Tuned In

The New Arrested Development Is Dark, Uneven and Frustrating. Can We Have Another?

Season 4 has some big payoffs and some big problems. But Mitch Hurwitz's Netflix experiment is more interesting than a movie sequel would probably be

  • Share
  • Read Later
NETFLIX

Episode 7 of the new season of Arrested Development is called “Colony Collapse.” Like most phrases in this wordplay-happy series, it has more than one meaning. It refers to the phenomenon of mass die-offs among bees (I won’t spoil anything as to how that figures in here). It refers to the collapse of a particular character’s entrepreneurial scheme/scam (which I won’t spoil either).

It also seems to refer to the larger theme of this new, experimental season on Netflix and the three seasons that preceded it. Arrested Development is a comedy of entropy; it was always best when things were collapsing, as befit a show created in the time of the Enron and Iraq debacles. So many of its great scenes and stories involve things literally falling apart, shiny facades that cover decay and shoddy workmanship: think of Gob Bluth in front of a “Mission Accomplished” banner declaring a Bluth home “solid as a rock” (say it out loud) just before it goes to pieces.

In the time that AD has been off the air, the rest of the world has been going to hell in new ways — economic, ecological, social — and Season 4 is out to catch the Bluth family up, through seven years of degradations, setbacks, disappointments and legal hassles. A lot of the attention around the show’s Netflix relaunch has focused on the pros and cons of its logistics: the episodes focused on single characters, the binge-tastical interlocking stories. But creator Mitch Hurwitz is also trying something different, or at least taking the show further, simply as a story. In Season 4, AD is a much darker dark comedy than it ever was.

The season’s bleak themes may partly be an outgrowth of its production circumstances, or at least an (un)happy coincidence. Hurwitz had limited access to his cast members, who were all working on other projects, so they could rarely share the same scenes. (Often, he green-screened them together or used doubles. You will get to know the backs of these actors’ heads as never before!) And he wanted the season to catch them up from 2006 to the present.

So he made Season 4 mostly the story of how the Bluths fell apart after Season 3′s climactic showdown with the law on the Queen Mary and how the individual characters have since become as unmoored as that ship. Gob (Will Arnett) lacks a purpose. Buster (Tony Hale) lacks independence (and, still, a hand). Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and Tobias (David Cross) lack love.

And Michael (Jason Bateman) lacks the moral compass (if a conflicted one) he had the first three seasons, having become desperate and a little creepy. The one exception to the decline, maybe, is George-Michael (Michael Cera), the “nice kid” who seems to have bloomed out of his family’s shadow. We find him working on a potentially big privacy-software project in his college dorm — an “antisocial network” (which plays off how often Cera gets mistaken for The Social Network‘s Jesse Eisenberg).

The Bluths were selfish, mistrustful and corrupt, but in their way they were a family. (The show’s long-running thread of great, cringe-y incest humor — the cousin love, the “motherboy” dynamics — always felt like a way of showing that the family loved one another but didn’t know how to do it healthily. That’s still true. Let’s just say the first episode involves roofies.) Now they’re largely free of one another, but freedom is tough: it also means being able to go down wrong paths, make questionable choices, indulge the worst aspects of themselves.

And especially early on, so does the new season. Hurwitz was famously constrained by the network system at Fox, but he made genius of necessity. Restrained by content standards, he wrote a kind of poetry of innuendo. Confined by commercials, he compressed and chiseled episodes into sculptures of diamond. On commercial-free, watch-at-your-own-pace Netflix he’s free — to write incredibly intricate plots, to vary the length of acts, to make episodes over 30 minutes long.

Much of the first part of the season feels like it’s struggling to figure out how to use that freedom. (It also has a ton of exposition to set up.) If you marathoned old AD before watching this, turning on the first episode (focused on a falling-out between Michael and his son) feels like stepping from a briskly air-conditioned room into a rain forest; everything’s heavy, languid, a little oppressive.

Sometimes the disorientation is good, though, and here you can see Hurwitz using the season’s form to set up an elaborate, Lost-like structure of time-jumping. There are curious incidents and images that set up questions: Why does Michael have a black eye? What does “I got my big Yes!” mean? Why does Gob have a giant crucifix hanging out of his car? Also: ostriches? So many ostriches?

