“Arrested Development is still funny. Very funny, in fact.”
“We brought it back.”
In a conversation several days before Arrested Development‘s return, this phrase, uttered by a friend as we excitedly talked about our plans to watch the entirety of the Netflix-produced season while munching on Bluth-themed snacks (frozen bananas, ice cream sandwiches, Pop Secret), scared me the most. Because he was right: the fans were largely responsible for bringing Arrested Development back.
My biggest fear was that the show would return merely to do fan service — focus on giving the people what they want instead of making something great. It would be easy after all, a show so ripe with recurring jokes and GIF-able moments. But the new season manages to do something very new while remaining deeply familiar. For every callback to the original series, there’s a hilarious new gag (I think my favorite being GOB’s “The Sound of Silence” moments); for every handful of reappearances like Carl Weathers and Bob Loblaw, there’s the introduction of a great new character like Maria Bamford’s methadone-addicted Debris.
But most importantly, Arrested Development is still funny. Very funny, in fact. I spent most of my Sunday at a viewing party, and we made it through almost every episode (I came home and finished the rest myself). I don’t remember the last time I laughed that much. And I realize that marathon viewing (I’m declaring a personal war on the phrase “binge-viewing,” by the way) among friends, all of whom were experiencing a new season of Arrested Development for the first time, was a special moment. Television connects people in a way that other mediums don’t. Arrested Development connects people in a way other shows don’t.
“Old Arrested was a rabbit. This new version is a dove.”
This new season of Arrested Development is a different animal. In the original run, the jokes come thick and fast, and the focus darted around from plot to plot. This new season is slower, more graceful. The prolonged looks at the individual characters and stories are designed to highlight just how intricate and beautiful the show is. Old Arrested was a rabbit. This new version is a dove. The transformation from former to latter is quite the trick (or, rather, illusion).
I’m halfway through the new episodes, and I’m most thrilled by how my opinions in the characters are changing. It’s easy to overlook faults or ignore strengths when every character is crammed together in a twenty-minute show (Michael’s selfishness is invisible when he’s paired with GOB; Lindsay’s earnest desire to change is hidden when overwhelmed by Tobias’s hijinks). But when every character gets all their screen time at once, by themselves, we go deeper into their personalities, as well as their stories.
Removed from the rest of his family, Michael isn’t looking so great to me (not that he was ever a saint). GOB is looking a little smarter and talented. Even Tobias is coming across as less of a dolt and more as someone who is just struggling to get through life, like we all are. I’m not saying that I want to grab any of these guys and ask them to marry me, but I’m seeing things in them that I couldn’t before. That adds depth to the original seasons, too, which is like taking a shovel to the Marianas Trench. I’ll be happy to go back and dive in (and I’ll be sure to look out for loose seals).
“As it was in Throreau’s time, so it is for Michael Bluth.”
After watching the first episode of the new season of Arrested Development, I set out on a cool and blustery day into the New England woods with my dog Scabby, a bear-like creature equal parts Lab, Great Pyrenees, and Whatever Was Roaming in the Woods. As Scabby scampered through the lush, boggy forest, I listened to Thoreau’s Walden. We were in one of those parts of the forest (not so rare around here) wherein there is no obvious record of human activity but for the centuries-old stone partitions built by colonial settlers before Thoreau’s time. It was easy to imagine myself and my wild companion returning to the simplicity, if not the innocence, of nature — two animals set apart from the ant-like industry of my neighbors, wandering without object but to hear the lectures of the thrush, the cardinal, the tanager, and the audiobook of Walden. It was in this dank and fetid Eden that I understood Michael Bluth’s folly.
As it was in Throreau’s time, so it is for Michael Bluth. Michael pushes before him the heavy load of inherited encumbrances. Michael does not owe a debt. Rather, he is owned by debt. Scabby and I, owning no real estate but a few cubic feet of flesh, are far richer. Michael is imprisoned by the order he seeks to place upon his family. He makes a mockery of his own honesty by attempting to impose his individual moral sense upon a group of people he cannot tame and for whom he can have no responsibility.
Scabby easily jumps over a dilapidated stone wall in pursuit of a field mouse. The wall is being swallowed by creeping vines and ruptured by wandering roots. Here is the ancient demarcation of the life of a proto-Michael Bluth. This rich man measured his grave plot in acres owned and tended. Better to mark your life with the fields you have left fallow, the stair-cars you lack, the inheritance and the family you do not have to manage. Nature, made of chaos and old night, makes a mockery of stone walls and real estate schemes.
