Directed by: Mitchell Hurwitz and Troy Miller
Starring: Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, David Cross, Jeffery Tambor, Jessica Walter, Ron Howard
Well it’s been seven years since Development Arrested, the last episode of season three of Arrested Development. From the moment the show was canceled there was a clamor from the fans for more Arrested Development whether it meant moving the show to another network, making a movie, or something. As the years went by and the actors, producers and writers moved on to other projects any kind of continuation looked less and less likely despite everyone involved still claiming publicly to be interested. But then something happened. Netflix bought fifteen new episodes.
Of course Netflix producing the new shows meant that instead of having to wait for the debut and then waiting a full week for each following episode, at midnight PDT on May 26th Netflix posted all fifteen new episodes all at once, which means that at 2:00 CDT time on May 26th I was drooling on my laptop keyboard. Around 3:30 I woke up and actually started watching. I can’t say I watched all fifteen episodes in one sitting but before twenty four hours had passed I had managed to watch all fifteen episodes. Now don’t take that in itself as a recommendation, this is something I had waited seven years for and for most of that time I didn’t believe it would ever happen. So I would have hoovered up these new episodes as fast as I could even if they had sucked, and they don’t suck, barely.
Mitchell Hurwitz decided to play with the show format a bit in view of the ability of users to zip though all of the episodes all at once. Instead of telling fifteen stories sequentially each episode focuses on one character, basically giving you one fifteenth of the story from one of the characters perspective. Michael, George Sr., Lindsay, Gob, Tobias, and George Michael all get two episodes while Lucille, Maeby and Buster are only featured in one episode each. Instead of a Rashomon effect though where we really get fifteen different interpretations of reality what Hurwitz and company have done more akin to the wise men sticking their hands into a dark room and molesting an elephant. The viewer is presented with fifteen different views of the same scene. It’s all the same scene but from different angles different elements are visible or not. Off course as you the viewer get a fuller sense of what is actually happening you start to reinterpret the characters actions and motivations. It’s a clever way to tell a story when you have no control of the way that people are going to view it.
While this is all fascinating in its own way it is all sort of beside the point. The big question is whether it’s any good. The short answer is yes. It is good, but Arrested Development is supposed to be great. The first three seasons were fantastic and are still funny and fresh after repeated viewings. After watching the first episode of season four, Flight of the Phoenix, I was actually disappointed. Not like Phantom Menace disappointed but disappointed. The episode at thirty two minutes felt flabby where the Arrested Development I remember was always tight, too tight, almost rushed at times. I keep plugging at it though. Episode thirteen is actually titled It Gets Better but they really should have used that title earlier because it does get better. It takes a couple of passes through this new story for things to start to gel. For you to start to notice the little nods and call backs and in jokes. Those self referential nods are there in the first episodes you just don’t know enough of the story to recognize them. Watching the first episode again after finishing the season is like seeing it again for the first time there are so many little hints at all of the other stuff that is going on. The bad part is that while this is all very interesting in the way that solving a clever puzzle is interesting it’s not very satisfying in a watching a funny TV comedy way. The story is complicated, there are parts of it that don’t make any sense until later material is revealed. There were at least two times I had to backup because I thought I had missed something but it just turned out that the explanation for a piece of action was not revealed until several episodes later. It’s like they traded laughs for over eight hours of Where’s Waldo.
All that being said it is the Bluths and amazingly they are all back. And not just the Bluths, but it seems like every body that had more than two lines in the first three seasons is back for at least one scene. Bob Loblaw, Stan Sitwell, Sally Sitwell, Officers Taylor and Carter, Annyong, Warden Gentles, Gene Parmesan, Andy Richter, Tony Wonder, all three Veals and of course Barry Zuckercorn. There is a smattering of new characters as well and some fun cameos. The story picks up immediacy after Lucille’s ill considered decision to commander the Queen Mary and tries to fill in what all of the Bluths have been up to for the last seven years. Which is probably too much story and one reason the narrative gets so confusing. It is so easy to get confused about what happens when despite the fact, or maybe because of the fact, that you are seeing the basic outline of the story fifteen different times, even when I went back to rewatch a couple of the first episodes again it was still way to easy to lose track of where you are in the overall narrative. For all of my bellyaching though there is plenty that works, everyone slipped back into his or her roles as if they had not taken a seven years hiatus. There is a surprising amount of growth for some of the characters and an expected lack of growth in others and by the time the final moment comes I couldn’t help but whoop for, well not exactly joy, but that last moment was just so perfect it was easy to forgive any short comings. Of course with a week of time to reflect those short comings are looming larger in my thoughts but there is no denying that if season five had been available to watch the moment I finished four I would have been glued to my laptop for several more hours.
What it all comes down to I guess is do you love the Bluths? If you do then you’re going to enjoy season four, warts and all. If you’ve never really been a fan then I have to say I don’t think there is anything in season four that will make you one.