There was a family reunion last weekend that I had been feeling pretty nervous about. The people gathering for this reunion were guaranteed to say and do outrageous things, act like children (or possibly animals), and make a mockery of moral concerns, good taste, and basic human decency. This wasn’t my own family’s reunion, of course, but the Bluth family, who made their much-hyped return when the fourth season of Arrested Development premiered this past Sunday on Netflix.
Arrested Development, as I’m guessing most of our readers know already, premiered almost exactly ten years ago on Fox to much critical and cult acclaim, but paltry Nielsen ratings over the course of three seasons. Despite a small host of awards, trophies, and the persistent wailing of its dedicated fans, Fox did not see a reason to keep around a show that only brought in 4-6 million viewers per week in an era when American Idol drew more than 22 million sets of eyeballs every time it aired. Before Arrested Development was even officially cancelled, rumors sprang up of cable networks eyeing the series for a sort of transfer and renewal or perhaps shooting a movie to keep the Bluths together on screen. It always seemed like a pie-in-the-sky sort of idea, just like the once-promised Deadwood movies that were to be shot to wrap up that series after it met a similarly frustrating cancellation. When Netflix announced in 2011 that they were actually doing such a thing (paying for the production of 15 new episodes to play exclusively on their instant streaming service), it seemed a little too ridiculous to be true for a number of reasons. Now that the time is finally here and new Arrested Development episodes have played out in front of me for the first time in seven years, I want to marvel at a few things and register my thoughts about the whole endeavor.
First, that marveling business. It straight up blows my mind how much time has passed since Arrested Development was last on the air. Maybe it’s because I’ve watched it frequently enough since its debut that the show’s presence has never really faded for me, but it seems surreal that more than seven years have gone by since I stayed at home on a Friday night during my freshman year of college to watch Fox burn off the final four episodes all in one night. I was on-board the Bluth train almost from the word “go” (I think the first episode I saw live was “Bringing Up Buster,” which is 3rd in the show’s run) and became an evangelist (ed. note – a Tele-vangelist, you might say. TJC) for this dizzyingly dense and breathlessly paced satire of the hubris and neuroses of the Bush years. Arrested Development was one of those cultural items that I bought into hook, line, and sinker and talked up to everyone that would listen for three years. Even after it was cancelled, I would recommend it to friends or organize weekend-long marathons in order to get as many people as possible to taste the happy that was Arrested Development. Like the very best of TV comedies it was deeply funny, featured a well-drawn world with great characters, and could be re-watched endlessly.
Alas, it is with a heavy heart when I report that I have seen the 15 new episodes of Arrested Development. And they are…not very good.
I should state up front that I tried to go into the new episodes with as few pre-determined feelings as possible. The whole project seemed kind of crazy to me, especially since revived shows rarely recapture the complete essence of their original run (see the nu-Futurama that is ending its up-and-down revival run on Comedy Central this summer), but I was willing to give show-runner Mitch Hurwitz and the creative team and cast that he had reassembled the benefit of the doubt. What they all came up with is not a failure, and it’s definitely worth watching if you were a fan of the original episodes, but it is a disappointment.
The first thing worth mentioning with pretty much any comedy is whether or not it made me laugh consistently, and I hate to say that Season Four of Arrested Development did not. There was one great big belly-laugh and a smattering of other chuckles and laughs, but nothing like the way the original series made me laugh uproariously (and still does – I was laughing at every episode when I watched episodes last week), much less contemporary favorites like Bob’s Burgers, New Girl, or the apparently-departed Happy Endings. My lack of laughter, I think, ties right into why the new season doesn’t quite work: it wasn’t made like a traditional TV comedy.
Most TV comedies are about 22 minutes long and tell discreet stories based on the predicaments that established characters have fallen into. The original Arrested Development was masterful at this, using every spare second of runtime or inch of screenspace to cram in joke upon joke in layers that built into a kind of insane satirical fugue. It’s a fairly strict form as far as storytelling goes, but it works well on TV where individual episodes can run through individual plots extremely quickly even as the master story of a season takes months to develop. Even more, this truncated storytelling format makes can make for rich comedy because it throws the characters into a cauldron and then asks them to get out in the time it takes to eat a hoagie and some fries. The confines of genre mean that the stakes of the action are faster (and funnier) by necessity.
However, budget and schedule concerns meant that Mitch Hurwitz and his team could not make the revived Arrested Development in such a format. Reassembling the cast, whose work on the original series has given them all a lot of subsequent jobs, was considered prohibitively costly and even if the money could be found working out a shooting schedule was not going to be possible. So, each episode of the new season would focus exclusively on one character from the Bluth family with the other appearing here and there as the story might dictate. In addition, the episodes were structured not as self-contained stories but as chapters designed to catch up viewers on what these characters had been up to since February 2006.
The end result of this was a season of television that was extremely daring in its ambition and intricate long-form plotting, but deeply disappointing as a new chapter in one of TV’s great comedy series. The most immediate impact of the change in story structure is how loose and unkempt the new episodes feel. Clocking in between 33 and 37 minutes each, the individual episodes made for Netflix are nearly twice the length of their broadcast predecessors. When combined with the loss of the larger ensemble in favor of individual leads the new episodes feel, well, dull. There are no stakes to much of the proceedings since there is no immediate obstacle to overcome in the next 20 minutes, very little new character development, and even less of a feeling of necessity. Hurwitz and company tried to offset the lack of traditional build-up and catharsis in each episode by building the season-long story arc as a quasi-mystery that ends with all the Bluths reconvening at a fake holiday celebration called Cinco de Quatro. Unfortunately, the interactions wind up feeling forced and perfunctory rather than wild and exhilarating as they once did. A friend of mine described the season as one 7.5 hour episode of Arrested Development, which is pretty much right.
What’s more, that 7.5 hour episode doesn’t even have a real ending! The whole thing builds to a moment of emotional and physical violence that feels out of place in the show’s universe and resolves none of the myriad plotlines that have been introduced. Apparently Hurwitz has plans to tie things up with another season or movie, but…why would you make a 450-minute long epic of a TV season just to punt any and all resolutions down the road? It seems to have worked out for some viewers, but the effect for me was to make watching one of my favorite TV shows ever feel like work. Which just makes me blue in the face.