Unwelcome Developments

Review: ‘Arrested Development’ mixes up formula, gets mixed results

May 31, 2013

There’s something dangerous about resurrecting a piece of pop culture to capitalize on nostalgia. Fans are apt to want more of the same while also demanding something original, forcing the creators to traipse through an artistic minefield. Veer too far one way or the other, and you’re going to end up bloodied.

The fourth season of Arrested Development does not cross that minefield unscathed.

A recap: Arrested Development tells the story of a wealthy family caught in a series of criminal and social scandals. Strait-laced son Michael (Jason Bateman) spent three seasons extricating his corrupt real estate magnate father George (Jeffrey Tambor) from prison while enduring the barbs of his ur-WASP mother Lucille (Jessica Walter).

Michael also guides his ragtag band of siblings as they stumble through life. There’s the semi-professional magician G.O.B. (pronounced like the Bible’s "Job" and played by Will Arnett); the man-child Buster (Tony Hale); would-be social activist Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), her would-be actor husband Tobias (David Cross), and her actually-a-movie-executive teenaged daughter Maeby (Alia Shawkat). The show’s soul, to the extent it had one, resided in Michael’s relationship with his awkward teenage son, George Michael (Michael Cera).

The whole gang returns for a fourth season. The more things change, the more they stay the same: George and Lucille are still skirting the law; Tobias and Lindsay are still trying to find themselves; Buster is still seeking a mother-figure; G.O.B. is still seeking respect as a magician; and George Michael is still awkward.

For a sitcom, Arrested Development was famously dense. Mitchell Hurwitz’s show lacks standalone episodes, meaning that missing a single episode damages not only one’s enjoyment but also one’s comprehension of the series. Running jokes proliferated and callbacks (jokes referring to previous episodes) ran alongside call-forwards (jokes referring to episodes that had yet to occur). It made for rewarding repeat viewing—but frustrating network television viewing.

Arrested Development suffered a famously turbulent existence during its three seasons on the air at Fox. Despite bouncing around timeslots and earning spectacularly low ratings, the show nevertheless garnered critical acclaim and a cult audience on DVD following its 2006 cancellation. Rumors of a movie persisted for years until, seeking titles to bolster its stable of original content, Netflix purchased the rights and commissioned a fourth season.

Producing that season was problematic. The cast was extremely busy. Jason Bateman alone has starred in 13 feature films since 2009. Between 2007 and 2010, Michael Cera starred in seven feature films. Tony Hale has had steady work on Veep since 2012, and Will Arnett has taken on featured roles on 30 Rock in addition to a pair of failed TV series. Getting all these guys in the same room together for an extended period of time is something of a chore.

So Hurwitz decided to do the show without getting all of them in the same room for an extended period of time. The whole cast was reportedly on set for just two days. Instead of filming the show as an ensemble comedy, the creators decided to shoot it as a series of one-shot episodes: An episode centered on Michael followed by an episode centered on George Sr. followed by an episode centered on Lindsay and so on. Tying together all of these disparate stories would be a pair of flashbacks and a flash-forward that would cap the season.

The new season of Arrested Development’s first major failing is directly related to this decision. It was an audacious, unwieldy plan that simply doesn’t come together.

Arrested Development’s first three seasons are best understood as something like guacamole. There’s a soft, bland matter holding everything together (avocado; Michael) blended with minute amounts of eye-popping spices (ground cumin, cayenne pepper, jalapeno peppers; Tobias, Lindsay, Buster, and G.O.B.), vegetables (onions, tomatoes, garlic; Lucille, George Sr., Maeby), and just a bit of sweet (fresh lime; George Michael) to create something amazing.

Hurwitz seems to have decided that if you love all of these ingredients together, you’ll love them just as much separately. As the innuendo-prone Tobias might write, watching an individual episode focused solely on the quirky spices is like trying to swallow a big spoonful of cumin. You’ll gag on it.

Which leads to the fourth season’s second big failing: its treatment of Michael and his son, George Michael. Seemingly aware that focusing several episodes of the show on bland old Michael would be kind of dull—he is, after all, the straight man to a crew of cutups—his character has been altered. Instead of being a regular, if put-upon, guy, he has devolved into a pathetic sad sack who systematically destroys his relationship with his son over the course of 15 episodes.

To be fair, the first three seasons of Arrested Development always hinted at this side of Michael. He had a tendency to smother George Michael without realizing it and occasionally skated on the wrong side of morality to help his family. But he was fundamentally decent and likable, the only character in the bunch you could see being friends with. That is no longer the case. As Jonathan V. Last succinctly wrote, he’s now a "pathetic, self-involved idiot."

These are the mortal sins. There is no shortage of venial ones. Free of the requirement that episodes run just 22 minutes to accommodate network schedules, the Netflix episodes feel bloated at 26 to 36 minutes each. There are also weird technical hiccups, like Ron Howard’s narration overlapping, and drowning out, the dialogue. The ADR (additional dialogue recording, performed after the fact to fix botched line readings) is rampant, distracting, and poorly edited into the final product. The endless recaps of previous episodes necessitated by the season’s inefficient structure and absurdly intricate subplots are repetitive and aggravating.

Still, several of the new running gags are quite funny, though hard to describe. If you like the original run of the show, you’ll know them when you see them. And the second-to-last episode focused on Buster is gut-bustingly funny (perhaps in part because he’s in so little of the rest of the show). And one can’t help feeling the season will improve somewhat on a second viewing.

The season ends on a downer and there’s a teaser for a "next episode," suggesting more Arrested Development is in the works. One hopes that if the show-runners do decide to unleash another season on fans, they do so the right way, rather than the convenient way.

Published under: Movie Reviews