some of the most clever writing television has ever seen come back to tell another season’s worth of stories?  As production went along, series creator Mitchell Hurwitz announced that the structure of the episodes would be different from what the audience is used to from the show.  The series’ first three seasons were centered around Michael Bluth and his wealthy, eccentric family, with shifting focus within each episode.  With this new season, however, Hurwitz and company had to accommodate for the actors’ busy schedules and chose to have each episode focus on one character, limiting the screentime for the others.  For instance, the first episode is a Michael-centric episode but George Michael is the only other character to appear for longer than two minutes.  Despite a certain trepidation, I and many fans were excited for Sunday, May 26 when all 15 episodes of Arrested Development – Season 4 were released on Netflix Watch Instantly.  Having seen all 15 episodes now, I can’t help but feel conflicted, not only about the quality of the episodes themselves but about the writers’ intentions for this season.
     Much of what made Arrested Development one of, if not the best comedy of the decade was through the characters themselves.  Sure, some characters had more screentime than others, but a character like Maeby was no less integral to an episode’s storyline than a character like Gob.  The show was able to weave each of its nine characters into each episode’s plot so seamlessly within the required 22 minutes that it’s incredible how the show never burst at the seams.  One of the biggest fundamental problems with season 4, however, is that the structure that made Arrested Development so great has been replaced by a “centric” style format that doesn’t befit the show.  Hurwitz wasn’t able to get Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter together long enough to film in the same style that the show is used to.  As a result, the family is only onscreen together for two or three scenes over the course of the entire season.  Therefore, characters usually only share episodes with one or two others.  Sometimes it works in the ways you think it would work.  Jason Bateman (Michael) and Will Arnett (Gob) are able to lead their episodes with relative ease, as they often did in the show’s original run.   For others, like Alia Shawkat (Maeby) and Tony Hale (Buster), the episodes surprisingly work well if only because they present new perspectives we’re not used to seeing.  Unfortunately it is when Jeffrey Tambor (George) and Portia de Rossi (Lindsay) get not one but two centric episodes that reveals largely laugh-less episodes that actually verge on being boring.  
     The problem with George and Lindsay’s episodes, in addition to many of the season’s episodes, is that there’s too much fluff.  With each episode varying in length between 28 minutes and 37 minutes, we are given up to 15 minutes more material than the usual 22-minute Arrested Development episode.  But sometimes less is more.  The original seasons were so tightly constricted by the mandates of the 22-minute episode construct that only the best material was left in each episode.  With this, however, we get a more lax pace, slower joke delivery and padding of storylines that don’t necessarily need padding (Lindsay and Marky Bark’s adventures, for example).  
     With two George episodes and a Lindsay episode front-loaded to the first half of the season, it almost made me question if it really was a good idea to bring this show back, but somehow as it progressed, I found myself getting into the groove of what it was trying to do.  The 13th episode is titled “It Gets Better”, which almost serves as a metaphor for the fourth season itself.  The season essentially boils down to one intricate storyline: the building of a wall on the border of California and Mexico.  Also at stake is the Congressional race between the Bluth company owner Lucille Austero (Liza Minelli) and Herbert Love (Terry Crews), who is clearly a spoof of kooky Tea Party activist Herman Cain.  Throughout these 15 episodes, we get glimpses of how the nine main characters fit into the storyline and how they can never seem to escape each other’s orbits.  This was the concept I most grabbed onto with this season: no matter how hard they may try to escape, each of these characters is a Bluth through and through, even Michael.  They are drawn to each other sometimes beyond coincidence.
     The show, after all, is called Arrested Development for a reason.  Sure, many of the characters actually end up arrested over the course of the series and the Bluth company is involved in the housing development business, but the show’s subtext speaks to a more emotional arrested development.  The Bluths are stuck in the past, doomed to repeat the same foolish mistakes as they always have.  That much is shown in this new season alone.  When we catch up with Maeby, we find that she has repeated her senior year of high school five times.  Tobias cannot help but lead others to believe he’s gay.  Lucille’s acidic personality finally becomes too much for her family and none of them show up to testify on her behalf at her trial.  Most importantly, Michael’s continued neediness with George Michael ultimately leads to his son wanting nothing to do with him.  Buried under all the recurring jokes, the clever puns and the deadpan humor is a genuine tragedy in how these characters cannot develop beyond an infantile selfishness that gets them into trouble more than anything else.  One compliment I can give to these centric-style episodes is how they’re able to show how each and every character insists that they’re right about the way they’re living their life or about how they’re different from their family, but they ultimately prove through their actions that they’re just as screwed up as the rest of them.
     I like that the show’s writers have not veered from the central premise of the show and even though this new experiment was flawed in many ways, I have to give them props for being able to create such a fascinating puzzle in 15 episodes.  A brief glimpse of a character in one episode is later explained in detail in a later episode, and I’m impressed with the way they were able to fit everything together semi-cohesively, despite a certain amount of padding.  With this in mind, however, I don’t think they stuck the landing.  When the final scene of the last episode aired and they cut to credits, I can’t say that I was fully satisfied with the way the central storyline was resolved.  I’ve heard different quotes from Hurwitz that this is intended to be Act One in an epic three-act story and I’ve also heard that this is the precursor to the big Arrested Development movie.  Regardless, the way the series chose to end its comeback season without any confirmation that there will be anything after this was either incredibly ballsy or incredibly stupid.  It’s a climactic moment, sure, and it’s something the series has been leading to for a long time, but to essentially not resolve any character’s arc this season was a very risky move on their part.
    On a lighter note, many of this season’s jokes landed perfectly for me, including “ANUSTART”, the Fakeblock storyline, “And Jeremy Piven” and the Hollywood executives plot.  The series took a decidedly more dramatic approach this time around, but I didn’t mind it since most of these characters are complex enough to warrant some meaty plot developments.  Returning guest stars Liza Minelli, Henry Winkler and Mae Whitman were used to great effect here as were new guests Maria Bamford, Isla Fisher and John Slattery.  The MVP of the main cast, for me, was easily Jessica Walter as Lucille.  Like many of these actors, this is the role she was born to play and I hope she gets special attention at this year’s Emmy Awards.

