Friday, June 7, 2013

Season 4 of Arrested Development Takes Big Risks and Mostly Succeeds

As the old saying goes, "Anticipation has a habit to set you up for disappointment."  If that's the case, then season 4 of Arrested Development had the potential to be a massively underwhelming endeavor.  After all, Arrested Development is my favorite comedy of all time.  Even season 3, which often gets maligned as being the point where the cracks in the show started appearing, is mostly brilliant in my opinion.  Since its cancellation, Mitch Hurwitz and various members of the cast frequently talked about doing a movie, but after so many false starts and dead ends, the internet became trained to just roll their eyes whenever another news story about a potential movie popped up.  Then there was the news that there'd be a new season on Netflix and up until the very moment the episodes dropped, some people were still convinced that this was just a giant practical joke.  Well, season 4 is here, and it was never going to live up to the massive expectations, so instead of just producing "more Arrested Development," they smartly decided to go in a different direction.  The end result -- 15 episodes that each spotlight a single character and interlock together -- is an ambitious mess.

Fortunately, I tend to like messy things.  Some of my favorite works of art -- Magnolia, The Sopranos, Buffy the Vampire Slayer -- have a shaggy, inconsistent feel to them and season 4 of Arrested Development is no different.  Watching it, the thing I was most reminded of was the final season of Moral Orel which also played with temporal continuity, descended into darkness, and explored various character points of view.  Season 3 of Moral Orel is one of my favorite television seasons of all time, but I wasn't impressed with the first few installments of season 4 of Arrested Development.  I had a bit of a sweaty, collar-tugging, "oh boy..." feeling in those initial episodes, which are mostly bogged down by the nature of the season's structure.  Because of the narrative's building nature, those first couple of episodes are filled with a ton of exposition, trying to get pieces on to the board that the rest of the season will be operating on.  The choice of character spotlighting is a curious decision as well.  "Borderline Personalities" and "Indian Takers," the second and third episodes, focus on George and Lindsay respectively, and they're both kind of excruciating because they spotlight characters that can't necessarily sustain an entire episode.  Another problem is that the pacing feels a bit off in the early goings.  When Arrested Development was airing on Fox, the episodes were 22 minutes, and they were tightly constructed pieces of comedy, with three stories colliding into each other and ricocheting manically.  The majority of these Netflix episodes are 30 minutes or longer and even the best ones feel a bit flabby, but episodes 2 and 3 are especially airless.

Things quickly improve from there, as "The B. Team" comes along and shows the first signs of life in this new season.  Episode 4 marks the return of many familiar elements, as Michael's storyline gets to tap into a bit of the Hollywood satire that the show used to handle so deftly.  It also brings back Kitty, who's always been one the best side characters (her "no YOU watch YOUR back" is the biggest laugh in the trailer).  Episode 5, "A New Start," is even better, focusing on fan favorite Tobias and his life in the years since the finale.  These episodes serve as a single piece of an entire puzzle, but this one may be the episode that works the best as an individual installment.  The entire thing is just brilliantly constructed farce, using Tobias's aloof naivety to great comedic effect and concluding in a wonderful comedic setpiece.

After another George and another Lindsay episode ("Red Hairing," which lasts 37 minutes!) that are equally as soporific as their firsts, the season straps in for a final stretch of episodes that are magnificent.  "A New Attitude", "Señoritis," and "It Gets Better" are the three best episodes of the season and they all come one after another.  "Señoritis," which is a Maeby episode, might be my favorite of the season and it's an indication that if there's one thing that season 4 needed, it was more Maeby.  George-Michael's the focus of "It Gets Better" and it's the episode the best justifies the structure of the season, containing a reveal that was so meticulously built up that I was howling with laughter when the tables were turned.  Buster's episode, "Off the Hook," isn't as strong as the two that come before it, but it's got some pretty cutting political satire.  The final episode, particularly the closing scene, has been very divisive, but I found it to be quite cathartic.  If there's one main throughline to take away from this season, it's the growing rift between Michael and George-Michael.  In a season full of characters morphing into other characters and moments where it seemed George-Michael was becoming a "true Bluth," the final shot is a powerful button on the events leading up to it.

From the looks of it, everyone's enjoyment of this season is dependent on a few major factors: whether you enjoyed the "mystery," how much you laughed at the jokes, and how "complete" it felt.  While I don't think that the mystery alone is enough to satisfy those who are focusing on it, I thought it was quite fun to see things snap into place in the way that they do.  Snippets established back in episode 3 don't get revealed until episode 9, jokes get built upon in chunks, and the punchline often preempts the setup.  Quite frankly, I laughed a whole lot at these episodes, especially after the first few.  It would've been easy for the writers to just trot out the same jokes, as if to say "Remember that thing you liked?  Here's more of it!"  But there's a surprising amount of restraint in this fourth season.   There's a dreadful "loose seal" joke in one of the early episodes, but for every contrived bit of fan service, there are three more callbacks that get deepened (my favorite being the advancement of the "I've made a huge mistake" bit).  As I mentioned above, I wasn't unsatisfied with the conclusion and found these 15 episodes to be complete in their own incomplete way.  There are dangling plot threads, but the season told complete thoughts about the characters and where they were in life after the events on the Queen Mary.  This season is filled with darkness -- sex offenders, endless roofy cycles, methadone addicts -- and some people were put off by it, but nobody could've expected anything good from the Bluths after the season 3 finale.  There's something Sopranos-esque about these episodes, as characters flirt with the idea of changing and bettering themselves, only to come to the precipice and turn back around.

There are definitely things that about the season that didn't work for me as I was trudging through it.  Some of the plotlines were overly labyrinthine, to the point where I was never 100% sure what exactly was going on in the George and Lindsay stories.  Though I recognize the need to accommodate everyone's schedules, I'm still not sure if the one-character spotlight structure was the right way to go, since the show always thrived on the crackling interaction between the ensemble.  I watched these episodes in less than 48 hours and the experience was at once exhilarating and exhausting.  By the end, I had forgiven many of the flaws and just marveled at how impressively structured and insanely funny most of it was.  It's basically a gigantic, 8 hour long farce, one that I imagine will play even better on the rewatch.  Mitch Hurwitz is still pushing for a movie and these 15 episodes set one up pretty extensively, but even if we never get an Arrested Development film, I'd be satisfied with season 4, which was one of my favorite TV seasons of the year.

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