This Memorial Day weekend, cult TV fans didn’t waste their time basking in the sun or running through the grass (or whatever it is you non-TV people do with your free time). No, this Sunday, May 26, rather than soak up the vitamin D, couchgoers across the country settled in, fired up their Netflix accounts and welcomed back the lovably dysfunctional Bluth family for a fourth season of “Arrested Development”.
*From here on out, you might brush up against some spoilers. Fair warning.*
Originally aired on Fox during the 2003-2006 season, “Arrested Development” became the first in a new generation of sitcoms that, while critically lauded, suffered pretty terrible ratings. You could actually say their failure paved the way for fourth and fifth seasons from shows like “30 Rock”, “Parks and Recreation” and “Community”. After the original series was cancelled in 2006, the show’s rabid fan base went to work catapulting the previously unpopular series into cult status. The icing on the cake, however, came last year with the announcement that Netflix had shelled out the cash to have Mitchell Hurwitz – the creative force behind the series – get the whole gang back together for some more pun-based shenanigans.
That exciting idea was made available to the public this Sunday. To date, reviews from both fans and critics alike have been mixed. On the one hand, critics have been praising the series for its daring structure, and it’s infrequent moments of outright hilarity, while fans of the series just wanted more Bluth-on-Bluth action (and not in the incestual way the show is known for).
On the one hand, there are several elements in the newest season that call to mind the things that made the original series great. Without a doubt, if you liked the first three seasons of “Arrested Development,” these fifteen new episodes will not waste your time. Each cast member is as funny as they’ve ever been, the writing is still (mostly) sharp, and it’s clear that our love of the talent housed inside this one little program was not misplaced. Thank God.
The original “Arrested Development” had a penchant for running gags, like Gob’s oft-repeated “I’ve made a huge mistake”, Buster’s shouted lament “I’m a monster!”, or Tobias’ general inability to use the English language. This new series adds to the fun, reassembling old crowd-favorite in-jokes and throwing new ones into the mix. Keep an eye out for the repeated (and artful) use of, “That was a freebie,” continued references to in-flight magazines (and the idea that anyone actually cares about what’s printed inside them), and more than one Simon and Garfunkel-laden allusion to “The Graduate”.
The new series also gets the most from its guest stars. Andy Richter and Ben Stiller reprise their roles to great effect, while doing wonders (no pun intended) to get fresh laughs for their characters. The new series continues it’s pitch perfect guest casting, such as the inspired leaps to the past where Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen channel younger versions of George and Lucille Bluth. A quick note: Whoever had the idea to cast Kristen Wiig and Jessica Walters as two halves of the same coin deserves a raise.
Unfortunately, though, the new series isn’t perfect. The biggest issue is the muddled overall structure which has each of the series’ main characters star in one or two episodes a piece in their own semi-contained adventure. Other family members drop in from time to time and plots bump into one another, but by and large each family member is on his or her own. And here is one of the new season’s biggest flaws.
The audience fell in love with a madcap family of out and out weirdos. We got to know them through their individual adventures, but we came to love them for the way they communicated as a family. By focusing on one Bluth at a time, we lose a lot of that family interaction, and the series suffers for it.
The new season was arranged thusly because it was apparently impossible to get the whole cast together at the same time. While we can understand that busy schedules (and Netflix not having the money to insure that the actors’ schedules were free) would necessitate a few shortcuts, however, it seems as though scheduling oddities may have negatively impacted the show’s writing as well as its arrangement.
While it would be hard to pinpoint one over-arching plot element, the new season does have a few that run from episode to episode in a loose attempt to connect the characters. In the rambling, exposition heavy individual stories, it’s surprisingly easy to lose track of what’s going on with the wall, for example, or with whatever it was Lindsay was getting into, or where in the heck Lucille 2 actually went (dead? kidnapped?). The worst part is that several of these plot points don’t actually amount to anything. It’s as though the stories were begun with a few jokes in mind and once the jokes are delivered, the writers didn’t feel the need to wrap things up.
Another casualty to the season’s structure are the jokes. Any fan can tell you that one of the things that made the original series great was the developed joke. They’d start with something innocuous or silly, like alluding to a guest star’s Bond villain similarities with the short musical accompaniment, “Mr. F!” They’d repeat the joke a few more times, giving it less and less context until, a few scenes later, they’d turn the joke on its ear, like when you saw a woman wearing a “Mr. F” bracelet, only to find out that – in this case – “Mr. F” stands, not for a low-brow Bond villain, but for “Mentally Retarded Female”.
The new series has these same running bits, but they don’t start to land until near the end of the season, which leaves this new series feeling a little lopsided in terms of comedy. As we watch each character bumble through their little adventure, the audience is gradually given more and more context to what starts out as, admittedly, a hazy mess of half-delivered jokes. By the end of the fifteenth episode, you’ll get the joke, but you might not care anymore.
Perhaps the most upsetting thing about the new season is how close it is to being the old show we loved. If the showrunners had made an attempt to trick us into thinking that they could, in fact, get everyone in the same room, if they’d edited the fourth season into a series of misadventures where the Bluths were influencing each other even if they weren’t necessarily on screen together, things might have been different (or the same, depending on the way you look at it).
Still worthwhile, but without the same manic spark, the fourth season of “Arrested Development” is very much worth the eight or so hours it takes to watch. It doesn’t diminish your love of the original, either, which is miraculous in and of itself. However, with Netflix stock taking a dip in the wake of the show’s release, fans of “Arrested Development” find themselves in the very familiar position of having to worry about the future of the Bluths.
The real question is, are the Bluths still worth worrying about?