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TV Review: ‘Arrested Development’ Season 4 brings laughter and lulls to Netflix

05.26.13 4 years ago 77 Comments

Mike Yarish/Netfix

I skipped the communal madness of marathoning “House of Cards” when it premiered on Netflix earlier this year. I’ve still only seen six or seven episodes, though I like it enough that I’ll certainly finish it this summer. It’s a project I’m happy to undertake.
I also skipped the communal self-abuse of marathoning “Hemlock Grove” when it premiered on Netflix a couple months later. I may finish that one as well some day, but more out of my usual much-discussed completist sensibilities than any enjoyment.
Apparently, however, there was something forcing me to watch 15 episodes of “Arrested Development” Season 4 in only 15 hours. I queued up the first episode at seconds after midnight Pacific Time, as East Coasters on Twitter were still ranting about their inability to read clearly written premiere announcements. Poor East Coasters. I ran through eight episodes before passing out at 5 a.m. and then at 10:30 a.m. I was back to watching for the remaining seven.
That was a lot of “Arrested Development” in a very short period of time.
And it was much, much more “Arrested Development” than anybody had any reason to expect. Netflix initially announced a 10 episode season knowing that they were planning on making at least 13 and then those 13 became 15 episodes when all was said and done. But even saying that Season 4 of “Arrested Development” is 15 episodes is a distinct undersell. When it aired on FOX, “Arrested Development” episodes had a network-standard running time of 22-ish minutes. Netflix doesn’t care. Without any ad-load, it’s the Wild West out there and the shortest of the new episodes is 28 minutes and the longest is 37 minutes. An additional six or seven episodes of material is just squishing out of the sides of what’s here, like the melted filling of an ice cream sandwich.
That was a lot of “Arrested Development” in a very short period of time.
One of the major causes of American obesity is, of course, and Netflix”s original programming has become like the Las Vegas buffet of entertainment options, and not the cheap, skuzzy buffets that you might get at the end of The Strip. I’m talking about the buffet at The Wynn or the Beluga, where you’re paying $40-ish and the dining experience becomes one of simultaneous gustatory delight and personal recklessness. Yes, you *could* just concentrate on the top-tier seafood items, do only shrimp and crab legs, and walk out after a quick meal. But that’s not what you’re there for. That’s not what you paid for. You paid for the Pan-Asian station and the pizza station and the prime rib and the dim sum and the seven kinds of pie.  You paid for the sensation of disgusting satiation. You paid not for the individual quality or merit of anything that you ate, but for the totality of an experience in which the availability of excess supersedes the illusion of free choice. 
I’m reasonably sure that on a level of intellectual appreciation, Netflix would do more honor to high quality shows like “House of Cards” and “Arrested Development” by parceling out the distribution. Let people digest each morsel, contemplate each idea. Drag viewers along for several weeks, even if not for the months that network shows require.
“That network shows require.” Netflix doesn’t want to be thought to be playing by network rules. While networks have been forced to provide more choice — OnDemand, iTunes, online streaming, DVD releases, etc — over the years, Netflix is all choice. Nobody’s forcing you to watch any particular way. You might get pulled into marathoning because you’re loving the show or because you’re a sheep, but that’s on you. And my very different approach to “House of Cards” and “Hemlock Grove” and “Arrested Development”  proves, at least somewhat, that the freedom isn’t an illusion. If you don’t care about the Internet ruining things for you, you can take six months to watch one show. Or you can do it in one or two breathless spurts. 
I don’t think “House of Cards” has suffered from my delays and I really can’t tell you if “Arrested Development” benefitted from my haste. 
Shrug. 
In its three years on FOX, I loved “Arrested Development.” In its 15 episodes on Netflix, I found myself frustrated by the wide variation of my response. Attempting to give the whole season a grade is pure folly. Out of 15 episodes, there are four or five episodes I’d put in the “A” range. There were two or three episodes I’d put in the “C” range. And the majority of the episodes were variably uneven, hardly devoid of brilliance and the sort of hilarity that most currently running shows can’t even approach, but usually diluted to an infuriating degree by the structure and lack of structure of the endeavor. 
