Arrested Development is an acquired taste. Over three seasons, the show, featuring an ensemble cast focusing on an extremely dysfunctional family, struggled through incarceration, treason charges, brother-sister love, magic tricks gone awry, and plenty of other absurd situations — sometimes (not unlike 30 Rock) with little concern for probability. The show also mixed lowbrow humor (like puns, or names like Bob Loblaw) with a postmodern, self-conscious narrator (voiced by none other than Ron Howard, who appeared in the final episode). Episodes typically stood alone, while continuing a wide array of storylines. The scenes from the next episode, played at the end of the show, usually defied the announcer and instead offered a humorous coda to the current episode, which could sometimes feel like the episode sped up in its final half minute, jumping forward to just the highlights.
But nothing epitomized the show’s style than its love of callbacks. The fact that no one in the family seems to know what a chicken sounds like, for example. The dejected Charlie Brown music. The music Gob uses to introduces his inevitably disastrous magic acts. Or, in the third season, a musical cue announcing “Mr. F,” originally used as part of a vaguely James Bond-like mystery but later used in vastly different contexts. Or the ostensible focus of the show, Michael Bluth, once played a lawyer nobly prosecuting Captain Hook in a school play.
There was no denying the show’s brilliance. The actors were excellent, and the characters almost iconic. But the show’s effect was often more clever than funny. It was impossible not to appreciate how many ways the writers could pun on the name of family matriarch Lucille. Or how a character’s loss of a hand was part of a season-long motif of hands, hooks, and their loss. If this was a postmodern comedy, it suffered from the same syndrome afflicting much of postmodern fiction: that it’s more clever than emotionally engaging.
Don’t get me wrong: most sitcoms aren’t funny. Most also don’t age particularly well, whereas Arrested Development has only gotten better with age. What was once an offbeat show on Fox now feels like a precursor for so much of what’s been good in television comedy of recent years. Metafictional nods to the audience and breaking the sitcom format in various ways have become increasingly commonplace. And I don’t think I’ve ever finished an episode of Arrested Development not wanting to watch the next episode. But Arrested Development is the kind of show that makes you want to tell someone how clever it is, not how funny it is. And that’s fine.
After seven years off the air, during which Arrested Development become widely venerated and mourned by its ever-growing audience, a fourth season, consisting of 15 episodes, debuted on Netflix on 16 May of last year — exactly a year ago today. Nothing on Netflix has gotten anywhere near the buzz of its House of Cards. But producing a new season of Arrested Development was a huge feather in the cap of Netflix, which demonstrated that the service could provide a venue for beloved and celebrated content that didn’t quite fit anywhere else.
There was only one problem: almost everyone who starred in the show has subsequently seen their star rise. Jason Bateman and Michael Cera are movie stars now. Most of the rest of the cast has become almost ubiquitous, not only in television but also in movie roles. Scheduling them to appear together was a nightmare, especially without movie money.
To solve this, the episodes of the new season each focused on a single character, and there are only a few scenes in which everyone’s together. Each character’s episodes run concurrently with those of other characters, so that we see the same events from multiple perspectives. Each time, we learn and see more about what happened, and things that were unexplained in one iteration become explained in the next. To fill each character’s arc, new characters are introduced, often played by big-name guest stars. Getting the original cast together was tough, but the show had acquired such a reputation that plenty of celebrities were only to apply to appear.
It’s a brilliant artistic solution — or a couple solutions — to a very practical limitation. Many of the most effective artistic choices have been a consequence of such limitations, whether self-imposed or otherwise. Both the shark in Jaws and the alien in Alien were supposed to be shown prominently, until technology failed to produce convincing results, and the fact that these monsters are so rarely shown was widely seen as enhancing their horror. But when this dynamic is widely known, the odds are good that critics will fault the result. When critics are aware of any “problems” with a production, it’s too easy to attribute any weakness in the final product on those perceived problems, as if it’s a Rosetta Stone that explains everything.
If you listen to a lot of critics, the fourth season of Arrested Development is good but doesn’t quite measure up to the first three seasons. The idea of episodes starring different characters is a good one, critics say, but the novelty of seeing scenes from multiple perspectives wears off over time. And while it’s fun seeing all the guest stars, critics say, it’s hard not to realize they’re only there as a substitute for the main cast being all together — and it’s hard not to want more scenes like that.
