Family Ties: Season 4 of Arrested Development
I hate to start off any article like this, but, “So, after seven years of waiting, Arrested Development is back and…” Of the plethora of articles regarding Netflix’s revival of Arrested Development, there have been primarily two angles: the “binge watching” angle and the “fan control/pandering” angle, the latter of which permeated discussion when the equally short lived and similarly cult enjoyed Veronica Mars got “Kickstarted” for a feature film. Reeling the two together is, at least with regards to previously existing material, fan expectation. It does not necessarily boil down to whether the wait itself was worth it, but if any of it was worth it. And I can say is, with some bumps down the road notwithstanding, that the fourth season of Arrested Development is mostly a pleasure.
Fox’s short lived sitcom about “a wealthy family and the one son who had to keep them all together” was notable for its critical praise, its unique structure, its pop culture commentary, its deliberately lucid style that often oscillated between straight forward and self aware, and its depressingly low ratings and subsequent early cancellation. With a stellar cast and some of the sharpest writing on a sitcom ever (Tina Fey has said that the show is, something along the lines of “exhaustingly funny”), it quickly gained cult status. We have since learned, with the advent of Twitter, Tumblr, and other online communities of that ilk, that cults are demanding. The fans, who can quote every episode and reenact running gags, balk at the premature cancellation of the series, and thus demanded a film or a revival of some sort. Rumors of a film adaptation or continuation floated around for years (and still continue to do so), but it was finally announced that a new season of the beloved show would return, airing exclusively on Netflix.
Neither the exclusivity of how the show was airing, nor the “all at once drop” of 15 episodes, helped temper people’s expectations or even my expectations. Devotees of the show were up at the early hours of the day (3am EST), ready to see if the show they had rewatched thousands of times was really coming back the way they’d hope.
The answer to that “un-question” is “Sort of”. There are fifteen episodes, each focused on a specific character’s story arc, often catching the audience up on what they have been doing since the show ended in 2006. So, while the show is now all focused from episode to episode on various primary characters from the series, the structure itself is very “Rashomon like”. It all leads up to one event, Cinco de Cuatro. And therein lies one of the primary issues of the new season.
Leading everything up to one event as well as playing catch up with all of the characters inherently creates narrative problems when it isn’t done well. And with a sitcom, the show’s quality is prone to even more problems. Thus, the new Arrested Development is primarily plot focused, with something so intricate that one might consider not binge watching. With the various connections that are made between characters, events, timelines, etc., time is needed to fully digest and perhaps even revisit later (something I will surely do over the summer). This isn’t a bad thing, but the plot focus and the multiple perspectives give a very specific type of pacing that makes it feel as if the jokes were kind of second thought. But this new focus on intricacy creates, what feels to me, like a very different feeling than one we are usually used to when watching Arrested Development. The show was always kind to its plotting, with a nice quick pace, but the focus was more on running gags, both verbal and visual, and tying those jokes into the plotting so it seemed complex and exhausting. The plots themselves were hardly all that complicated, but the show was so well written that you would never realize it. In Season Four, you become very aware of how plot focused the show is and how much effort that’s being put in making it the “revival to end all revivals”. And that self awareness, which is completely different from the usual meta quality the show has, is something that undermines the season’s quality. It’s like have fifteen different starting points all going to the same destination. Sometimes that’s okay, but sometimes it becomes unwieldy and cumbersome.
With the character focused episodes, it provides a rather uneven experience. Character based episodes often mean that not all of the characters will appear in all of the episodes. This is and of itself isn’t a bad thing, but the character focus specifically shows, again, that the writing, as complicated as it is, is all about the destination. The labyrinthine path it takes to get there has bumps in the road, which means that there are a few episodes (perhaps more than a few) which are disappointingly weak. Tone, structure, and jokes. But the great episodes in the fourth season, the ones that remind you why you love the show so much and why you’re such a cultist for it, pepper Season 4’s episode run, thankfully.
The show’s gloriously meta quality seems to have changed ever so slightly. Aided by camera work, “flashbacks”, nods to other shows, self awareness, and the general style of the sitcom, time has allowed the show to soak in some different cultural juices. It feels self aware, but a different self aware, like a very close cousin to the show. New technology, changes in political atmosphere, and even the shift in how sitcoms themselves are structured on television have created something a little new and refreshing, if slightly jarring. Of course, the longer running time and the nods to Netflix as an entity at all certainly are factors of the mild shift in tone, but it doesn’t feel wrong.
One of the interesting things about coming back to a universe you know so well but haven’t been to in a long time, at least in terms of new stories, is that it feels like coming back to a town or your high school for a reunion. I felt this way about Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey: same place I enjoy visiting endlessly on DVD with the trilogy, but it seemed so different seeing the film in theaters. Something similar happens here: you know all the characters, but they’re doing something new and unexpected, and for that I commend show runner Mitch Hurwitz and the writers. All the actors slip into their roles as if they were part of their skin, so that is certainly a joy to see. In its ability to feel like something new, Season 4 succeeds. Sameness and something that would inevitably pander to longtime fans would be just that: pandering. It would be nothing to give the show new life. It would be, in essence, frivolously dull.
However, as aforementioned, the show’s weakness is its focus on plotting and it seemingly second thought jokes. The jokes are, at times, just not that funny. Occasionally they’ll underplay their hand, losing a good beat or punch line, and other times they’ll overplay it, going too far when the horse is dead and the punch line bombs. But, what Season 4 does superbly is utilize the familiar jokes in new ways. As writer Alexander Huls noted, the jokes serve dual purpose: fan service and compounding of “what the show has always done”. One of the greatest things about Arrested Development, aside from its postmodern approach to the sitcom, is how it uses it running gags. They’re not just for ha-has, but the running gags are linked to the characters, not exactly giving them significantly more depth, but giving the characters senses of place and specificity. From “I blue myself” to “I’ve made a huge mistake”; these jokes are indispensably linked to the show and the characters. With the running gags appearing again in Season 4 in new ways, it proves once again that the Bluths aren’t just well written characters, but flawed, funny human beings.
The evolution of the well known characters is certainly interesting: for instance, this is the first time I have not loathed Will Arnett’s G.O.B. Playing out the show in real time has really allowed the characters, and the writers, to flesh out the characters in different ways, allowing them to mature in others, and keeping them in… arrested development. Of the stand out performances, Jessica Walter’s unscrupulous matriarch Lucille Bluth and David Cross’s oblivious and sexually ambiguous Tobias Funke are especially the highlights.
After such a long wait, how does Season 4 size up? Temper and adjust your expectations and you should be fine. It’s not a reproduction of the first three seasons, but something new and fresh. There are some considerable weaknesses, such as the structure and pacing, but Arrested Development is once again a culturally fundamental staple of sitcom history. Binge watching, though, is not totally recommended. With a new, enigmatic narrative, digestion is needed to really enjoy the show. This time around, the Bluths may not have nailed it, but it still remains a satisfactory experience.
P.S. Someone should really do a medical study on what binge watching does to the mind. You know, besides melting it.