For “Arrested Development” creator Mitch Hurwitz and his talented team of writers, Season 4 rises and falls on that unusual pairing of self-imposed structure and self-denied limitations. At times, the 15 episodes work much better than you’d imagine they possibly could and at times they stumble on entirely avoidable obstacles.
More after the break. And yes, I already know that this is a rambling, loose, poorly edited review in which I’m going to complain about “Arrested Development” Season 4 being rambling, loose and poorly edited. Like Mitch Hurwitz, I am a victim of the freedom of the Internet. 
“Arrested Development” Season 4 was always slightly hamstrung. Hurwitz was determined to fill in the gaps between when we left these characters and the present day, but he was never going to have access to a full cast of stars who all had busy schedules with a variety of regular and recurring TV roles elsewhere, as well as movie parts and theater parts and all manner of additional duties. 
That’s how we ended up with a structure in which each episode mostly has a single point-of-view character and we see how that character’s live has played out, while also intersecting with the different members of the Bluth family. Part of the dizzying mastery of the show’s initial run was the ability to integrate most or all of the ensemble into every episode, interweaving characters with a dexterity that was sometimes astounding. Here, Hurwitz and co-director Troy Miller are working with time and space, making a puzzle that is no less ambitious as it skips around years and locations, often with very limited signposts and, initially, very few explanations. 
“Arrested Development” has always had a game-like aspect for fans. Other than “The Simpsons,” it’s possible that no show has ever been as confident in its audience’s ability to retain information and just hold onto it, storing a set-up in the deep recesses of the brain for weeks or months just waiting for an eventual payoff, or returning to beloved recurring jokes with clockwork precision. The Season 4 model relies heavily on a highly trained fanbase. Hurwitz and the writers know that if a number of sequences are set-up in the first episode, viewers aren’t just watching what’s happening in the foreground. Yes, we’re paying attention to the foreground at a harbor festival or in a police station, but we’re also noticing in Lindsay and Tobias appear to be fighting in the background, if there’s a loud cough, if a reclining airplane seat crushes an unseen passenger, if a familiar automobile hastily zips by. 
The game is much more important than the narrative or the character growth in “Arrested Development” Season 4 and, in this way, marathon viewing is ideal. The various stories, which I won’t spoil, are only limitedly engaging. A surprising amount of the season is spent on legal wrangling, whether it’s the securing of life-story rights for a movie, all matter of trademark and name rights, ownership rights in a new Internet venture, Maritime law or land rights in a border dispute. Because I have a somewhat misspelled connection to a newly introduced legal force this season, I was tolerant of much of what was happening without investing in any deep way. It’s OK that I wasn’t sucked into the plot of the new “Arrested Development” episodes, because the show was often marvel assemblages of moments with exactly enough thread to tie everything together every 22 minutes.
In this case, though, somebody took five or six stories that could have been told in 22 minutes, or at least in 66 or 88 minutes, and deconstructed it down to 15 episodes of component parts. There’s nowhere near enough plot to justify that. Instead of plot, Hurwitz and the writers string viewers along with little mysteries and they pay off reasonably well, leading right up to a finale that’s more of a prelude to the long-discussed “Arrested Development” movie than a conclusion to a season of TV. After 15 episodes, there’s almost no satisfaction of a journey fully realized and if I thought this were the last we’d be seeing of the Bluths, I’d probably be actively angry. Instead, I think a movie studio will notice the pent-up enthusiasm that spilled forth on Saturday night and they’ll figure that if the budget for a feature is kept on a reasonable scale, there’s be no way not to get a small, but tidy profit in no time.
