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.