May 26, 2013

Arrested Development: Season 4

By Josh Oakley

Note: A couple of slight joke and plot spoilers in the main review, with a larger spoiler clearly marked at the bottom of the page

What is the fourth, and seemingly not final, season of Arrested Development supposed to be? Is it, as some pre-airing interviews claimed, act one to a future movie? Is it purely fan service, cooked up not out of inspiration but for the purposes of capturing a known market? Or is it truly a story that needed to be told concerning characters and events that were as vital to the history of television as the previous seasons? I regret to say that it feels most like the first two and least like the third. The fourth season of Arrested Development ultimately fails to live up to its promise, and the signs were there all along.

The fact that, as I alluded to above, Mitchell Hurwitz, the showrunner, claimed this as a set-up to a film project is, in retrospect, alarming. That mainly comes across in the lack of vitality in these 15 new episodes. Sure, there are some funny jokes, some good acting, and a number of great new characters, but this season of television fails to prove its reason for existence. If, before, this show helped to shape the current sitcom landscape, why this ellipsis? And if the season was intended as the entrance to a larger story, well, that helps to explain why it isn't a rewarding experience on its own.

I would recap, but the exploits captured in this season are so wildly diverse that it would take as much time as actually watching each episode. The main arc seems to be the relationship of Michael and his son George Michael. Their bond was one of the cornerstones of the original series, and here it becomes strained due to George Michael kicking his father out of his dorm room. That sets the season in motion, and it’s quickly followed by a failed plan to build a wall on the Mexican/USA border and Michael looking to obtain signatures from each family member so that Ron Howard can make a movie about the Bluth family. But even though these three stories appear to form some sort of backbone, that notion is tossed aside by the jarring pacing of the episodes themselves.

What the season lacks most, besides enough laughter, which I’ll get to in a second, is any semblance of dramatic stakes or forward momentum. The former may not have been why we watched this show in the first place, but it certainly helped to define a context where we care what happens at the close of each episode. That is not to say that we often root for these characters (though, as in any sitcom of its fashion, Stockholm Syndrome sets in eventually), rather that we know what the outcome of events may be and are able to be surprised (thus eliciting laughter) when that end betrays our guess. The wall plot, for example, doesn’t hold together in the way that the treason charges of Arrested Development’s first three seasons did, because it doesn’t make sense (and not in a funny way, just a convoluted one).

That second part, concerning forward momentum, mainly stems from the structure of this season, its largest flaw. As you probably know, each episode takes the perspective of a different family member. Each character’s first episode fills us in on what has happened in the last eight years. Many characters receive a second episode, or at least pop up in others’ stories, to give us what is purported to be the beginning of a new chapter for the Bluth family. Various episodes intersect, in such a way that the viewer sees George Sr. in the background of one scene and then, a number of episodes later, watches what exactly he was doing. It’s a neat trick, but not much more than that. The show seems to rely on this structure mainly for the sake of doing something interesting. It doesn’t add any emotional heft (such as the structural play on, say, How I Met Your Mother) and rarely heightens the comedy (in the way that dovetailing plots drove the early seasons of this very show). This would upset Gob greatly, but it comes off as less of an illusion, and more as something a whore does for money.

The other issue with this structure is that when one episode attempts to build stakes, the next squashes that notion by veering into a completely different story. This lessens as the season goes on (and as some reveals, though only a fraction, pay off in clever ways), but accentuates the larger issue: this all feels like a prelude. Maybe the hypothetical season five, or film, will pay off these stories beautifully, but that doesn’t make the set-up any less tiring. To add to this issue, without a network to cut the episodes to a specific time, they balloon, with the longest running for 37 minutes. The tone that defines Arrested Development struggles to sustain itself for such long periods of time, especially when stories are failing to be told. Also, without Michael providing a center (both moral, though the show has handily played with that notion, and in a narrative sense), the stories wash over one another without a framework to rest within.

Let’s get to the jokes, shall we? That is, ostensibly the reason one watches a comedy. I normally don’t give it the focus, as what you find funny is perhaps the most subjective response to television. I didn’t find all that much to laugh at here, though there were a number of great surprises (Ann jokes are always funny, but Michael’s dismissive “Mouth” may be the best one yet). The major issue lies in attempted recurring jokes that fall flat (most surrounding the Fantastic Four suffer from this, though thank god for Maria Bamford) or attempts to callback to old jokes simply to prove that the show remembers them. There is some great riffing on old material, such as Gob’s new “should should should” sputtering, and a number of new running jokes that soar (I smiled every time “Sound of Silence” began), but it wasn’t nearly as consistently funny as the show’s first two seasons.

I should clarify now that I fall into the camp that believes that season three was a bit of a nosedive from the first two outings. That’s not to say that it was bad, just that it strained under the weight of misguided plots (almost anything involving Charlize Theron) and an overreliance on meta-jokes tossed with vitriol at FOX. The main purpose for bringing this opinion up, besides just providing context for my opinion, is to say that I don’t think, and never thought, Arrested Development’s cancellation was some sort of crime against humanity. I believe the show had plenty of time to find its voice, hone that voice, and begin a decline. That isn’t to lob bombs at a beloved show, but rather to say that I have some amount of issue with this revival obsession going on right now. Arrested Development won’t fall anywhere near my top ten shows of the year come this December, as television is currently flooded with great programming. We didn’t need Arrested Development back; its place has been filled.

I am ultimately happy that this new season exists, especially if it leads to a great movie. I just don’t believe, as many seem to, that it was owed to us in any way. It was nice to spend more time with these characters, to see how Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera have only grown as performers, and to add another “Gene Parmesan” moment to the highlight reel. This season of television wasn’t awful. It just proves that anytime a beloved property is brought back from the dead, tempered expectations are important, because it probably won’t be the same. So no matter how glad I’ll be to check in on Arrested Development when it returns yet again in a couple of years, I won’t excitedly stay up until 2 a.m. to immediately get my fix. Well, Maeby not.

Grade: B-

Note: Paul Krueger, our resident comics, comedy and Game of Thrones writer will have his review of “Flight of the Phoenix” up here on Wednesday with two episode reviews to follow for each of the next seven weeks.


One quick thing, for those that have finished: they must be incredibly confident that they’ll have the chance to continue this revival, no? It’s fine to end on a dark note, but it’s kind of insufferable to not get any sense of closure. George Michael punching his dad was certainly meant to feel like an important moment in his character development, and it seems absurd to end the series without a note of final growth after all this season put him through (Also I just really want him and Maeby to end up together. Is that allowed? Do you all hate me now? Don’t worry, they aren’t really cousins you guys. COME ON!)


  1. couldn't have said it better myself

  2. Interesting. I take the opposite tack (as my weekly breakdowns will demonstrate). Given the scheduling difficulties the show faced in getting the actors in place for the project, I think the structure is both a creative response to restriction and a successful experiment with television structure.

    Whether it actually counts as "television," on the other hand, is a topic I'll examine towards the end of my series of write-ups.