You’ll need to wait. It doesn’t get really funny — old-AD funny — until Episode 4, and then on and off until around the midseason mark. In part, this may be the viewer adjusting to the show’s new rhythms (though to me, the early episodes aren’t funnier upon a second watch). In part, it’s that some of the characters who better carry episodes (Gob, Buster, Lucille) aren’t featured early on. And in part it’s that the interlaced story structure starts paying off, as earlier scenes get context and the season develops its own running gags, rather than riffing on fan-pleasing oldies.

So about that structure. Hurwitz, in an interview with me and elsewhere, has described the new season as a “puzzle,” which it is for good and bad. In a way — this is pretentious, but I’ll say it — Arrested Development is a modernist work, like a Cubist painting or Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (whose chapters were also told from varying points of view). That is, it’s interested in how perception affects reality, how seeing the same events from different characters’ vantage points reveals misunderstandings and biases, self-interest and personal flaws.

Season 4 of AD uses this device for some hilarious reveals and also to flesh out character. It can even be affecting. The second Lindsay episode is not nearly the season’s funniest, and it runs an excessive 37 minutes, yet it may be one of the season’s best, because it builds to a genuinely revelatory moment, in which Lindsay discovers that she’s far more her mother’s daughter than she would ever like to admit.

Other times, the season mistakes complication for complexity. Seeing a scene twice and realizing that a major character was in the background the first time is … neat, but not neat enough to use the device so often. Many of the episodes are not too long so much as they’re too slow: the pacing is off, scenes are repeated at too great a length and many moments would land better if a second or two were shaved off in editing, as in the breakneck original series. And — partly because of the extensive backstory, partly because of the limited cast — it uses Ron Howard’s voice-over exhaustively; at times it’s like Arrested Development: The Audiobook.

But I should tell you how much I laughed. A little at first, mostly at reminders of the old days. (David Cross pratfalls, how I missed you!) Then more and more, barking at this new season on its own terms. A review like this is a little unfair, because it’s easier to detail the faults, while the best way to show how well the jokes work — to list them — would spoil them. But the show can still stick a verbal somersault (“My bees are dropping like flies, and I need them to fly like bees!”). And considering the gigantic guest list, the casting is mostly effective rather than stuntlike: standouts include Kristen Wiig as an inspired young Lucille, a disarmingly comic Isla Fisher and Maria Bamford as DeBrie, a recovering addict who gives Tobias’ story surprising poignance.

How good this season is overall depends on what you’re comparing it to. Overall, it stands up well next to any sitcom on air now; a few episodes were meandering slogs, but a few others are among the funniest, best-executed sitcom episodes I’ve seen this season.

But in a couple of years from now, when a fan gets bored and decides to stream some AD on Netflix, is he or she likely to choose this season over 1, 2 or even 3? I doubt it. But I didn’t resent the time I invested in it, and I appreciated the chance to get to discover this new kind of TV season as it unfolded.

Until, maybe, the end, which — no spoilers, again — is neither a cliffhanger nor provides any kind of resolution to any arc. It just stops, with many of the characters at a nadir, in a way that seems not driven by story but aimed at getting us to want, nay, demand, the AD movie that Hurwitz is still determined to make.

And why a movie, exactly? Arrested Development — even if this is not a great season — is a great TV show. Becoming a movie would not elevate it; it certainly wouldn’t give Hurwitz more narrative space than Netflix did. And if the argument is that a movie is the only way to get all the actors at once — and thus the only way to do a “real” AD reunion — then that essentially implies that, if all goes according to plan, the dedicated fans who waited for this Netflix season should find it finally unsatisfying.

At the least, it’s hard to square with Hurwitz’s defensive tweet that critics of the new season are resisting change. If Season 4 is a well-executed example of bold creative change — if it’s great and new and there’s nothing wrong with it — that should obviate the need to tell the story in the movies, a medium over a century old.

I’d say it’s just the opposite: the best way to embrace the real change that this necessity-driven experiment represents is to be honest about how it does and doesn’t work, and God willing, to try it again. I don’t know if Hurwitz and Howard could ever persuade the cast to come back and make another season like this one. (A shorter one, maybe? Movies are two hours long!) But I do believe that Hurwitz has shown — in bits and pieces — that he can tell a great story while dealing with constraints, just as he did under the constraints of Fox.

Things fall apart in Arrested Development — the Bluth family, the American economy and sometimes this adventurous but flawed season of risky storytelling. Which is exactly why, if Hurwitz really wants to resolve the Bluths’ story, I’d rather see him try it on Netflix if at all possible, applying what he learned from the first attempt.

