It’s been seven long and arduous years since Fox made a huge mistake and plucked from the airwaves one of the most original, offbeat, audacious sitcoms in television history. The extent of Arrested Development’s ingenuity—stuffed as it was with callbacks and foreshadows, season-long setups and years-later payoffs—was only truly appreciated in the cult superstardom it came to accrue on the more natural homes of DVD and, particularly, Netflix. The ability to pause, rewind, replay, and endlessly relive the riches-to-rags misadventures of the Bluth family offered the show’s ever-growing legions of fans the opportunity to seek out every one of its endless recurring gags, the staggering depth and breadth of which had proved, in 2006, just too much for network television audiences.
As much free from the structural and temporal constraints of TV broadcast as it is caught without their benefits, season four is less a resurrection of the show than it is a redefinition.
But television, and particularly the way in which we consume it, is not the same as it was seven years ago, and the hordes of hungry fans celebrating the final countdown on Twitter this morning as the show’s long-awaited fourth season neared its 12.01am PT arrival on Netflix are the surest embodiment of that. It’s the internet audiences, with their seven years of endless campaigns, that this new season was made both by and for, and consequently this is a very different Arrested Development to the one we once knew. As much free from the structural and temporal constraints of TV broadcast as it is caught without their benefits, season four is less a resurrection of the show than it is a redefinition.
That’s a fact immediately acknowledged in the craftily retooled opening sequence, which for its 53 Fox-aired episodes concluded “It’s Arrested Development”. On Netflix, reworked for a culture of rewatches and remixes, intended to show the same story from the respective perspective of the show’s nine integral characters, “It’s Michael’s Arrested Development”, or Lindsay’s, or Gob’s. Motivated as much by the interim ascension of the original cast—all of whom return—to greater successes on screens both big and small as it was by creator Mitchell Hurwitz’s lofty storytelling aims, the radically different narrative structure of this season no longer centres on Jason Bateman’s reactionary everyman Michael, but rather rotates protagonists, these latest fifteen episodes affording two each to all but Lucille, Buster, and Maeby.
The major difference this time, facilitated chiefly by Netflix’s all-at-once release strategy, is that these episodes are less functional as entities unto themselves, each offering a small piece of the larger puzzle rather than self-contained chunks of entertainment.
Hurwitz’s intention, very publicly retracted in the past two weeks, was to craft a story that could be absorbed in any order; it’s unsurprising, the show’s infamously intricate narrative layering considered, that such ambitions should fail. Arrested Development always thrived on the meticulous revelation of additional details that, time and again, flipped our image of what we were experiencing entirely on its head. This incarnation is no different, and Hurwitz’s control of what we know and when we know it is—as ever—crucial not just to his masterful storytelling, but to the construction of his comedy too. The major difference this time, facilitated chiefly by Netflix’s all-at-once release strategy, is that these episodes are less functional as entities unto themselves, each offering a small piece of the larger puzzle rather than self-contained chunks of entertainment.
That’s a problem at first, and there’s no doubt that the opening three episodes are among the weakest the series as a whole has seen. This season can best be described as a pyramid, each episode laying an additional narrative and comedic layer on which its successors will subsequently build, making the cumulative effect as the story and the humour progress all-important. These first three, then, stuck with little to build on themselves, are saddled with the difficult burden of exposition, catching us up with their respective Bluths in the years since last we saw them and paving the way for the better things to come. Hurwitz, co-directing all episodes with Troy Miller, struggles to find his footing in this ambitious new format, and a tendency to overplay decent gags to the point of tedium sees the season start with all the balance of Lucille Austero.
But make no mistake: this season is no victory lap, no greatest hits compilation. Laden though they are with the innumerable pop culture phenomena that have emerged from the show’s cult status, these new hours of entertainment are determined to be more than mere rehashes of classic gags.
The footing is found, however, and after a worrying first leg that seems almost to confirm the deep-seated fears of the Arrested Development fanbase, the show’s new incarnation comes into its own with a string of superb episodes that proudly display the ingenious scripting and spellbinding chemistry that made it what it was when it debuted a decade ago. It helps that Hurwitz has managed to enlist almost every supporting cast member from the prior three seasons, from the smallest part only the devout may notice to those recurring favourites whose popularity even eclipsed the primary players. These are all played for nostalgia, of course, but never at the cost of the story: every return is precision engineered to further the dense overarching storyline, these smaller characters often forming the connective thread between episodes the main cast—by way of actor (un)availability—simply cannot.
Back too is the pantheon of inside jokes and recurring gags so beloved by Arrested Development acolytes, inducted into the story in a similarly serviceable way that welcomes the uninitiated while offering a sly wink to the people who made this return possible in the first place. But make no mistake: this season is no victory lap, no greatest hits compilation. Laden though they are with the innumerable pop culture phenomena that have emerged from the show’s cult status, these new hours of entertainment are determined to be more than mere rehashes of classic gags. Hurwitz and his writing team have gone to impressive lengths to match each old joke with a sharp new one, and the bulging tome of Arrested tropes grows bigger—and, crucially, better—with each new episode. Much like previous seasons have seen fans endlessly ask “Her?” and bellow the lyrics to “The Final Countdown”, this one will have them… well, the pleasure lies in the discovery itself.
That this show has managed to come back at all is remarkable; to do so, starting missteps aside, with its essence intact amid an entirely new formula is almost miraculous.
It’s both blessing and curse that the season improves exponentially as it continues: disheartening at first, it will trouble many, but patience is swiftly rewarded and the show’s seemingly restricted range when centred on certain characters fades as the building effect of the ever-strengthened narrative foundations takes hold, and seemingly minute details of earlier episodes are radically recontextualised. Certain problems persist, nonetheless, and Hurwitz’s greatest hurdle—never truly overcome—is the expansion of episode length beyond the tried and tested 22 minutes of TV broadcast. Useful at times—particularly in the Gob-centric episodes, perhaps the season’s best—the lack of time constraints sees the show lose the breakneck pace that once made it, if also somewhat challenging, so breathtakingly entertaining. Where the challenges of changed perspectives resolve themselves as the season progresses, Hurwitz and his editors are too keen to embrace their newfound freedom, and the show’s newly relaxed pacing transpires to be its most disheartening development.
In reality, the Arrested Development we knew and loved so long ago could never be revived: its makers, its viewers, and its medium have all changed too much for that. That this show has managed to come back at all is remarkable; to do so, starting missteps aside, with its essence intact amid an entirely new formula is almost miraculous. Hurwitz and his team were pushing boundaries ten years ago, and if the baffled reactions of all-too-many viewers at a running digital watermark gag are anything to go by, they intend to continue doing so now. Season four, true to the spirit of everything this show has ever been, is an ambitious undertaking: often foolishly so, but never not admirably.