Binging is the new black. And thus the desire to not only gorge, but to insta-weigh-in on the new Netflix season of “Arrested Development,” which premiered over the Memorial Day Weekend, is in full effect. The cult of ‘AD’ has grown to a deafening roar over the years, and the anticipation and expectations at the prospect of the show’s triumphant return were at an all time high going into the weekend. “Arrested Development” was neglected and then canceled in 2006 by 20th Century Fox and somehow defied the odds to return seven years later with a new lease on life thanks to Netflix and their own expanding desire for (semi) original programming. But if you’re disappointed with this new season, it may be easy to understand why. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.
Seven years after the fact, “Arrested Development” is a little damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If the show and its producers dared to follow the same comfy formula from the Fox years, many would likely cry rehash. And if you dare attempt something new you instantly take viewers who came to love that very formula out of their comfort zone and risk alienating them. It’s a precarious equation to find that perfect harmony and the latest season of the Bluth family misadventures definitely pushes the structure of the show into a new direction while keeping the familiar characters and dynamics. And perhaps it pushes things too far.
Series creator Mitch Hurwitz and his writers have, without question, mounted an incredibly ambitious show, but ambition alone cannot carry a piece of art if the texture doesn’t add up emotionally and comically. And what happens when ambition flies with overly-charted navigation? Complex, intricate and dense, what happens when a show is clinically over-plot-plotted to death? While this isn’t exactly what ails “Arrested Development” some of these issues are part of the new series’ fundamental problem.
Like you, many of us hoovered up “Arrested Development” this weekend and so this writer thought he would try and examine this season, what we learned, what worked, what didn’t work and how it succeeded, failed and why. Be forewarned you probably shouldn’t read this before you’ve seen the show, but that the same time we’ll be discussing the show in broad terms so there’ll be few spoilers.
1. The main formula is reversed and the core family ensemble dynamic is gone.
“Arrested Development” used to feature relatively simple plots with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jokes that flew by at lightning speed. The Netflix series does the opposite: employing rapid-fire plot points that go by so fast, some audience members can’t keep up with the jokes that are all too often plot-based. It’s a disorienting effect, and it’s difficult to settle in and enjoy the show when you can’t tell what the actual central plot is. More importantly, that plot is constantly evolving and by the time it the show concludes, one’s not really sure what the main plot exactly was.
The original show had a pretty simple concept: it was the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together. In other words, it had a main protagonist — Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) — and his central goal was to begrudgingly look past his family’s dysfunction and madness and act as a leader to guide them through troubled times. The main storyline detailed the Bluth Corporation’s investigation by the feds, with the CEO and patriarch George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), being arrested under allegations of defrauding investors, and it showed how Michael would try and keep the company and family afloat amidst all the scrutiny.
“Arrested Development” the Netflix series, loses that vital ensemble dynamic with more of an “everyone fend for themselves” mentality. The family has indeed fallen apart, and the once tirelessly patient Michael has finally abandoned them all. Without that glue, the family, Michael, and arguably the show are in a form of disarray. In fact, each episode begins with “…and now the story of a wealthy family whose future was abruptly canceled, and the one [insert family member noun] who had no choice but to keep [family member pronoun] together. It’s [insert character’s name]’s ‘Arrested Development.’” And while this singular character approach is different and unique, it doesn’t always work.
2. Like the flaw of many spin-off shows or movies, many of these characters work better in an ensemble and can’t really sustain an episode on their own.
Yes, instead of a family ensemble, “Arrested Development” the Netflix series tracks each of the nine family members individually with some characters getting two episodes a piece out of the fifteen. Surprisingly, some of the most popular family members, Tobias (David Cross) and Gob (Will Arnett) have some of the least essential episodes to their name (granted, Tobias’ second solo ep #9 “Smashed” is pretty good). Some like Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and Lucille (Jessica Walter) can barely sustain their own outings. And strangely enough, characters who don’t seem like they could sustain an entire episode, Maeby (Alia Shawkat) in ep #12 “Señoritis,” and George Michael (Michael Cera) in eps #13 “It Gets Better” and #15 “Blockheads” have some of the best ones.
