End of Season Report – Arrested Development, Season 4

12 Jun

There's Always Money in the Banana Stand

This is a general overview/review of the new season; I’ll probably do at least one or two more AD posts, but we’ll see. I would recommend against reading this unless you’ve completed Season 4.  If you haven’t, get to it, and come back when you have.

I made a decision not to make any serious judgments about the fourth season of Arrested Development before I had watched most, if not all, of it, and I implore you to do the same.  I made this decision because this is an unprecedented television event in several ways.  First, I can’t think of another example of a live action show brought back over a half a decade after it was originally cancelled. Animated programs like Futurama and Family Guy have returned from the dead, but voice work is a lot less arduous and animated programs are cheaper to make.  To reassemble the actors, a particularly large cast for a comedy, along with the writing staff, and the money and distribution outlet to get it done is a truly remarkable achievement. Secondly, it’s being distributed not by a traditional television network, but by Netflix,and  instead of once a week, all at once.  The season is uniquely designed to benefit from such a release, being more one giant 8 or 9 hour episode of Arrested Development than an unrelated series of shorter episodes.  The episodes do make sense by themselves, but not nearly as much sense as they make as part of a whole.  No comedy is as serial or plot-heavy as Arrested Development (Venture Bros. is the only other contender I can think of).  This is more than serial though.  Since each episode focuses on a single character, and the episodes all tread over the same time period through the point of view of different characters, events we saw in the earlier episodes are entirely turned on their heads by what we learn in later episodes.  Even in serial dramas which benefit from multiple viewings, rarely are events in earlier episodes as transformed by knowledge gained several episodes later. The earlier seasons were intricately plotted, but they have nothing on this fourth season, in which each of the nine main characters gets his or her own plots, but run into different members of the family at various points throughout the seven year period over which the season takes place, culminating in a series of events on fictional new Arrested Development holiday Cinco de Cuatro.

The season builds. The first Michael episode is so heavy with exposition that weighs it down at times, as it struggles to reconstruct seven years of plot.  However, it turns out this is going over territory that’s going to be touched on in just about every episode, so it’s worth going through this much narration once.  The episode sometimes feels off and rusty, especially burdened with all the expectations of seven years of anticipation wrapped up in it,  but I think (I haven’t done this yet) I’ll enjoy it a bit more on a second viewing with the knowledge of what’s to come.  Even this initially sub-par episode has moments.  I greatly enjoyed the constant machinations by Michael to construe a four-person vote that would eliminate P-hound, and the frequent references to the votes throughout the episode, including by the guys from Workaholics at the airport.

The reveals that come throughout the season alter our perspective of earlier events in ways that would have been hard to do without this level of freedom and fan dedication; this is Arrested Development writ large.  Most shows rely on the early episodes to keep viewers coming for later episodes.  Arrested Development could count on almost anyone who watched the first episode of the season watching them all.  Because of the Netflix model as well, the barometer of success is not necessarily how many people watch every episode, anyway. The best of these reveals is probably the discovery that George Michael’s much hyped internet company Fake Block is not based on privacy software at all, but is rather a simulated wood block.  For well over half the season it seems as if George Michael is the one successful Bluth whooing girls and capital with his software company, but it turns out this entire image is based on a series of lies.  George Sr.’s sweat lodge in the second episode turns out to be where G.O.B. planned his disappearing act from his wedding.  Herman Cain lookalike Herbert Love believed Lindsay was a prostitute because, unbeknownst to her, Maeby was acting as her pimp.

Repeated moments offered some great laughs as well.  My personal favorite was the constant hearkening back to Michael and his father making a deal outside of Michael’s office.  As the series progresses, we keep returning to flashbacks of them asking one another continually to do something else for each other.  Also great was the repeated viewings of the scene in Lucille’s apartment, where Michael, in the first episode, tells his family that he’s done with them.  In each character’s storyline we get a new look at that scene, slowly panning out to reveal more and more people there. What initially looks like a huge dramatic moment for Michael begins to feel more like yet another moment when utterly self obsessed Michael, thinking only of himself, ignores everyone else.  It’s fantastic when it turns out it’s George Michael’s graduation and Michael makes him tear up the check.  Another noteworthy repeated joke was when Michael telling his son that he can’t meet because he’s stuck in traffic turns into a two-way lie fest where both George Michael and Michael each stay on the phone for fifteen minutes doing their best to convince the other that the traffic is real.

It’s ultimately wonderful that the characters stay true to themselves.  It’s hard to watch Michael, the family’s one really successful member in the earlier seasons, just break down in the first episode, but it makes total sense, as what brings him down are all the traits that he displays earlier, his self-absorption and inability to listen to others.  George Michael , although it appears to the viewers initially that he has, can’t escape his awkwardness.  His solve for x scene was hilarious, and his episode was one of the best.  The others’ flaws are more obvious, but each of them break out with positive moments in their lives earlier in their episodes only to fall back into the mire as their plots move forward.

Arrested Development made a conscious effort to be relevant to the time over which the years took place.  There are repeated mentions of the housing crisis, particularly relevant, as the family works in real estate.  Tobias and Lindsay both read Eat, Pray, Love.  George W. Bush is dragged back up with what George Sr. thinks is a monument to the ex-President, but instead turns out to be a wall to keep immigrants out.  Herbert Love is a veritable Herman Cain ripoff.  These real life allusions actually work surprisingly well in shepherding a show which has the unenviable task of taking place over a seven year period through history.  George’s mistaken reading of the wall plans are vintage Arrested, as is the scene in which real estate agent Ed Helms, a callback to a one episode character in an earlier season, sells Tobias and Lindsay a house for no money with an endless variety of unnecessary features, just so, as they repeat so many times, they’ll have it.

This season was extra-heavy on the guest stars.  An incredibly high proportion of recurring or memorable one-time characters from earlier shows reappeared somewhere or other in the fourth season, which admittedly sometimes felt like fan service, but generally in a non-prolematic way.  They were joined by a generous proportion of new characters, who got more screen time in the new season because many of the single character episodes were light on Blush family interaction.  More Bluth family interaction would certainly be preferred, but the new characters largely held up their end for the limited roles asked of them.

I was hesitant to declare the fourth season of Arrested Development a huge success right after watching, but the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve enjoyed it.  It wasn’t perfect by any means.  The narration can be a littly hammy, and while to some extent the abject unsubtlety of the narration is much more artfully done than the awful narration on say How I Met Your Mother, a little more subtlely is called for sometimes.  As mentioned above, I’d love even more interaction between the Bluths, who sometimes get entirely lost in their own episodes and only run into their family members once or twice.  There are sparse moments and jokes that don’t quite work.  All told, the ambition level was so high that Arrested Development doesn’t always reach it.  Still, overall I’d vastly prefer setting ambitions this high and largely meeting them to meeting a moderate goal one hundred percent.  So many shows on television on happy to have very reasonable ambitions and pat themselves on the back for reaching them.  We’d do well for more shows that shoot for the sun and offer a lot to be enjoyed even when they don’t quite reach it.

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