Memorial Day is often marked with many sorts of celebration, but here’s something worth remembering: It was one year ago today that “Arrested Development” rose from the ashes of cancellation for a much-anticipated fourth season. Unfortunately, that anticipation might have worked against the show’s return — season four’s Metacritic ranking dropped from an 89 average to 71, with critics and audiences having problems accepting its unique overlapping of narrative to accommodate Netflix’s enabling of binge-viewing.
But one year later, how has the season settled into the public consciousness? How does it hold up upon repeat viewings? And can we expect anything like it again?
Liz: “Arrested Development” was a big deal for me when it originally aired — watched religiously, still quote to this day. So I was prepared to forgive a lot of season four, but I was also really excited for the promised interweaving of episodes, because I like a comedy that’s not afraid to take chances.
And I was aware of what I was getting into, because I’d been able to attend the official premiere at the Mann Chinese, where they showed the first two Michael episodes. The show was definitely trying something new — did it catch you off-guard?
Ben: I, too, knew what I was getting into. I knew they would be structured in a way that kept all the characters from interacting in the same space, and I think that knowledge is key to enjoying the fourth season. The new, binge-friendly structuring with connections more intricate than the jokes took a good deal of time to adjust to, and I imagine even more so if you didn’t know what was coming. Most “Arrested Development” fans I spoke to had no idea and were pretty turned off. Meanwhile, I longed for more of the group dynamic, but appreciated most of the story as it was told. Did anything really not work for you?
Liz: It was funny — initially, I was really enjoying the structure, all the call-backs to old episodes, the new references and cameos. Kristin Wiig and Seth Rogan, especially, were so delightful. I’d watch an entire series about the adventures of Young Lucille and Young George.
But I did start to get frustrated. The group dynamic is one I missed, but I also felt a bit cheated, going through the episodes, that I was spending so much time with Michael (Jason Bateman), and meanwhile was only getting glimpses of Maeby (Alia Shawkat), who is honestly my favorite character on the show. And even then, she only was featured in one episode! Which honestly was disappointing. Did you feel that anyone else was short-changed?
Ben: I didn’t feel anyone was short-changed specifically, and my favorite character, Gob (Will Arnett), was given the season’s best story with his will they/won’t they romance/bromance with Tony Wonder — an admittedly ridiculous scenario that was sold by the talent of the two men involved (“Same!”).
If anyone got screwed, it was Lindsay. Rendered unrecognizable by unfortunate aging or plastic surgery, it took a few minutes to believe it was Portia de Rossi and then her new relationship plot began and lead no where. She wasn’t kept out of focus, but I was a fan of her role as Michael’s selfish twin sister in seasons one-three. She felt like the same character, but very misused and less interesting without Tobias bolstering her bitchiness.
Liz: Or Lucille. The way she bounced off Lucille was always a treat, and despite a few early touches of that she did spend a lot of time on her own. I think Lindsay’s a character who really needs to have someone to spark off; that someone may not be an ostrich.
The other thing I began to find frustrating was that the first three seasons of “Arrested” are fantastic, but the episodes in season four drag on the way in a way their predecessors didn’t… The reason for which becomes clear when you look at the runtimes, to discover that each episode of the fourth season runs on average ten minutes longer than the original series. And somehow, those extra minutes have a real effect on the overall pace of the series. Did you feel that extra length, or was that just me?
Ben: It was not just you, and I’m glad you brought it up. Those extra minutes were a big sticking point for me. Those first three seasons perfected the art of delivering the most jokes per minute, and they only had 22 to work with — the extra time allowed Mitch Hurwitz and his writing staff to expand their slightly bloated structuring, but they forgot to infuse the same level of humor. Sometimes restrictions are good, and season four proved why 30 minutes or less works best for episodic television.
That being said, season four wasn’t episodic television. We just expected it would be, based on the first three seasons (“we” meaning anyone unfamiliar with the new production-driven structure). Watching it again, as the creators must have anticipated viewers would, proved to be a more enjoyable experience. It’s far from a drastic change (if you hated it, you won’t suddenly love it), and it emphasizes the flaws almost as much as the positive elements. I liked it more the second time, but it took me a few months to dive back in, even with a mostly positive reaction off the bat.
