The cast of Arrested Development

If you’d told me a couple of years ago that I’d be sitting here at 5:30am having finished a new season of Arrested Development, I likely wouldn’t have believed you. It’s somewhat surreal, really, to think that this show could rise out of the mountainous ash-pile of lamented cancellation. It’s fitting, then, that the fourth season premiere is entitled “Flight of the Phoenix” — the meaning of which I shouldn’t have to spell out to fans of the show.

Firstly, a caveat of sorts: I watched the entire season within 12 hours of its release, so my reaction to it here is an initial one. As those who have seen the show will know, part of its commensurate charm is its heavily self-referential nature with running jokes and callbacks dotting each episode. Watching it all at once helps one to catch these, but it also wears on one’s patience. I will not be revealing any key plot details if I can help it, though I will be talking about the characters and about my reaction to the ending but not in any explicit way, so only read on if this won’t bother you. As to how I’ve seen it already: you should “something search” that for yourself.

I feel like my reaction to it is quite reasoned, however, and am confident that this review will provide a relatively good guide as to what to expect if you haven’t had a chance to watch any yet. So: the season no one could’ve predicted. Here we go.

When we last saw the Bluths, they were on the Queen Mary. Michael (Jason Bateman) and George-Michael (Michael Cera) were sailing off into the sunset with George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) as a stowaway; Lucille (Jessica Walter) was trying to evade the approaching SEC by commandeering the ocean liner, with Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) beating up Gob (Will Arnett) who had made a pass at her after learning that she was adopted; Gob had been dating Ann (Mae Whitman), ex-girlfriend of George-Michael, who himself was confused by his recent sexual encounter with Maeby (Alia Shawkat), who was not his cousin after all. Buster (Tony Hale) was confronting his fears of the ocean and loose seals after falling overboard, and Tobias (David Cross) had booked hot sailors as entertainment aboard the Queen Mary.

Given the seven years between “Development Arrested” and now, it’s natural that the series would jump forward in time to figure out what the Bluths had been doing for all those years. After a shaky start in the first three episodes, the season hits its stride in the fourth. This is in large part due to the unusual structure of the episodes and the season — each episode centres on one character at a time, with the others drifting in and out as the story requires. It’s an interesting story-telling choice, but it doesn’t entirely pay off.

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For some time, series creator Mitchell Hurwitz advocated that the season would be watchable in any order at all. It’s clear in the way the episodes have been written that this case greatly influenced the shape of the episodes, especially given Hurwitz’s recent amendment that the episodes do need to be watched in order. Where it works like gangbusters for the middle batch of episodes, the first three and last three have much more notable issues.

Part of the problem is that there is a metric ton of exposition necessary early on to bring new viewers up to speed and allow for the nature of the story to become apparent. The first episode centres, predictably on Michael, with the credits intoning, “It’s Michael’s Arrested Development.” Much of the first three episodes is dedicated to setting up the vast, intricate plot that is to unfold in subsequent episodes, and naturally, this makes them suffer comedically.

That’s not to say the show has ceased to be funny. But—and here I make my wariness of the Netflix model clear again — part of what the Fox-era so stellar was the sheer density of plot and the masterful way it utilised such an expansive cast. Not only that, but in 22 minute episodes, the jokes came so thick and fast that it led to the immense rewatchability we know today. On Netflix, however, no such restraints are placed on the episodes. The shortest episode clocks 27 minutes, and most run well past 30 minutes over the course of the season. On one hand, it’s more of the Bluths, but on the other, it kind of flies in the face of what made the show so great.

Because of this, the pacing often feels off, the stellar editing rhythms that were the lifeblood of the original series are sometimes missing, and suddenly you’re checking the time to figure out when this George-Michael-centric episode is going to end. Not all of the characters lend themselves to spotlight episode in this way, and the series does fold in the larger story featuring the rest of the cast (plus myriad guest stars) which does keep proceedings feeling light. But because of the wildly varying schedules of the actors, very rarely are the cast all in the same room. And that’s a big problem.