There’s the hint of that idea late in this season, when sometime movie executive Maeby (Alia Shawkat), in a reference to the last scene of Season 3, considers the idea of making the Bluths’ story into a movie and says, “I think movies are dead. Maybe it’s a TV show.” To which I say: Marry me.

21 comments
BrakeFastClub
BrakeFastClub

hated it sorry.  3 stints made it to season 7 and I just hated it.   Bring back the show or be done with it.  Sorry everyone.

GrantAlyson
GrantAlyson

I'm glad it happened. I laughed sporadically and nodded much at the clever layering of plot lines. As for the future... I don't want a movie. As for a 5th season...if they can assemble the whole cast..DEFINITELY. If not... Let it go. Season 4 added something as a one off.. If season 5 was more of the same it would be a crying shame.

iSRS
iSRS

I, like most, thought at first it was slow going, but really enjoyed it. I finished last night, so about 3 episodes a night. I have a trip coming up next week, and plan to rewatch it.

I do hope that this is looked at as a new model. I have long been a believer in letting shows have at least one full season before you decide. Two shows that barely got a chance that I think would have been successful in this model? (both Fox shows, no surprise) 

Reunion and Drive are two examples I can think of that had a season long premise that never got a chance to finish. My opinion? You are making a show with a season long arc. Sign it for the whole season and air them all. That, or don't make them in the first place.

zetetic25
zetetic25

Entropy is no joke. Just ask Boltzmann.

Sal_Paradise
Sal_Paradise like.author.displayName 1 Like

It's not that pretentious to mislabel postmodernism as modernism.  It's pretentious to say "I like their older stuff better" every time your favorite _______ graduates from an underground cult following to well-deserved mainstream success.  And it's just weird to say that you'd prefer to watch your favorite show in shorter installments with more commercial interruption.

Whether necessity mothered this season's innovative narrative structure or not is a moot point.  It's funny, engaging, and interesting for god's sake.  And if you think about it, it's probably a good idea to add some complexity to get us to slow down, talk over, and think about the fifteen episodes we might otherwise mindlessly binge on thanks to Netflix.  "Forget me now"?  Not likely!

Dumpleavy_NOW
Dumpleavy_NOW like.author.displayName 1 Like

Are we not allowed to just say this season was a disappointment?  I feel as though everyone wants to remain faithful to Mitch and co., but I think we can all agree it just isn't the same.  For most people, this mediocrity seems to be ok as long as it involves the Bluths.  But for me, I don't feel like watching a show that is just slightly funnier than other sitcoms out there, which to me are not very good to begin with.  What I want is the old AD back.  If that makes me too demanding, so be it.  Some shows like Breaking Bad and The Wire just never stopped getting better and knew when to call it quits.  I kind of wish AD followed suit.  

Chris_Kw
Chris_Kw

I wish some of the episodes were shorter as well. Not all of them though. The Lindsey ep that was 37 minutes long but actually didn't feel overly long because of the quality. But the George Sr. episodes, uhh, I just wasn't feeling them and they couldn't end fast enough. Most of all, the thing I missed the most was seeing this family together. There were no group chicken dances (COO COO CA CHA!!) in these episodes. Tears.

Chris_Kw
Chris_Kw

I had similar reactions to the season. After the third episode, I thought about sending out a tweet that read, "Now I know what all those die hard Star Wars fans must have felt like as they were watching the Phantom Menace for the first time." I'm happy to say I didn't tweet that. Because this experiment doesn't deserve to be compared to the prequel trilogy. It started to get better around episode 4 and had a few great eps in the middle. I don't know how I feel about that ending yet given that I just watched it a half hour ago. I need a night to sleep on it.

connorratliff
connorratliff

This is a sharp review.  I liked it more than you overall, but I really appreciate how smart and thoughtful this is.  (I'd agree that the negative reviews Hurwitz was referencing in that defensive tweet were totally different in tone, almost too eager to dismiss the new season as an out-and-out "failure," just like the news items gleefully blaming the drop in Netflix stock on AD's bad reviews, as if that's what Wall Street investors care about.)

I do think that a 2-hour movie where Hurwitz has full access to the whole cast and doesn't have to work around so many scheduling conflicts would be quite a satisfying next step.  I liked the way he turned lemons into lemonade with this anthology season, but I think it's a storytelling device that he can only really use once.  I think it's powerful to show how the Bluths fall apart when they are separated from one another, but it sort of demands that we see what happens to bring them back together again in some way. 

