February 2006. Despite a fiercely loyal (if smallish) fan base, several Emmy awards, and critical acclaim, Arrested Development is cancelled by Fox after three seasons (well, one season, one truncated season, and one half-season). This was about the time that I had started to get into the series through its DVD sets, and there wasn’t a day that went by since that I lamented how unfair it was that Arrested Development got canned while scores of other, far lesser series lived to see their 10th seasons.
Like many other fans, I watched and re-watched the entire run of the show at least twice a year since then. You think it would have gotten boring, but it never did, as Arrested Development’s incredibly dense and clever format kept revealing more jokes and running gags that I only caught the 13th or so time around.
Over the past seven years, Arrested Development went from being an obscure show to part of our cultural lexicon as word-of-mouth and Netflix viewings grew its audience. At least it went out on the top of its form, many of us consoled ourselves. At least we’ll always have the banana stand, The Final Countdown, and Hot Cops whenever we need them.
Then the impossible happened. Netflix up and announced that it was doing what Fox should’ve done in the first place: give the show a fourth season. Cue squeals of joy, nervous anticipation, and a single date in history — May 26, 2013 — in which a stampede of viewers streamed the first new episodes in over a half-decade.
It’s here. Arrested Development season 4. So how does it shake out after a first viewing?
Adjustments and expectations
It’s important to understand going into season 4 that this both is and is not the same Arrested Development from seasons 1, 2, and 3. I’m not just talking about the time gap or the change of venue, either. Probably the biggest change is that the season is more or less one very, very long (7.5 hour) episode that weaves an incredibly complex story. Yes, it can be viewed episodically and theoretically out of order, but you’ll probably get the most out of it from a marathon session or two.
I got a headache trying to keep track of the labyrinthian Wall plot, and as some of the punchlines to jokes were set up several episodes before (not minutes before as in previous seasons), it’s a lot easier to miss the gags.
The second big change is that each of the episodes primarily focuses on one of the main cast members. To make this season happen, the creators had to work around the busy schedules of the cast (who had since gone on to do other projects). So various actors had to be squeezed in when they could, meaning that interaction between the primary cast is generally limited. In fact, I can only think of two scenes — the aftermath of the Queen Mary disaster and the family meeting at the penthouse — where the entire cast is present.
This also means that the fourth season is a lot more reliant on guest stars, some new and some returning from the original run. You’ll also need to steel yourself for a few characters (Maebe, Lindsey, Steve Holt) looking radically different than before (aging, plastic surgery, bald cap). It’s also a much darker season thematically and it ends on somewhat of a down note. Finally, even the opening theme is a little different — and it changes for each episode.
I’m not saying that these changes are bad, understand, but just that they can be quite jarring if you’re not expecting them.
Bridging the gap
One thing I absolutely loved about the new season is that it acknowledged the passage of time between the end of season 3 and the beginning of season 4. The season is set up in three major segments: the aftermath of the Queen Mary (season 3), the “long dark period” where each character went their own way, and the Cinco de Cuatro festival which sees all of the plots come back together. I liked this much more than if they had just picked up as if nothing had changed, because things had changed and it would be difficult to deny that. Plus, it’s like we’re being given six seasons condensed into one.
During the long dark period, George Michael goes to college, Maebe stays in high school, Tobias and Lindsey get a house, GOB joins a musical entourage, Michael finishes the Bluth Company’s doomed housing development, George and Lucille connive to build a wall between Mexico and the US, and Buster finds his calling as a drone pilot for Army. Plus a whole lot of other stuff happens, including a disastrous awards show/magic show/political rally, tons of meta references involving Ron Howard (who also produced and did the narration), a musical version of the Fantastic Four, and a misguided trip to India.
Oddly enough, the stair car is still in operation. Good for it.
While I did love the attempt to bridge the gap between the seasons, in retrospect it could’ve been done a lot better with three or four episodes devoted to doing just that instead of all 15. After a while, the whole jumping-around-in-time thing is headache-inducing. Also, it feels like we’ve seen it over and over again. I was also expecting some huge resolution during the last episode at Cinco de Cuatro, but that never really happened. What it felt like was that the season was setting up a future season (or movie) instead of resolving neatly like it should’ve.
The term “mixed bag” is used a lot in conjunction with this season, and I’d concur if I didn’t want to come off as corny. It does take a while to get going; the first few episodes aren’t that amusing, which is all the more unsettling as we’re trying to get used to the changes. But a disaster this is not. Not by a long shot.
For starters, season 4 is ridiculously ambitious. Considering how much territory the show runners had to cover and the chaotic shooting schedule that kept the actors mostly apart, what we have here is a season of television that is unique even unto its own series. I think that viewers will be charting all of the connections out for months to come, and I cannot fathom how difficult it must’ve been to write. The fact that it doesn’t fall apart but instead keeps on going to a decent finale is quite admirable.
It’s also sporadically hilarious. Yeah, some of the plots (ahem, Wall, I’m looking at you) go nowhere, but some are downright awesome. Seeing Tobias just run a poor meth addict into the ground with his oblivious ideas never stopped being painfully funny. A subplot involving GOB’s rivalry with Tony Wonder goes into bizarrely genius territory. George Michael’s episode provided a gut-busting explanation for his apparent popularity and business success (and it’s totally in form with the character). Buster’s sole episode is among Arrested Development’s best. And there are just scads of awesome new quotes (“That’s a Bob Loblaw Law Bomb”) that will undoubtedly become cemented in the vocabulary of fans.
I’ll also say that if there’s a season 5 or a movie, then I’ll forgive the many, many plot threads that weren’t resolved. I’m totally fine with the show setting them up as long as there’s a next chapter.
Finally… dude, it’s more Arrested Development. I’m generally of the opinion (although it is not universally shared) that I’d rather have a lesser continuation of something I love than to have nothing at all. We were crying out for a fourth season for years and years, and now we have it. It seems bad form to dump on it, especially since it’s not half-bad.