When I praised the show’s ability to dance between characters and storylines in its original incarnation, I should add that you never really felt like “Arrested Development” was a show that came easily, but the talented creative team made it look smooth and effortless. The Netflix episodes are herky-jerky and awkward. There are disorienting directing and editing choices and I’m assuming weren’t choices at all, but the practical reality of the show’s production necessities. The amount of repetition of plot and character details to keep audiences in the look is pretty exhausting and as clever as Ron Howard’s voiceover narration may be, much more than in the original series, I felt like it was being used her to finesse over plotholes or to make sure that viewers were able to keep track of the moving pieces. For a show that is, as I’ve said, very conscious of the intelligence of its audience, this becomes jarring. 
You sense Hurwitz and his team maybe aren’t sure how well everything comes together other than the dozens of interlocking mysteries that form the spine of the narrative, but not its body. Yes, the pieces go together, but there’s a flabbiness to the storytelling that isn’t “Arrested Development” at its very purest. It isn’t just the three or four minutes of repetition that could have been trimmed from every episode. There’s there in the jokes and there are even some jokes that don’t play exactly right. A perfect “Arrested Development” episode is and was like a Spartan warrior — perfectly molded for only one form and only one purpose, with zero percent body fat. 
[More on Page 2…]

Here, if you don’t love certain characters, whole episodes become body fat.  Linguistically speaking, George and George-Michael Bluth were the nouns and verbs of the original series. The cast was then made up of a lot of adjectives and adverbs and creative punctuation and other rhetorical flourishes. Most great ensembles function this way. A great ensemble is a great sentence. “Arrested Development” Season 4 is a disambiguated sentence. Some episodes are really simple, even if the noun and verb are well chosen. Some episodes are strangely flowery and impressionistic, almost like Henry Miller or beat poetry. And some episodes are just meaningless nonsense, 35 minutes periods, question marks and dashes. And I guess a lot comes down to your appreciation for different supporting characters.
You might notice that some people have been talking about how the show improves as it progresses. I suspect that’s slightly true, but I think it’s even more true that two of the first six episodes are George Senior’s story, while you have to wait for the second half of the season to get nearly enough time with Gob, George-Michael, Maeby and Buster. 
I like Jeffrey Tambor and I like George Bluth. I don’t need 33 minutes of George Bluth, even if you also bring twin brother Oscar into play. If you did a chart of audience viewing excitement, I’m reasonably sure it would start high — the first episode is Michael-centric, but brings most of the characters together — dips with the first George episode, rises again with another Michael episode at Episode 4 and then craters with a second George episode in Episode 6. It’s not that I’d say George isn’t entitled to be the focus of a A-story, but he can’t be the focus of an A-story in episodes without a strong B, C and D stories. Michael can be. That’s just the way those characters happen to work. Lindsay, it turns out, cannot be the focus of a A-story in a single-narrative episode, especially not one that runs an absurd 37 minutes. Gob, however, can be. George-Michael can be. I don’t think Buster could have been the focus of more than one episode, but as a change-of-pace that doesn’t come until Episode 14, I thought the loopy absurdity of his episode was a welcome change-of-pace. I felt the same way about Maeby, who is so underserved through the majority of the season that Episode 12 succeeded in a way that it might not have if it had been earlier in the season. For reasons I can’t quite explain, the two Tobias-centric episodes were among the better constructed episodes in the season and they took a character who I wouldn’t have guessed could sustain two full episodes and made him work in interesting ways. [Much credit is due to Maria Bamford, who is terrific in the Tobias episodes and while she doesn’t ground Tobias’ outlandishness, her different kind of flair balances what David Cross is doing.]