It’s like the middle-eight song bridge concept: The bridge in a song works so well because it only arrives once in a song and unlike the chorus or verse, it’s never repeated. It leaves you wanting more. But “Arrested Development” flies in the face of that concept, letting the individual parts, and not the sum, take center stage. Sometimes the concept does buck the conventional wisdom. Buster’s (Tony Hale) episode #14 “Off The Hook” is particularly good and arguably one of the best (and Buster is conspicuously absent from the show and one can speculate Hale’s “Veep” scheduling conflicts affected his character’s presence the most). In this sense, there are simply too few essential episodes and a lot of it acts as half-heartedly funny filler.
3. The show is too long and the story painfully dragged out.
The original “Arrested Development” is exactly 22 minutes per episode. In contrast, the shortest episode of the new season is 28 minutes and the average length is around 30-31 minutes, with several episodes clocking in at 35 minutes. What’s an extra 10 minutes or so? Everything. In 22 minutes, “Arrested Development” whizzes by and is brilliantly economical and tight. It leaves you wanting more (see above). In contrast, many of these episodes feel tired. In fact, the entire story of this new season seems overly stretched thin. The original concept was 10 episodes and that expanded to 15 and we wonder if the show would have been better served by an overall tighter season in both episode length and number of episodes.
4. Too much time is spent tracing where the characters have been in the last seven years.
Each character episode has a three act formula to it: the aftermath of the 2006 finale (Lucille trying to flee on the Queen Mary with the Feds hot on her trail and Michael and his father sailing off to Cabo San Lucas), what happened in the intervening years and where the family members are in their current situation. The problem is, not everyone’s intervening years are funny and interesting and the aftermath is seen nine different times from nine different perspectives and after the first few, the rest are kind of inessential and pointless. It’s the “where they are now” that’s interesting, but two-thirds of each episode is eaten up by where they’ve been and what they’ve done (it’s telling that in the case of the younger characters, George Michael and Maeby’s intervening years are the funniest episodes).
5. The guest stars: some work, some don’t
Perhaps the biggest fundamental shift of this new season was employing actors to play the younger versions of George Sr. & Lucille, whereas in the past, the actors would play themselves in different hair and makeup. But it’s curious why the producers would change this paradigm. Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig play George and Lucille respectively in the new season, and while Wiig is rather great, Rogen doesn’t make for any kind of believable George Sr. which essentially throws the conceit out the window every time it’s attempted.
Past guest stars return: Carl Weathers as himself, Henry Winkler as the Bluth family’s inept lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn, Ben Stiller as the rival Gob magician Tony Wonder, Mae Whitman as George Michael’s ex-girlfriend Ann Veal, Scott Baio as attorney Bob Loblaw, Judy Greer as George Sr.’s faithful ex-secretary Kitty Sanchez, Liza Minnelli as the penthouse neighbor and rival Lucille Austero and Justin Grant Wade as Steve Holt, Gob’s unwelcome and unwanted son (who it should be said looks like he aged unfortunately twice as fast as the rest of the cast besides the wax museum that is Minnelli, inexplicably even more artificial looking than when we last saw her).
While new characters are played by Garcelle Beauvais, Chris Diamantopoulos, Maria Bamford, John Slattery, Max Winkler, John Krasinski and Mary Lynn Rajskub to name a few, it’s only Terry Crews (as the right-winged politically-incorrect politician Herbert Love), Isla Fisher (as Rebel Alley, Ron Howard’s daughter and Michael’s new object of affection) that are truly necessary, funny and effective characters (though Maria Bamford as DeBrie Bardeaux, Tobias’ new flame is pretty good too).
