And Now the Review of One of the Greatest Comedies of All Time Which Had No Choice But to Try to Change the Game: It’s ‘Arrested Development’ Season Four
The adjectives “interesting” and “weird” mostly exist to be placeholders for how you actually felt about something you couldn’t completely understand at first. Sometimes the real feelings will come to you as you heat up something in the microwave a few minutes later; other times it takes a day or two for you to start to be able to properly articulate what you had just seen, several microwaved meals later. Even if the delayed final review of the book, movie, or TV show was “oh, it sucked,” it still gets credit for occupying your brain for an extended period of time: that interesting, weird thing took over your life.
Season Four of Arrested Development, two days after all eight hours, fifteen minutes, and fifty five seconds of it1 was released to the world all at once, still in some ways remains to be interesting, and weird. The warnings that were both readable online and between the lines were true, that due to the busy schedules of all of the principal actors, interaction between the Bluths would be at a bare minimum, and as a result the storytelling would be completely different to not just the show but possibly new to comedy. The warnings weren’t enough for the initial viewings of the new Netflix episodes from being a jarring experience. After fifty-three episodes of all of the characters playing off of each other, with six, seven, nine stories being crammed into a traditional twenty-two minute installment that all somehow coalesced together to make a delicious comedy stew, there were fifteen short films presented to us all at once, each a crazily well-filmed and high-budget fan fiction project in which one of the characters’ story of what they had been up to over the last seven years was told, where they met Hollywood stars both real and imagined, mystics, drug addicts, ostrich farmers, and everything else in between.
And sometimes it tasted like hot ham water. When interactions between two familiar characters took place without a two shot, it felt off and distracting. The obvious blue screened, CGI’d work was, obviously, even worse. Liza Minnelli and Ron Howard ended up playing prominent roles in the overall narrative of a hip, experimental show in 2013. That isn’t necessarily good or bad on the surface (it’s just another example of how interesting and weird the whole enterprise is), but it felt like there was way too much Ron Howard, especially if you watched in one marathon sitting. The man not only continued his voiceover narration for the show — which with all of the necessary exposition throughout the season made him reach for a water bottle more than ever — but played himself in a couple of episodes, providing the Macguffin for Michael to have to interact with each family member at some point in the series2. Presumably, Mitch Hurwitz and his writing staff decided to compensate for the stars’ conflicting availabilities by interconnecting all of the stories with showing different points of view of one scene where a few of the characters were together and mining all of the innovative and comedic possibilities within, just to make sure that we didn’t forget after a certain point that these people were all connected. But the more ambitious the gag, the louder the dud, and the more blatantly self-congratulatory it all seemed to be. The reveal the show seemed most proudest about occurred in Maeby’s episode, when we discovered that the squeezable shaman Lindsay visited was in fact Maeby in heavy makeup. But we saw the scene again, and Ron Howard in voiceover went on and on about it, so why watch Lindsay’s episode again for that? When Lindsay in “Indian Takers” violently moved her plane seat back and the identity of the passenger behind her wasn’t revealed, it was pretty obvious it was going to be shown to be someone we recognize. So? Those kinds of moments could have been excised, and chopped down the 28-37 minute run times3.
What *did* work were the type of running gags that the old version of Arrested was known and revered for. G.O.B. hearing “The Sound of Silence” in his head in multiple episodes4, and once later from a mariachi band? Fantastic. And the subtle callbacks5 were a nice reward for those that know how to finish each others’ sandwiches. As the season progressed, the installments got better, and funnier, but not because the jokes set up earlier were starting to pay off. For one thing, the writers had a better feel for their new language, and for another, the characters that starred in the latter episodes were far more likable. It cannot be a coincidence that the episodes that stood out in it’s enjoyability and humorousness were “Colony Collapse,” A New Attitude,” and “Off the Hook,” the G.O.B. and Buster affairs. It has become obvious that George Sr., Lucille 1, and Lindsay will never change from being terrible people6, and not ones we want to ever spend at least thirty minutes on. Tobias, even when paired with the tremendous Maria Bamford, proved to not be able to carry an episode on obliviousness and gay jokes alone. Buster is simply simple, confused and helpless, and has a hook for a hand, and when you have a hook for your hand and you are on your own, your storyline is going to be fucking strange and really damn funny, and end with Diedrich Baker supervising Army scientists to administer a Q-test. G.O.B. always wants and never gets any respect from his family, and because he is pure Id, the writers love him, so naturally in the spotlight he ends up an STD riddled member of a pop star’s posse. His mind games with Tony Wonder, and his wedding to Ann were bombastic in the best way possible, a great way to take advantage of not having a fixed time limit.
