The article below contains spoilers for the fourth season of “Arrested Development.”
A second life on Netflix has become a mixed blessing for the creators of “Arrested Development” — an unprecedented option with some unexpected burdens. Yes, Mitchell Hurwitz and company have had to contend with sky-high expectations that are all but impossible to meet as they’ve brought the show back after seven years off the air. But they’re also now working in a medium stripped of many of the boundaries that originally shaped the series.
Netflix isn’t network TV, a fact that goes beyond all 15 episodes going live at once. Installments don’t need to keep to 22 minutes, or even be all that episodic; content restrictions are a thing of the past — as are, if what was said about “House of Cards” continues to be the case here, notes from executives. Aside from dealing with the not-inconsiderable difficulties of scheduling the busy cast, Hurwitz was theoretically freed to make the purest version of “Arrested Development” he desired, and the result is an uneven, funny, ambitious, overlong and knotty tangle of individual storylines that form a whole that’s darker and more brittle than expected. The Bluths are back, but time has not been kind.
The new episodes haven’t gone over well with critics so far — though having only been out for a few days, opinions seem worth sitting on for a little longer. As someone who came to the show after it was first canceled, I’ll admit that it took some time to grow on me even in its friendlier Fox incarnation. And season four is not friendly, which may be the most difficult and most remarkable thing about it.
It’s not that the 2013 version of the Bluths are unrecognizable. “Arrested Development” is nothing if not consistent to its own mythology, which may include stair cars and Motherboy competitions, but is just as involved, intricate and layered as that of a sprawling sci-fi saga, with jokes set up for and called back over years. But, unleashed to pursue their individual destinies with the oblivious self-centeredness and without the edict to be “likable” that the show used to mock in its third-season moments of metacommentary, the Bluths are no longer lovably awful but mostly just awful. Cornball moments, little or otherwise, have pretty much been cleared out.
The new season finds the Bluths and the Fünkes literally whoring each other out for cash, guilting each other into buying homes they can’t afford in the midst of a community of sex offenders, sleeping with underage boys and sending addicts crashing back into drug use while cheerfully ignoring their pleas for help. And while the first three seasons made occasional gestures toward timeliness, as when George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) was tricked into building houses in Iraq, in season four the Bluths are more linked into farcical takes on current events.
There’s the housing crash that strands Michael (Jason Bateman) with a finally completed but unsellable Sudden Valley, and that finds Lindsey (Portia de Rossi) and Tobias (David Cross) buying a cavernous house they don’t need and can’t pay for, and the federal “stimmy” money the family grapples over. There’s the giant border wall George Sr. and Lucille (Jessica Walter) are so eager to build (despite having always been happy to hire and abuse immigrant help around the house before), and the previously compulsively liberal Lindsay’s self-serving transformation into a Sarah Palin-like conservative when called upon to fill in for the Herman Cain-inspired Herbert Love (Terry Crews). And there’s George Michael’s (Michael Cera) fabricating of an elaborate privacy-allowing internet startup based around what’s actually just an application that makes a wood block sound.
The Orange County-dwelling, McMansion-loving, fiscally reckless Bluths have always been an example of entitled, egocentric wealth, but they’ve gone from a cartoonish portrayal to a more pointed and deliberately satirical one. The Bluths have been made to stand for something, and that may be the hardest thing to take in this new version of “Arrested Development” — more so than the different structure, the downside of staying with these individual characters for long stretches of time without cutting to others for balance, and the gags that take too long to play out. The show started off as an anti-family comedy headed up by a character who thought of himself as the lone voice of sanity, but who was actually often just as insidiously blinkered by his own desires. In this new season, they’re closer to a condemnation of a specific type of heedless American privilege that, as symbolized by the recurring ostrich imagery — an animal that, the story goes, chooses to stick its head in the sand to avoid danger by not seeing it.
Attempting to make the Bluths politically and socially relevant isn’t such a bad thing — the new episodes, for all their faults, having a bracing quality to them that the show, in all its clever comfort, never had before. But it also means that the characters hold you at a distance, particularly Michael, whose transformation from a man at least trying to do the right thing into a would-be movie producer bargaining to get his family members’ life rights and then casting them out of the project when they displease him is central to the sour feel of the fourth season. The new episodes are sometimes brilliantly complex and include some wonderful gags, among them Buster’s (Tony Hale) brief, Ender Wiggin-style drone piloting career and G.O.B.’s (Will Arnett) conflicted romance with Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller). But they’re undeniably low on heart and sometimes just cruel.
The new episodes close with many loose ends — like the fate of Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli), G.O.B.’s possible gay awakening, the Rebel Alley love triangle, Lindsay’s new political career, George Sr.’s dwindling mojo and Buster’s arrest — all there to push toward a movie that may or may not happen. And as nice as it was to spend more time with these characters, there’s something fitting about the idea of “Arrested Development” ending where it does, with George Michael punching his dad in the face. The two started with the closest thing the series had to a caring and functional (if sometimes neglectful) parent-child relationship, and they end it with Michael lying to his son and George Michael striking out at him when he suggests they’re like twins. Cut to black, and like the Sopranos sitting down to their onion rings, maybe we can leave the Bluths like that, knowing they’re just going to keep pursuing their own ends, trampling over others to do it, and attempting to numb themselves to any moments of self-awareness in which they might start to feel bad.