On this final point, I agree, but only because it would have been great to see the entire cast together again in the season’s final episode. The few scenes with everyone together chronologically occur very early in the years covered by the fourth season. In fact, they follow directly from the ending of the third season. While these scenes recur in several episodes, they feel tied to the beginning of things, so it would be nice to have everyone together for one scene at the end. I don’t feel that seeing the family together is missing at all from the individual episodes, but after so many episodes focusing on single characters, seeing everyone on screen with each other at the end, after the many changes and indignities each has suffered, would have felt very gratifying. It’s as if each family member is a thread, spun out of those early scenes, and they sort of spin around one another, touching at various points. The end is one of those points, in which everyone seems to interact — just not at once. It feels like the threads are converging again, producing a bit of symmetry, but they never quite do.
On everything else, however, the critics couldn’t be more wrong. It’s too easy to lionize the original three seasons. They’ve kind of become classics. Their characters and situations are iconic. But like I said, they’re more clever than funny. And the fourth season is frequently laugh-out-loud hilarious. I often had to stop playing the episodes, because I couldn’t hear them over my own laughter — and that never happens.
It’s true that these episodes do break the Arrested Development formula. After all, this was an ensemble show. Breaking that ensemble into separate episodes is a pretty central change. But what’s amazing is how well this works.
Maybe the ensemble formula’s just not for me. Personally, I’m not a fan of A-plot / B-plot structures. Too often, they don’t feel united. I have the same problem with super-hero movies clogged with villains and plots. Usually, there’s no reason they should all be happening simultaneously, and splitting them up would unclutter them — and let subplots organically grow from the central story, instead of being shoehorned where they don’t belong. I like a sense of precision in my art, like everything’s in its place to create a whole. There’s nothing wrong with the interwoven stories of the original three season’s ensemble cast. But its certainly acts to prevent intimacy. Every time Gob’s story touches you, you’re off to focus on someone else’s wacky situation, so you never really get to stay with that touching realization, nor explore its fascinating implications.
The fourth season gets to do this. All the characters are perfectly consistent with how they’ve previously been presented, but they’ve never felt more like actual people. The pathos that was once used for a quick laugh becomes part of some real character studies — which, paradoxically, become more humorous. Their various desperations and blindnesses are still used for laughs, and to set up bizarre situations, but these self-deceptions attain a kind of universal quality, permitting us to see how they’re only exaggerated ways of how we deceive ourselves.
Michael thinks his good-guy attempt to mimic what he considers good and proper behavior will lead to success and win him friends, and he refuses to learn when it doesn’t. Gob wants to be loved, but he’s incapable of loving. Lindsay’s such a sucker for the new and exciting that she jumps from one bad decision to the next, sticking with each for too long. Tobias’s naïveté, including about his sexuality, is still hilarious, but he has a kind of Ed Wood quality — his dreams may be stupid, but he pursues them so beautifully, and he may be the only good person of the bunch.
When we see the same scene from another perspective, we experience that pleasure of recognition, as well as the joy of learning new information and seeing situations from another viewpoint. But we also see the terrible distance between people. All of these characters are suffering. They’re lost and struggling for meaning, or identity, or for things they want that are important to them. But each of them is focused on themselves, unable to appreciate each other’s suffering except superficially. They haven’t seen what we’ve seen. Each character is on his or her own trajectory, struggling with their own psychological and situational problems. They collide with each other — sometimes literally — but they hide the desperation that defines them, and they’re not interested in learning the desperation that defines the other. It feels like a metaphor for the human condition, or at least for broken families and broken people. Of course, the characters were just as selfish and just as broken in the first three seasons. But now, we see their short-sightedness and feel their distance. And in the process, we understand them better. They were always alone, even when together.
As different as the fourth season is, it’s also an extension of what we’ve seen before.
Critics might complain about the guest stars, but the first three seasons had plenty of guest starts. Henry Winkler, Scott Baio, Liza Minelli, Carl Weathers, and Ed Begley Jr. all had recurring roles in the first three seasons. Julia Louis-Dreyfus appeared prominently in several episodes, as did none other than Charlize Theron. Yes, the effect of a guest star is different on an ensemble show, whereas in season four they become main characters in episodes focused on a single character. But there’s no reason an ensemble show can’t have such episodes. Indeed, many ensemble series have done so before — albeit not as ambitiously as season four of Arrested Development. Sure, it was probably easier to book these guest stars this time around, but their use is part of a long tradition on the show.
The pleasure of watching repeating scenes from multiple perspectives is essentially that of the callback, which was a crucial part of the show’s humor. What season four has done is to take the callback and extend the device into the form of the narrative itself.
And yes, the season does feel like a kind of meta-narrative. But the show’s always had its postmodern and experimental elements, winking at the camera in all kinds of ways.
Sure, you can take anything too far. But when the result works, you haven’t disappeared up your own asshole. You’ve taken your show to the next level.
I enjoy the first three seasons immensely. But season four is the best of all.
This was the relatively spoiler-free piece. A spoiler-ridden addendum exploring season four in more depth will go live tomorrow.