I'd love it if we got a full season with the full cast, but if a full cast is only possible in a movie, then I hope Hurwitz sticks with his original plan, which was for "Season Four" to be an anthology series that serves as "Act One" while "Acts Two and Three" are the AD movie. 

Thanks for taking the time to really consider all this stuff rather than dumping out a half-formed opinion on Sunday afternoon.  After all the care and effort that was put into making this ambitious season, it deserves more considered analysis like this.

"The family loved one another but didn’t know how to do it healthily" is one of the most insightful observations I've ever read about AD, and it seems tied in to the recurring phrase in this series that is also the final line uttered at the end of Episode 15.  


Russmac316
Russmac316

I don't think your review is what Mitch was talking about with this tweet, James. If anything you seem to have done your due diligence and submitted a fair review. Some of the critics out there were throwing up pieces slamming them as to why they "failed" after only watching half of the season or cramming 15 episodes in before anyone else could get their review up.


I'd say a majority of the fan base will be happy with this season on the whole...yet we do all really know that this show is best seen as an ensemble and not broken into character-centric episodes. I'd like to see the story played out in whatever format can get them to agree to do that. I don't think the true fans care if it ends up in theatres or on Netflix, we just want to see the conclusion (with everybody together!).

gregplaysdrums
gregplaysdrums

I pretty much completely agree with this review. Thanks!

MarkFraser
MarkFraser

I have to disagree with the modernist comment - if anything it's still very heavily postmodernist because it's self reflexive, it relies on pop culture knowledge and is therefore intertextual, it uses a lot of irony in a playful way. If it were modernist it'd be more like The Wasteland by T.S. Eliot in tone than it is just now; more like an Andy Warhol painting, playful, ironic and intertextual.

On the whole I agree with the rest of the review though. In time I think it'll grow on me.

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator

@MarkFraser There are probably elements of both if I were to make the argument totally seriously; the fragmented timeline too is probably more postmodernist than modernist. I was just writing something about Ulysses so I guess I had modernism on the brain. 

pmmcl
pmmcl

In this, the so-called (not that I'd disagree) "age of the auteur" for television, I think this cluster of episodes will eventually be seen as the first success in breaking the shackles of the normal TV format. Sure, there are other Netflix series and very strong web-based shows that have had success, but none have been so wildly ambitious. Is this "season" as funny as seasons past? From the handful of episodes I've seen, no. In ten years, we may be talking about these episodes in the way we do about The Sopranos currently, in that in changed what we thought could be done in the medium. Even if the experiment had to slightly fail, at least in terms of the laugh factor, its full importance can hardly be measured yet. I've already seen many people who were less than impressed after their first viewing of the series, only to appreciate it much, much more upon revisiting the episodes. This might just be a case of a slow burn. I could be (and likely am) wrong, but I think Mitch & Co deserve the benefit of the doubt here. We owe them that much.

jkrencicki
jkrencicki

Wow! This is by far the best review I have read about AD S4 so far. To me, not having scenes with dialogue between the core characters dooms season 4 out of the gate. The comedy generated in S1-S3 were things Job, Tobias, Lindsey, and Michael talking in the kitchen. Ensemble scenes with gifted actors and brilliant writing made the show special. Now it's brilliant writing (that's a bit indulgent without the network format), and a fractured core. It's still better than a lot of network TV, but it's nowhere nearly as good as the old stuff. 

That happens quite often with art, doesn't it? Time changes some things, and it becomes clear that magic that was in that album, show, or Star Wars movie you loved was used up, they weren't making any more of it. It reminds us how rare it is to have a show as good as we did for those three seasons.    

Reijanrobo
Reijanrobo

This was a fantastic review of an experiment that I think will prove to be successful.

anon76
anon76

I had hoped that 5 days of radio silence meant that you were off in an adderall-fueled AD bender.  Can I read your review without being spoiled?

jponiewozik
jponiewozik moderator like.author.displayName 1 Like

@anon76 Depends what you consider spoiled. It's a review, so there are nouns and names & facts, but I avoided anything I wd consider spoilery (incl all but a few jokes). It's intended to be readable by someone who hasn't seen, but in this day & age I never know what someone will consider a spoiler.

anon76
anon76

@jponiewozik

Thanks James.  Great review, as ever.  Out of curiosity, did you ever discuss with Mitch (or do you know from other sources) how syndication could potentially work with these episodes?  Is that even a possibility, or does Netflix have some sort of exclusivity clause?  I wonder if Hurwitz would be capable of editing these down to broadcast length, assuming that the desire was there.