A lot has happened since Arrested Development‘s season 3 came to its climactic, hilarious conclusion. That “last” season was a rapidly escalating jumble of increasingly outlandish storylines, biting digs at the company — Fox — who had already sounded the death knell for the show, and some of the finest televisual begging we will probably ever see. It was immensely brave, enormously funny, and completely unashamed stuff: a meta-narrative-stuffed television show parodying its own demise with pant-wetting hilarity and uncompromising precision. The show came full circle, with the Bluths once again taking to the sea to avoid the whole host of charges levelled against them. It was actually, given the circumstances, one of the most perfect endings that the show could have gotten.
But yes, a lot has happened since then.
We’ve seen the first black president of the United States sworn into office twice; we’ve seen Messrs. Hussain and Bin Laden bumped off; Michael Cera (and Jason Bateman for that matter) has blossomed into a star on the silver screen, not to mention a leading champion for the post-millennial wussy boy (though one could argue George Michael had already sown the seeds of that); we’ve seen the rise of Twitter and Tina Fey and iOS and streaming services. Our solar system lost a planet.
Much has changed. There are TV shows ( and 30 Rock is one of them) whose ratings fell well below Arrested Development‘s, and yet saw their seasonal contracts renewed time and time again. It’s long been said that Mitch Hurwitz’s critical darling emerged before its time, and much of the televisual output from the last seven years has been proof of this, not to mention the swelling cult following that the show developed as it made the transition to DVD boxsets and helped to kickstart (crowdfunding is a new thing too) a culture of binge-watching.
Arrested Development and Netflix appear to be a match made in heaven. So when the news came that the show would be returning not as a movie, as had been rumoured, but as a fifteen-episode series that would debut all at once on a streaming service that costs about as much as a Wetherspoons steak per month.
I ignored Hurwitz’s warning. The show’s creator advised against binge-watching, mainly due to the fact that comedy can be exhausting, particularly rather cerebral comedy. And he was right. But after seven years of waiting, it was difficult not to stuff our eyes full of Bluth goodness.
I’ve chatted to a number of people about the show’s fourth season already, and several have asked if I’d be doing a blog post regarding my reaction to it given my status as a frothing, quote-spouting obsessive, so here it is…
Ludi and I were sat watching the first couple of episodes or so with a certain level of discomfort. What the hell had happened to Michael’s character? Where were the jokes? What was with the rather laborious narration and scenes that seemed interminable?
To be honest, those criticisms are valid throughout all of the fourth season of Arrested Development. Michael is no longer the show’s moral centre, and that throws things off just a little. There aren’t as many fantastic throwaway lines or rapid-fire reactions that emerge from the ensemble (for the simple reason that there is no ensemble). And Mitchell Hurwitz was actually creator, producer, and director, freed from the constraints of FOX’s draconian episode lengths and content guidelines. To be honest, I think that last point is perhaps the biggest: with the Russo brothers and others on hand, this latest season of the smartest comedy show ever made might have been much sharper.
Those criticisms out of the way, however, the fourth season of Arrested Development is amazing. But it’s also very different, and understanding that is crucial to enjoying this return.
Hurwitz, having worked for FOX, is no stranger to making the most of confines and restrictions about which he can do little. But the problem this time around was scheduling: how do you follow up on a masterclass in ensemble comedy without an ensemble?
My good friend Mike put it fantastically when we were chatting about this: Hurwitz crams your brain full of exposition and scene setting in those early scenes. Visual indicators and wholly-missable snippets of speech sit there waiting to be triggered by later episodes that fill in the blanks and give context to everything that came before. He pre-loads our brains with gags and references, and the punchlines are delivered teasingly.
But I’d forgotten how to watch Arrested Development. I’ve seen seasons one through three over thirty times now. I have entire episodes memorised. I can hold conversations with my flatmate that consist entirely of quotes from the show. Yet that has only come through watching and rewatching the show. The first time I saw the pilot episode, I didn’t find it terribly funny. I didn’t get it. It took me a few episodes to get used t the format, to understand what this forward-thinking, incredibly self-referential show was about. Then, with every repeat viewing it got funnier and cleverer and made me feel smarter.
Freed from the constraints of a network, yet hampered by a completely new set of obstacles, season four is a new-yet-familiar beast. It uses Netflix, and the ability to stop, pause, rewind, rewatch immediately to its advantage. The Netflix connection is genius: this couldn’t have happened any other way, and the form that this season takes is far more indicative of the unique narrative opportunities that Netflix can provide rather than the more traditional (but excellent) House of Cards. The show is even more self-aware than it was before, typified in Michael’s story and the presences of Howard and Glazer. The nods towards Michael Cera constantly being mistaken for Jesse Eisenberg in real-life is fantastically captured in the omnishambles that envelopes George Michael and his much more successful alter-ego George Maharis, culminating in a narrative string that wonderfully parodies The Social Network, in which Eisenberg starred. Then there’s Lindsay, and the mysterious case of Portia de Rossi’s altered visage: when the face-blindness gag finally dropped on me, I howled with laughter.
Then the Buster episode arrived. And as much as I laughed in that episode, I felt tugs at my heartstrings too. “People find you odd and alienating,” he was told once in an earlier season. But sat there, in the deserted familial apartment with only himself and a grotesque, handmade doll of his imprisoned mother for company, you kind of felt a swelling of sympathy.
The best, most obviously funny episodes were those from characters whose comedy transcended the ensemble. The exchanges between Will Arnett and Ben Stiller could have been ripped straight out of a College Humor short and it still would have been funny. Gob had the best musical moments to, with excellent use of Simon and Garfunkel only matched by the insanely catch “Getaway”, which he sings to himself, completely oblivious that it’s a song basically telling him to fuck off.
But I’m watching it through again for the third time, and I’m laughing more and more. Could it have been better? Undoubtedly. But I for one am so very glad that it’s back. It’s been seven years, it was never going to be the same show. But once you get over the narrative genius and don’t have to focus your energies on determining the story from the spaghetti-heap of plotlines, the little things become clearer, the quotes start piling up, the jokes reveal themselves more readily. It will never be the same as seasons 1-3, it can’t possibly be, and once you stop hitting yourself in the face with that, you’ll have more fun.
One final note… Mind. Blown: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=2506&dat=19741123&id=NLdbAAAAIBAJ&sjid=r1ENAAAAIBAJ&pg=2979,4929789