Jul 17, 2013

Arrested Development: “Off the Hook”/“Blockheads”

By Paul Krueger


With almost two months of distance between now and the tumultuous days surrounding the premiere, almost all the dust surrounding season four of Arrested Development has settled.  So with the air cleared, we can ask: was this season successful?  My answer is “yes.”

A qualified one, anyway.

Our fearless E-in-C Josh Oakley posted his own thoughts on this issue on premiere day, coming to the opposite conclusion of the one I have here.  Where I saw an innovative and fresh storytelling structure, he saw an albatross hanging around the show’s neck.  Where I saw our beloved characters all being pushed into dark, uncomfortable, and ultimately daring directions, he saw hours of low-stakes wheel-spinning.

But “Off the Hook” and “Blockheads” are the two episodes of the season best suited to anchor it.  “Hook” is a nice, largely self-contained story starring Buster, the most sparingly used Bluth this season (curse you, Veep!) that shows Hurwitz & co. haven’t forgotten how to spin something sharp and classy, while I think the ugliness of “Blockheads” makes it an excellent, if flawed, button to the season at large.

Let’s start with Buster, who’s spent most of the season operating as set dressing.  Buster is unique among the Bluth family because he is absolutely the only one who doesn’t engage in any subterfuge whatsoever.  Like Maeby, he just craves his mom’s love, but instead of building a vast internet empire on a rickety foundation of lies, he gets into some pretty serious Buffalo Bill-type stuff with a collection of pillows and an awful lot of juice.

But for a man whose largest romantic attachment has been to his own mother, this season’s recurring observation of someone “certainly [having] a type” is incredibly applicable to him.  Over the course of this episode we see him interact with two Lucilles and an Ophelia, mothers all.  In all three cases, he’s encouraged to stand on his own without a mother figure, and in all three cases he fails that particular litmus test.  And as usual, all three have their own stake in using him: Lucille, as ever, needs Buster’s emotional validation to prove to herself that she’s not a bad person; Lucille 2 needed to keep him away from her frenemy’s oyster bar-set trial, and Ophelia needed some good old American hero lovin’.

Since Buster’s absent for much of the season, his story relies on those kinds of thematic ties to make his episode seem like a part of the proceedings, as opposed to making early-bird cameos to get expanded upon later.  George Michael, on the other hand, benefits from the latter, particularly thanks to the intricate ways in which his life intersects with his father’s.  Hurwitz always did like his bookends, and so “Blockheads” ends season four on the same note that began it, way back in “Flight of the Phoenix”: by throwing its audience into a pool of deep, blackly hilarious discomfort, then putting a booted foot on that audience’s face when they try to come up for air.

It’s hard to talk about “Blockheads” without focusing the discussion on the ending.  There are a few funny scenes in the epilogue, but that dead-serious moment with George Michael’s punch still ringing in our ears like a gunshot is the season’s true finale and that to which everything before it was inevitably leading.  And this is where I break with most critics: that’s the kind of cathartic ending this season needed.

If season four had ended with some kind of reconciliation, or else some way for Michael to skirt discovery and keep up this deception for another day, then it would have retroactively turned all of this into a bunch of low-stakes wheel-spinning.  Strictly from a structure standpoint, this season is a tragedy and has been one from the outset.  It had a lot of checkpoints it had to cross, but the ultimate goal at the end of its roadmap was clear: the complete downfall of Michael Bluth.

Seriously, look at it.  At season’s end, he’s unemployed, out of his own movie, homeless, and down both a promising girlfriend and the son whose presence he used to justify basically everything he’s ever done.  We could’ve gotten fifteen hours of fanservice, but Hurwitz decided to give us something uncomfortable and new and he deserves all the credit in the world for that.  But I’m not just giving him an A for effort.  The early installments are a bit rough, but the whole into which they coalesce is a deeply satisfying and funny effort, and there isn’t an episode of the season that doesn’t improve on rewatch.

But I said it was a qualified yes.  Season four is reasonably self-contained, but as I pointed out a few weeks ago, it’s not television.  He hedges his bet, but it’s obvious Hurwitz wrote this under the assumption that he’d get some kind of continuation.  And this is where the qualification comes in: Hurwitz may have made a successful season four, but he hasn’t given viewers much incentive to want a season five.

Think about it.  The Bluths’ efforts are always doomed to failure, and this season’s been about them finally failing so profoundly that they all lose each other.  What would a season five do but contrive some way to bring them back together so it can kick them back down the stairs again?  It would be an eminently amusing way to kill a day or two on a Netflix binge, but that would be it.  Season four is the logical extreme of everything the show’s first run was building towards.  To undo it would be cheap, and to shove the characters even further into darkness risks crossing into “misery porn” territory.

The Bluths have dug their own grave, and it’s been a hell of a time watching them do so.  But now, it’s time to let them lie in it.

Grades:
“Off the Hook”: A
“Blockheads”: B+

Season: A-

Mice-ellaneous:

  • And that does it, folks.  Thanks for sticking with me, even with this unusual release format rendering me pop culturally irrelevant a week after I began this little endeavor.  Hopefully we’ll be able to do this again sooner rather than later.

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