Not only do some characters not give themselves over to episode composed solely of A-stories, but there are never B-stories to help keep things pithy. The dryness of characters like George Sr. and the aforementioned George-Michael inevitably pale in comparison, not just because their episodes very much drive the plot of the first and second halves of the season respectively. Where this works quite well in the first ten episodes, it hamstrings the fire-rate of jokes in the last five. It’s also strange to watch these fairly loose episodes when a series which borrows so much from the Arrested style, Archer, has been knocking it out of the park for four seasons by doing exactly what these episodes don’t do in a cable network setting.

David Cross and Portia de Rossi in Arrested Development

The middle stretch, as I mentioned earlier, is mostly on par with episodes from the original run. Put this down, largely, to where the structure truly works, with each episode — focusing on the likes of Lindsay, Tobias, Gob, Lucille, Maeby — is packed full of absurdity and hilarity. This is, in part, because they are the characters most given over to funny; they can exist as smaller elements in the larger storyline while having wonderfully silly ones of their own. And the way the series shows how each of these characters came to be at one location, with all the ducking and weaving long the way, is wonderful to watch.

One of the highlight episodes, it must be said, is Maeby’s “Señoritis”, which functions so well because Maeby is likely the most underrated character in Arrested. She is at once one of the more complex and funny characters, with her dryness and strange career providing for hilarious set-ups, and her treatment at the hands of her parents deeply sad and tragic. So too Buster’s episode, who is still a strange and unexplored enough character to make half an hour about his past seven years very funny and revealing.

If there’s a thematic punch to the season, it’s evident in the last four episodes, focusing on Maeby, George-Michael, and Buster; the babies of the family. It suddenly becomes evident that the whole series has been watching these characters start to create Bluth-level messes of their own, to essentially turn into their parents, rather than simply be party to the nuttiness of the others. This actually provides an odd level of tragedy to proceedings at the end, and subsequently much of the air gets sucked out of George-Michael’s episodes.

Fans will be delighted to know that many beloved characters return, from Barry Zuckerkorn (an ever fantastic Henry Winkler) to Lucille Austero (Liza Minelli) to Ben Stiller (Tony Wonder), as well as a variety of new guest stars, most enjoyable among which include Maria Bamford and John Slattery (there are also those who unsurprisingly swing and miss entirely, like the principals of Workaholics). The callback humour is still there, of course, most potently between episodes four and twelve, and while the story is dull at times, when it becomes clear how complexly most of it is woven together it can be quite engrossing.

Perennially underrated: Alia Shawkat plays Maeby Fünke in Arrested Development

But: the ending. Oh, the ending. Obviously I won’t mention specifics, but it must be mentioned as it feels like the aspect most crippled by the one-character-an-episode conceit. It’s clear that the people in charge expect more Arrested to come; the ending is incredibly open by comparison to previous season finales. But with the last three episodes almost entirely excluding many of the characters, there’s little sense of an ending to even just the story of this season. If a movie comes next, as it seems the most logical next step, or another season, one can only hope the actors’ availabilities will be beholden to a more properly unified storyline.

With the season already breaking viewer records on Netflix, and the hype apparent to any studio that might show interest, I’m almost certain we’ll see more of the Bluths sometime in the future. But given how difficult it was to get them all together last time, one has to wonder how long we’ll have to wait. This makes the finale that much more difficult to stomach. But given that most of us never thought we’d get anything more, it’s pretty great to see these characters and their shared insanity again.

So ultimately, was the Save Our Bluths campaign a success? Mostly yes, I believe. While there are lulls and mistakes along the way which could’ve been remedied by tighter editorial control and less of a lackadaisical attitude from the overseers (Netflix’s hands-off approach feels like one which will never be conducive to sitcom success, which arguably thrives under the pressure of running time), this feels like about as much as we could ever have hoped for, as well as a vague necessity.

In order to create a new status quo for the family, the show had to drag them all to the same place again. It’s almost inherent that this return would be somewhat flawed, at least by comparison, but in another universe there’s a season four where the show follows its original path more closely and turns out a tighter, more-accomplished season as a result. But we get what we get, and what we got is pretty good. As I sat waiting for the first episode to pop up on Netflix, a smile slowly spread across my face — this show was really coming back! — and it remained there for most of the season. In the end, I can’t help but think that’s enough.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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