‘Arrested Development’ Is Back… But I Am Still Thirsty

It has taken a few days, but I have now entered into the acceptance phase of my grief over the fourth season of Arrested Development. There is so much wrong with the new straight-to-Netflix 15 episodes that it’s hard to remember how this seemed like such a good idea only a week ago (and for years prior). In the run up to the all-at-once release of the episodes on May 26 at 3.00am EST, there was much debate about how to watch the episodes. Should viewers watch them in order, out of order, all at once, one a time with some breaks in the middle, etc.? I presently find myself asking a different question: should these episodes even be viewed them at all? The existential question as to whether this season should have ever been attempted is important, but first let’s gets to why the new season is such a disaster.

For one, the feel of the show is completely different from its former self. Jason Bateman’s Michael Bluth was always the lead in the first three seasons and for good reason. He was the dependable good guy who, despite his justified inclination to leave his selfish family behind, always subverted his own happiness for the good of the comically self-absorbed people he felt obligated to protect. Michael tied the bizarre strands of the show together and provided the audience a reliable source through which to experience the funny, but awful things that the people he loved did to each other and to him.

Now, Michael is simply one ninth of a cast that essentially gets equal time. Furthermore, his character is almost altogether unrecognizable, and not in a way that shows evolution or character growth in the time away. Michael is now just as self-absorbed and jerky as the rest of his family. He’s no longer a good guy of any sorts, just another one of many all-too-indistinguishable scoundrels. As a viewer, this has the feeling of leaving you untethered and without a rooting interest anymore. Sure his son, Michael Cera’s George Michael, is still kind of a good guy, but his character has neither the gravitas nor the storyline to provide the ballast that Michael once did.

It’s a problem that was likely predictable all along, had the show’s rabid fan base not been so overly eager to see something new. Each episode has a “star”, a focus on whom all the action centers. Michael has two such episodes, where he should have fifteen. The rest of the characters have at least one and at most two starring turns as well. The tangible effect fractures the Bluth family characters in such a way as to make them mere bystanders in one another’s stories when not in the center of the plot. In essence, the massaging of the script around the busy lives of the now more-famous-in-real-life cast was a very Hollywood solution to a show that once rebelled against Hollywood conventions.

The result is a show that heavily relies on the goodwill of its past for laughs where few exist on their own merit. Ron Howard’s narration felt more like a crutch necessary to hold together an uninteresting plot than the funny aside that it originated as. Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig fall flat as younger versions of Bluth parents George and Lucille. The episodes wind and meander and sort of claim to fit together by the end of number fifteen, although what that resolution actually brings about is nebulous. It’s Arrested Development without a net in the sense that the episodes can be as short or as long as writer and creator Mitch Hurwitz wants them to be, yet it’s inherently constrained by the inability to use the characters as much or as little as they ought to be used due to their unavailability.

What was always subversive and exciting about Arrested Development was its ability to be so offbeat, so irreverent, and so clever within the confines of a 22-minute block of network TV. It colored almost exclusively outside the lines while appearing to exist entirely within them. These episodes are too long and they come off as bloated instead of convention flouting. Not one is shorter than 30 minutes and some are as long as 38 minutes. Nothing would have been more subversive than sticking to the 22-minute format for absolutely no reason. Constraints are terrible things right up until the moment when you can’t fill the entire space provided to you. When Arrested Development was at its best, its episodes brimmed with so much laughter, so much weirdness that second and even third viewings often revealed subtleties that were far more hilarious than the obvious payoffs. Callbacks and inside jokes bonded viewers to the series and rewarded them with far more humor available on any other sitcom. Now, the callbacks too oftenare the payoff and they come on with the subtlety of a G.O.B. magic act.

But maybe this was a no-win gambit from the start. When discussing the fourth season I found myself lamenting the absence of certain callbacks and questioning the use of others. No hot cops, but more “blue myself” jokes? Where was the chicken dance? Why am I like every other nerdy fanboy questioning the creative decisions of the very people who delivered such a great show out of thin air a decade ago? Once fans of the show have overcome their denial that the fourth season was actually any good, I imagine similar grievances in various forms gaining traction.

It’s all just quibbling of course. The show isn’t suddenly not very good because the writers ignored some obvious plot lines or low-hanging comic fruit. The existential question regarding whether the fourth season should have ever been made is inevitable in the wake of this wanting feeling viewers are bound to have. Even if it doesn’t measure up to what Hurwitz and his company of misfits accomplished a decade ago, isn’t it better to watch new Arrested Development episodes than any of the other sitcoms on TV? Isn’t it at least nice to have something instead of nothing? The answer to both questions is “No”.

Fans of Arrested Development have never, are not, and never will be viewers of Two and a Half Men and shows of its ilk, so to compare the two is folly. It’s hardly an even comparison on its face since the format of the fourth season is so far removed from present-day network sitcoms, but Arrested Development never purported to exist in the same world as those kinds of shows in the first place. The only comparison that matters is whether these 15 episodes measure up to the lofty groundwork laid by the 53 ones prior.

It was always a high standard, perhaps impossibly high, but it was a standard that the new season never even approached. Reunions (and that is what this season really is at its essence) are always disappointing. High school wasn’t that great for anybody, but it’s nice to think about being young and full of dreams. Invariably, the actual confrontation of those memories in the flesh is always less than satisfying and usually sad. If these people look so old, what the hell do I really look like? The tendency of the human mind to idealize, to forget the bad and remember the good, and then remember the good as being even better, is what galvanized fans of Arrested Development far more than the show ever did when it was actually on the air.

Whether fans of the show felt aggrieved or not, Arrested Development came to an end of sorts at the conclusion of Season three. Even though it didn’t matter, secrets were revealed about what had been going on inside the sick world of the Bluths all along. It was funny and it fit within the broader narrative of the show’s constant struggles to circumvent censors and dumb studio execs to stay on the air. It felt like an ending and, it ended.

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I never watched Freaks and Geeks when it originally aired. I never had to put up with the fits and starts and eventual dumping of its unaired content like trash all at once on some non-descript night and time by NBC. In subsequent years I read about it and heard people speak of it fondly, disbelieving how a good show full of so much talent both in front of and behind the camera couldn’t stay on the air for more than one season. I finally watched its only 18-episode season and loved it for what it was, an 18-hour story that could have kept going, but didn’t. The characters had far more life to live, more high school to experience, more awkward, sad and sweet stories that would have formed the people they would become as adults. As a story however, Freaks and Geeks is perfect. Like Arrested Development, its content mirrored its existence. These are shows about being unloved and adrift in the world. They aren’t meant to last very long and they exist(ed) perfectly in their abbreviation.

It’s hard to admit, but the fourth season of Arrested Development ruined this aesthetic. It’s now imperfect. It forever exists in two parts — Before Netflix and After Netflix — and it is unlikely many viewers will ever prefer the latter or even believe that its content exists in the same universe as the first three seasons. There will probably be a movie and perhaps that will redeem this half-revived project, but I doubt it. Sadly, someone drew a mustache on the Mona Lisa.