Liz: I very much agree with you, but also wonder if that’s at all a wise way to approach a TV show: “You won’t like it much the first time, but the second, boy it’ll be great!” Of course, that’s where a pre-existing fan-base comes in — can you imagine a newcomer to the show trying to enjoy it? Actually, that’s something in general I wanted to mention — the question of whether the show is too insider in its fourth season. And not just insider for previous seasons, but insider in terms of Hollywood, especially during the Michael episodes when he’s trying to produce the movie based on Bluth family antics. Is the average viewer going to care about a joke based on the (fake?) rivalry between Ron Howard and Jerry Bruckheimer?
Ben: Maybe not, but that was part of the beauty of the first three seasons. There were so many jokes that if one slipped past you, it didn’t really matter because another was already in progress. As we mentioned, the lengthy episodes and new structuring made these episodes feel lighter. When I first watched, my brain felt taxed trying to keep up with all the interwoven moments (and initially trying to predict upcoming connections before giving up to just attempt keeping up with the ride). The second time around was better, allowing my mind to wander a bit and pick up on a few of the subtler touches like watching with the captions (try it!) or that brilliant Phoenix airport mural. I don’t know if you should have to watch a second time to get the full enjoyment out of it, but I would encourage fans of the first three seasons who were let down by the fourth to give it another go. It might renew their love for a show in desperate need of a season five, no matter what.
Liz: I’d agree with that! Rewatching in preparation for this, I discovered a ton of stuff that I’d forgotten about — like the fact that Terry Crews, months before he started blowing me away on “Brooklyn Nine-Nine,” played a key role, as well as John Slattery!
What’s your favorite running gag of the season? For some reason, I’m extremely fond of Cinco de Quatro — from its “Grinch”-esque conception to the constant references to destroying Mexican paraphernalia, it’s such an extreme but perfect encapsulation of race relations in Southern California.
Ben: I’m going to let the Terry Crews bit slide (obviously, you should have started appreciating his talents in “The Expendables” long ago) considering he is immensely impressive on Michael Schur’s FOX comedy. By sheer coincidence, my favorite running gag is that the Bluths don’t know how to tip black people, or simply don’t tip black people. It was an edgy inclusion I loved because of the group’s privileged white background, a concept yet to be explored through racial dynamics (unless you count Franklin and Gob’s song, “It Ain’t Easy Being White”).
The constant callbacks to “Getaway,” an extremely catchy jingle from a show with many, were also quite enjoyable, as was the repeated playing of “Sound of Silence” whenever someone was facing “dark times” (I can’t help it — Gob is just my favorite). Did any really not work for you? I could’ve done without the face blindness bits.
Liz: Yeah, while pretty much everything related to Lindsay’s storyline could have used some work, but that especially, as I actually know someone with face blindness and she seems to know who I am on a relatively frequent basis.
Also, as much as I love David Cross and Maria Bamford as performers, Tobias’s cluelessness in pursuing setting up the “Fantastic Four” musical drags even more the second time, and some of the puns invoked are just flat-out bad. The only good thing about the “Fantastic Four” musical is the call-back to “Mr. F,” which isn’t even one of “Arrested’s” better Fox-era puns.
However, that’s one advantage to the split narratives — tired of Tobias? Just skip forward to a new episode and a new character! It’s almost like a Choose Your Own Adventure book that way.
Here’s the big question, I think: As binge-viewing takes over serialized narratives, should we expect every show to consider the “Arrested” season four approach?
Ben: It’s such a hard question to answer without seeing the numbers from Netflix. They scored a big audience right off the bat, but what are the stats now? Are people going back to watch? Gauging interest is key for “Arrested Development’s” future, and other than creator Mitch Hurwitz signing a deal with Netflix to produce more original shows, there has been little news of reviving the show for a fifth season, despite that cliffhanger (which I liked).
Right now, I don’t think we should be expecting any copycats. Fan reaction seems split, at best, and that’s not what TV execs want when reviving a program. They’re hoping to be able to do it again and again, not be one and done. Worse yet, add-on seasons can tarnish the pre-existing products, like with “The Matrix” sequels (though I maintain “Reloaded” is a top tier action flick). I doubt we’ll be seeing anything like “Arrested Development” season four again. At least, on such a massive stage as Netflix (though the rumored “Wet Hot American Summer” adaptation might prove me wrong).