     I don’t think this fourth season of Arrested Development was ever going to live up to the huge expectations bestowed upon it by its fanbase, and I certainly didn’t expect it to be as good as the first three seasons.  It’s been seven years, after all.  What we received, however, was a flawed but ambitious season of television, for which I have to give Hurwitz and company a certain amount of credit.  It’s definitely not the abomination that many critics are making it out to be as it still has the same Arrested charm, but certain misgivings do prevent it from being a great followup to the original seasons.  Still, I’m happy the show is back.  Perhaps like the Bluths, my development will continue to be arrested through the show’s ups and downs.
Season Grade: B
Season MVP: Jessica Walter
Awards Potential:
Comedy Series
Lead Actor in a Comedy Series: Jason Bateman for “The B. Team”
Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series: Will Arnett for “A New Attitude”
Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series: David Cross for “A New Start”
Supporting Actress in a Comedy Series: Jessica Walter for “Queen B.”
Guest Actor in a Comedy Series: Ben Stiller for “A New Attitude”
Guest Actress in a Comedy Series: Maria Bamford for “Smashed”
Guest Actress in a Comedy Series: Isla Fisher for “The B. Team”
Writing for a Comedy Series: Richard Rosenstock & Dean Lorey for “Queen B.”


One comment on “Arrested Development – The Fourth Season

  1. Arrested Development: Winner of the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy its first year out, Arrested Development is the kind of sitcom that gives you hope for television. It's one of those shows where you can watch over and over and still laugh at every joke.Arrested Development Seasons 1-3 dvd box set follows the fictitious Bluth family, a formerly wealthy and habitually dysfunctional family, and is presented in a continuous format, incorporating handheld camera work, narration, archival photos, and historical footage.

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