6. Michael has gone darker.
Perhaps, one of the most emotionally resonant elements of the show was a warm and fuzzy ending where Michael Bluth — who had somewhat of a sanctimonious savior complex — ended up surprisingly learning something from each one of his dysfunctional family members. As screwed up as they were, it was often them teaching Michael the true meaning of “family comes first.”
The de facto straight guy of the series, Michael was the one — often hilariously exasperated — character that the audience could empathize with and relate to within this sea of dysfunction. Otherwise, everyone’s shitballs crazy and no one would care, right? But “Arrested Development” loses the Michael anchor in this new series and essentially makes him almost as wayward and selfish as everyone else. Granted, Michael was never perfect. He was always a poor listener to his son George Michael and while filled with good intentions often put his needs before other members of his family. Still, compared to the rest, the flawed Michael Bluth was still a saint and was the default moral compass.
In the new series, Michael’s attempting to make a movie based on his family with Ron Howard’s Imagine Entertainment. It’s mostly for a girl (Fisher) and Michael’s main m.o. throughout the show is getting each of the family members to sign off on their life rights so he can make his movie. The second half of his story is admonishing his family members and cutting their characters out of the movie. And yes, he’s kind of a dick for it.
But Michael starts out strong. Episode #1 “Flight of the Phoenix” is great and one of the best episodes. It introduces this darker, sadder, more pathetic side of Michael and finds him living in George Michael’s college dorm. Having “left” the family, Michael has no place to go and essentially crashes with his son and it’s fascinating to see this new dynamic emerge. George Michael is no longer a child and doesn’t want his father to ruin his college experience and the typically clueless Michael has no clue. Once best friends, with George Michael mostly looking up to his father, “Arrested Development” begins with a fascinatingly new and darker dynamic between these two and the episode ends with George Michael kicking his father out. But because of the multiple storylines and tangents, we don’t get to fully experience this new relationship dichotomy until almost the end of the show and that’s rather disappointing. We’d also argue their dynamic is the only true new one of the show and all the other interactions of the family members are largely the same as the original show.
7. The Rashomon Effect on amphetamines grows tired.
Several events in the show are seen from multiple perspectives. The entire cast is actually only together in two scenes (the aftermath of the Queen Mary escape attempt and the family meeting/George Michael’s going-off-to-college celebration) and many of these sequences are shown repeatedly. In fact, scenes from each episode are repeated at least once in another episode and everything relentlessly ties together. But while overly-clever and inventive, this formula grows tired over the 15-episode arc and rather than revisit the same storyline or scene again (albeit often coming with a new twist the 2nd time its shown), you often just want the story to move forward and see where everything is going to go instead of this constant herky-jerky rewinding to the past. The Rashomon POV gimmick often becomes tedious.
8. It’s self-referential and meta-fictional to the point of overkill.
Some will disagree, but Ron Howard stepping out from behind the narrator’s chair and into the plot of the series sort of kills the allure of the never-seen narrator. The movie-within-the-series meta-plot is fairly predictable and aside from elements like Kitty working for Imagine Entertainment (she fired Maeby from the company years ago) and a few gags, we see far too much of Ron Howard and this storyline isn’t great. There are sometimes fun and amusing allusions to past plot points and moments and while cute, the show is often loaded with these elements and they sometimes feel like mandatory baggage. Some time it works brilliantly — Michael and Gob fighting in a children’s ball pit to the “Balls In The Air” song is hilarious — other times — like the return of the “Charlie Brown” sadfaced moment — it’s not quite flat, but it’s also not entirely unpredictable either. That reference is a bit played and doesn’t really do much other than return to a fan-favorite gag.
