There WILL be spoilers about this new season of Arrested Development below, though I’ll try to keep them to a minimum. Just be warned and don’t complain to me.
If you only watched the first couple episodes of Arrested Development’s fourth season, you are in no way qualified to comment on their quality. It’s probably the most demanding piece of television I’ve watched since The Wire, and that was at least chronological. It might be the most detailed farce I’ve ever seen, with jokes that don’t look like jokes at first, layered callbacks to previous concepts, and scenes that feature jokes on a conceptual, visual, and verbal level all going at the same time. It’s the television equivalent of the proverbial brick joke, where a joke is only ever explained by the punch line of a completely different joke later on. Except it’s about 30 brick jokes going on at any one time, and they’re all stretched out over 7-8 hours.
This isn’t uncharted territory for Arrested Development. What’s amazing is how thoroughly it commits to this structure, stretching it out over 15 half-hour episodes that assume you will watch every installment. That would have been folly when the show debuted in 2003, but now that it’s returned on Netflix most viewers slammed through it within 24 hours. Creator Mitch Hurwitz recommended against doing this, and I have to agree. It’s so dense that it’s a little like eating an entire large pizza in an hour. It tastes good at first, but it’ll stop being amazing right about the time you have to take a break to throw up.
The cast of Arrested Development has almost all moved on to other projects. A couple, like Will Arnett and Michael Cera became legitimate stars on the heels of this show, and are now committed to the hilt. The challenge of getting nine principal cast members on the set at once was more than Hurwitz could handle, so the fourth season spreads them all over the place. We get to see what each character has been up to over the last six years, and almost none of it is good news.
Michael has perhaps fallen the farthest, having completed the family housing project and subsequently lost everything in the housing crash. He’s now forced to live with George Michael in his dorm at UC Irvine, which George Michael is developing a mysterious piece of software. Gob got himself married, then divorced, then entangled in a very strange relationship with rival magician Tony Wonder. George Sr. is trying to bilk the government into building a border wall between the US and Mexico, and then has to try to reverse-bilk them. Tobias and Lindsey have drifted apart, though not as far apart as they initially thought. They both have dead-end flings of their own as they seek out their every selfish fantasy. Lucille is the one who ends up taking the fall for the events of season three, and her stint in prison sends Buster into his own spiral of neediness. And then there’s Maeby, who’s burgeoning career as a movie executive is facing its own challenges. Over all of this is Michael’s attempt to work with Ron Howard to make a movie about his family, various political commentaries, and so on and so forth.
Just running that down makes me feel exhausted, and I barely scratched the surface. The piecemeal episodes make the early going pretty slow, particularly in the two George Sr. episodes, which are funny in the overarching plot but a little thin by themselves. But as the season progresses, different subplots begin to come together. As the different strands begin to come together the true potential of this format becomes clear. When the writers can assume you’ll see every episode, they can create something that is truly long-form. I’ve never seen a show this heavily serialized, and I’m not exaggerating. If you removed one episode there would be an enormous gap, and every moment feels carefully constructed and considered.
The question is, is the new stuff funny? I sure thought so, though a lot of the early episodes have to coast a little on potential more than execution. That potential is largely fulfilled, however. There were big laughs for me in even the weakest episodes, and the best episodes, like those for Tobias, Gob, and George Michael were terrific from beginning to end. It only snowballs as you go too, like the constant callback to Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence.” Like most jokes in Arrested Development, it’s weird the first time, cute the second time, and progressively more and more hilarious the more often they do it.
There’s real joy to seeing these characters once more. Every actor hits their stride quickly, even if scheduling conflicts didn’t give me as much Tony Hale as I’d like. A couple of cast members, noticeably Michael Cera and David Cross, grow their characters by leaps and bounds to great effect. And a huge number of recurring characters, like Barry Zuckercorn, Gene Parmesan, Bob Loblaw, and Lucille Two all are back. I would have liked to see John Michael Higgins return as Wayne Jarvis, but we can’t have everything I guess.
It’s definitely not perfect. The hyper-serialized structure diminishes individual episodes, and payoffs don’t come as quickly as they maybe should. There was such an immediacy to the first three seasons. They managed to be self-contained and still served the larger arc. This season is all larger arc, with nothing self-contained at all. Indeed, the ending leaves some enormous plot strands unresolved, no doubt for further episodes or the long-fabled movie. I think it works, but it does ensure that you can’t just watch one of them, and a lot of its quality won’t be apparent until you’ve watched it a second time. That was the case with the original show, and it goes double here.
But if you aren’t afraid of commitment, it does right by the original run. The best thing I can say is that it is never afraid to try something new. It never leans too heavily on the old gags, and never feels like a retread. For better or worse, it forges ahead. I wish it could have been more immediate, and I wish it wasn’t so tough to get into on the front end. But maybe it’s just better to think of it as a 7 1/2 hour episode rather than a 15-episode season. That’s definitely how it plays, and I can’t wait to go back and see everything a second, third, and most likely a fourth time.