The George Michael and Maeby features were enjoyable too, if not as funny. The two are the only characters that just might break the cycle and not suffer from actual arrested development. Hell, George Michael even grows a mustache and openly admits to his father that he doesn’t want to go by his given name anymore. In “It Gets Better,” we saw him mature through his college years while still being himself7. He also unknowingly impregnated a Spanish woman, a callback to Michael knocking up Maggie Lizer without his knowledge. Like father, like son. But thankfully, not quite – unlike the actual Lizer pregnancy8,there was some closure when the young adult who wants to be formerly known as George Michael punched his dad in the face. Michael went from annoying to just plain unlikable as season four progressed, disappointing us all by being as selfish as his parents and siblings after all, and kind of deserving a beating. And it was nice to have *some* closure, since this was all an imperfect set-up for the movie that hopefully will happen.
But Hurwitz and company insisted on not relying on what worked before: they weren’t attempting to knock it out of the park in season four, so much as try to invent a completely different sport. The underlying reason for all of the P.O.V. and chronological trickery and overall attempt to unify the fifteen episodes was because they were all being released at once. It’s funny, because Hurwitz told us to not watch them all at once a few days ago, but it dictated their approach anyway. Perhaps they knew that there is no Mayor Bloomberg that would even dare attempt to legislate against unhealthy overconsumption and viewers would binge watch no matter what, but by throwing in all of those grand tricks (illusions), it called attention to its purpose, and when most of them didn’t work, it felt like the show trying too hard to make a binge watch worthwhile, when it already would have been with their old bag of tricks. It was admirable as hell, but there is a good chance that down the road, season four of Arrested Development‘s unique presentation will overshadow all of the fun stuff within, and that would be a shame. Some individual moments became worthy of comparison to some of the show’s funniest moments as soon as they were witnessed from this experiment: George Michael joining his other new classmates in mocking him, Tobias’ bed, Kirstin Wiig as young Lucille as the Grinch, Tobias yelling at Ron Howard, and on and on. Overall it was another attempt at comedy with a big concept that fell a bit short, but it was a step in the right direction. Because this project was by no means embarrassing – hell, it showed flashes of transcendency – it stands to reason that Netflix will attempt to produce and run a comedy series again, provided the numbers are there. And inspired writers will continue to try and crack the “successful and perfect comedy mystery” code, or come up with different innovative, interesting, and weird ways to tell their jokes and funny stories.
1 A total run time that was fourteen minutes longer than the first season of the show, which consisted of seven more episodes.
2While Arrested always had a bit of a streak of mocking Hollywood – especially in their third year when things got punchy and wackier – the whole Ron Howard/Imagine Entertainment storyline didn’t provide enough laughs to warrant its meta nature.
3The comedic timing changed entirely in season four as a result of the extended episodes, and particularly in the first half of the season there seemed to always be one scene would take up an inordinate time and never get around to being funny, like Michael trying to conspire to rig the dorm voting, or Ed Helms the realtor convincing Lindsay and Tobias to add and add and add to their doomed house.
4I assume that the passive aggressive showdown between the Lucilles was taken word for word from the Paul Simon/Ron Howard music licensing negotiations, except they focused on each others’ hats.
5We can just stick to the Steve Holt ones to save time: Steve Holt ending up with G.O.B.’s hairline just as he feared, only much worse; Maeby’s initial high school yearbook quote was the same as Holt’s (“I’m outta here!”); the fact that it’s now more like Steve Holt :-(
6George Sr.’s transformation to a grounded, non-materialistic way of life was apparently due to increased estrogen levels, which…
7Which would have been even more pleasing if it was a part of a story told in chronological order, so his maturity would be juxtaposed with everybody else continuing their stupid or hurtful behavior.
8During the “On the next…”segment in “Hand to God,” Maggie tests positive for pregnancy, and we never see her again. The show can simply claim it was non-canonical if Julia Louis-Dreyfus asks for too much money for the movie, but that would be a bit of a cop out.