9. The main plot of the season is weak, keeps morphing and by the time it’s over is irrelevant.
So what’s the story of “Arrested Development” the new season exactly? Well, it’s kind of about the family’s new plan to get back on their feet, and of course the plan excludes Michael this time who’s off trying to get his movie off the ground. So the “story” is ostensibly George Sr. and Lucille Bluth “stealing” a Stan Sitwell (Ed Begley Jr.) plan to build a wall between California and Mexico to block out illegal immigrants from entering the country. But this plan keeps changing and then eventually fades into the background. The company, still alive is now the Austero/Bluth Company and essentially owned and run by Lucille 2 (Liza Minnelli). And while her part of the story is also essential, it doesn’t amount to much in the end. There’s very little of a main thread to latch onto — which adds to the confusion — and therefore the series feels like the further wacky adventures of the Bluth family and not a lot more.
10. It’s hyper dense and ambitious and sometimes this works against the show.
“It took [series creator Mitch Hurwitz] 25 minutes to explain to me what I was looking at,” David Cross told Entertainment Weekly a few weeks ago. He was describing the intricate writer’s room story map which contained post-it notes, index cards and different colored yarn pinned down connecting several plot points explaining the entire show visually. “And I still didn’t get everything.”
Imagine how the audience must feel. “Arrested Development” is so dense, interwoven and interconnected, it can often sap the enjoyment and funny right out of the show because audience members are puzzled, scratching their heads and wondering what the hell is going on and there have been multiple complaints to that end.
And to be fair, to the show’s credit, it gets better as it gets deeper into the show. Those halfway through the “Arrested Development” season right now should not lose hope entirely. It gets better down the line, though arguably not until episode 10 or 11. And that’s a long time to wait, but these when these labyrinth-like threads really start to come together in the end that’s when its brilliance really begins to shine through. And, not to mention, the interwoven plot finally starts to become funny and not just convoluted.
11. “Arrested Development” always got better with multiple viewings.
“Arrested Development” was always layered, at least joke wise. And now it’s over-layered both plot, joke and plot-connected-to-joke wise. The appreciation for the show has increased with multiple viewings and it’s very possible that this could be the case for the Netflix season, but if that’s indeed what transpires, it’s a long tail game that may not pay off any time soon.
12. The entire series is supposed to serve as the first act for a would be movie, but that doesn’t quite work either.
The inherent problem here is twofold. First acts in films are supposed to establish the universe of its story (check) and propel the story forward, the basic idea being: a significant act occurs at the end of the first act leaving the protagonist to commit to whatever narrative challenge or obstacle they face (most of the time anyhow). It’s no going back at this point for the central protagonists.
But “Arrested Development” mostly lacks a central protagonist, the family ends in more disarray than ever and the series concludes on much more of a TV-like cliffhanger. Movies and TV are two different mediums and given the fact that ‘AD’ doesn’t even really work in 35 minute chunks it remains to be seen if the show’s format could work over the span of a two hour movie.
The Bottom Line Mini Review: Netflix’s ‘Arrested Development’ Miscalculates; Emphasizes Dense Plotting At The Expense Of Humor & Satisfying Conclusion
Complex, layered and dense? Yes, but not necessarily always funny. You might be frustrated, but stay the course, before you abandon “Arrested Development.” The show begins to get better later in the game when the convoluted storylines start to come together and sometimes in a way that’s shockingly brilliant and pretty funny. That said, overall, this new season is really uneven and the producers make the fundamental error of confusing dense, layered and complex for deepness, comedy and a satisfying experience. The intricacies of the show could turn off a lot of people because of instead of laughing they’re going have no clue what’s going on.
The show emphasizes it’s interconnectedness over humor to a fault, essentially obsessed with the way it all connects, the bigger picture, without focusing on the here and now. Also the setup is fundamentally flawed — there’s little of the group dynamic that made the show so beloved, and the cutting to A, B, C, & D storylines is now no longer achieved within one episode, but takes place often several episodes down the road, and by then may have lost its impact. The new direction, while again, highly ambitious is nowhere near as tight and punchy, and its ending is far from satisfying.
Has “Arrested Development” lost its touch? Maybe not exactly, but it’s sure missed a step. We suspect, Hurwitz and co. will want to attempt a post mortem rethink about the future of the series. [C+]