It’s nice to learn which characters can and cannot sustain 30+ minutes in the spotlight, but even in the very best episodes, you don’t forget that something is lost. A great ensemble isn’t a great ensemble simply because you happen to have assembled a tremendous cast. An great ensemble works because of the interactions both as smaller component pieces but also, ideally, in larger groups as well. The new “Arrested Development” has entirely eliminated the pleasures of its larger ensemble and mostly limited the pleasures of the best groupings within that ensemble. Because all of the characters only exist in these dozen intermeshed backdrops, the chances for different small pairings and groupings are limited and even the best scenes end up being tantalizing. Yes, Michael and George-Michael get lots of time together and Buster spends plenty of time with Lucille, but if you happen to decide that you find George-Michael and Gob hilarious together, don’t get invested because they have one great scene over 15 episodes. So much of the fun of the show is the entertainment from watching four or five characters from the core cast going at it. That pleasure just isn’t possible in this set-up. It’s rare that more than two or three main characters are interacting.
Because of the variable availability of the core cast, there’s a lot of weight that’s being put on guest stars, some of whom are probably OK to spoil, but many of whom I’ll let you wait to discover yourself. 
I was surprised by how big a role Liza Minelli’s Lucille 2 seemed to play in the main arc of the season and, if I’m being honest, I wasn’t entirely pleased. It’s a one or two joke character who pops up too frequently without adding humor in these new episodes. I kept waiting for more value from folks like Mary Lynn Rajskub and John Slattery, who are trapped trying to bring mirth to George plotlines. Playing a thinly veiled version of Herman Cain, Terry Crews is another actor trapped in too many of the duller plotlines, while several of the biggest names popping up for cameos must have seemed like funny ideas on paper, but not so much in execution.
Other than the previously mentioned Bamford, my favorite of the new additions is probably Isla Fisher, who plays a key romantic foil and gets several chances to actually be funny in addition to being adorable. Ron Howard plays Ron Howard with self-effacing aplomb and you’ll never hear me complaining about “Arrested Development” favorites like Henry Winkler or Carl Weathers or Judy Greer or, particularly, the excellent Mae Whitman. LA-based viewers may be very pleased with the amount of John Beard-related humor, but I can’t speak for anybody else.
[Much of the casting boils down to “What Does Mitch Hurwitz Watch On TV?” so the opening episode features the core cast of “Workaholics,” later episodes include a large percentage of the cast of “Outsourced” and a later episode includes a distracting number of supporting players from “The Office.” Everybody loves “Arrested Development,” so it isn’t surprisingly that Hurwitz got pretty much anybody he wanted.]
There are episodes of the new “Arrested Development” season that are pretty much the funniest thing to air in the past calendar year, equaling or surpassing the home stretch of “30 Rock” or the highest points of the “Parks and Recreation” season. If Hollywood parody makes you laugh, “The B. Team” and “Colony Collapse” have an outstanding punchline rate and are reminders of how good Jason Bateman and Will Arnett are. Michael Cera’s awkward-yet-impeccable timing has a great showcase in “It Gets Better” and Tony Hale executes the goofiness of “Off the Hook” confidently. 
But there are, as I’ve said, duds. Big duds. “Arrested Development” thrives on rewatchability and the advantage of the deep ensemble has always been that even if you didn’t like what was happening in one storyline, you could find other things to laugh at. With this structure, I’m pretty sure that “Borderline Personalities,” “Double Crossers” and “Red Hairing” are among episodes I won’t ever feel like seeing again.
The lack of closure by the fifteenth episode is a problem if you’re looking for an “Arrested Development” that hits the show’s Emmy-winning heights. Many of the “lessons” and “destinations” for these characters are being held for a movie or a fifth season or some future Bluth adventures, so when Episode 15 finishes and the Netflix menu takes you back around to the pilot, the moment is a little too hollow for me. But if you don’t expect full unity and you don’t expect the stealthy-yet-effective soul that always lurked behind the show’s dark, dark heart, these 15 episodes deliver many laughs. 
For many of the episodes in this run, my B+ grade feels much too low. For several episodes, it feels way too high. “Arrested Development” was always going to be going against hefty expectations and those expectations were only amplified by the Netflix deluge. 
That was a lot of “Arrested Development” in a very short period of time and the result was both exhilarating and a wee bit disappointing.
What’d you think? And apologies for typos. I didn”t sleep much.

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