“Are these my Bluths?”
To my knowledge, not many shows are revived after being off the air for seven years, especially when it involves the entire original cast. With that kind of dedicated demand, Mitch Hurwitz et al could’ve produced the new season in a time vacuum, picking up the same storyline and structure albeit with older actors. But they didn’t do that. Which is why I was uneasy watching the first new episode where Michael Bluth reveals himself to be a very different person from the straight-man in the original seasons. The decision to focus on a single character per episode made that contrast even starker: are these my Bluths?
Still, I kept watching more episodes. They’re longer, which makes way for deeper characterization and plot, in addition to some lengthy joke setups to mixed results (that voting joke was terrible). There are a bazillion cameos, which might actually get in the way of the actual show. But after a few episodes, I’m finding myself excited and thrilled to be watching. The new season is incredibly ambitious: by focusing on each character, suddenly they’re giving much more than one-liners. I’m constantly surprised in every episode by their actions, not because it’s out of character but because we’ve never followed a character for more than two minutes. Now we see the full circle of their actions, and all the (hilarious) destruction that goes along with it.
The show’s structure is well-tailored to the marathon streaming sessions that Netflix encourages. I’m finding myself enjoying it more, especially as — like before — you start to notice jokes set up episodes prior reaching their punch-line in the one you’re currently watching. And like the prior seasons, story arcs intertwine and re-watching episodes grows increasingly rewarding. So the show itself is different. But it’s the same family. I suppose I’d have a similar reaction after not seeing someone for seven years: it’s both unsettling and enjoyable to see them all grow up.
“The writers have never had the Bluths’ best interests at heart.”
After any relationship of consequence runs its course, it’s easy to look back with a certain haloed glow of affection. Things were good, we laughed a lot, no one ever really got hurt. Remember the good parts, forget the bad, continue until you’re sure there was never really anything wrong with it. So when I restarted my relationship with Arrested Development, I was more than a bit surprised at how dark things had become.
The first three seasons of the show featured characters that were always teetering on the edge of a catastrophic social implosion, without ever actually arriving there. The fun was in watching how dire the situation can get before the Bluths, often despite Michael’s interventions, bounced back.
I went in to the new season expecting a return to more of that safe insanity. In watching these new episodes, though, it became instantly clear that the writers have never had the Bluths’ best interests at heart. They drank a cupful of pessimism, fast-forwarded a year, and let it roll.
I’m probably too much of an optimist — I want the Bluths to be happy and thought that bringing the show back from the dead was an opportunity for them to achieve that. Clearly I was wrong, but that might not be a bad thing.
“I’m sort of tempted to watch [the first episode] over and over.”
No one watched Arrested Development when it was on TV. The first I heard about it was sometime in late 2005 when I was in college and one of my friends who had already graduating was imploring everyone who read her LiveJournal to watch the show or it’d probably be cancelled. I finally saw it for the first time a year later when a different friend sat me down with some bootleg discs. That’s how everyone I know was introduced to the show. Some friend told them “you have to watch this.”
Introduced with a friend’s seal of approval and ingratiated with in-jokes appreciated more upon re-watching, Arrested Development and our enjoyment of it had as much to do with the show being funny as it does with the collective unconscious we all bought into surrounding it. Which is to say it’s hard not to be disappointed by the new episodes. (Or episode. I’ve only watched one so far since I’m trying to savor them.)
The first episode of the fourth season is exposition heavy, almost cluncky, and felt odd without the full cast involved (though I know that was a conscious choice on Hurwitz’s part). Little things confused me such as why did Michael hate Pittsburgh but want to go to Phoenix only to suddenly end up back in California right away? Though maybe there will be time logic jumps that’ll make more sense when the rest of the episodes play out.
I’m sort of tempted to watch it over and over. Rather than binge on all eighteen episodes now, just watch the first episode eighteen times. Get used to the new writing style. Tease out all the foreshadowing. Tell myself “I have to watch this.”
“It was at once discomforting and liberating to watch the Bluths with absolutely no idea what they’d do next.”
The overwhelming feeling I experienced while watching season four of Arrested Development was nostalgia. But the nostalgia I experienced wasn’t some backward-looking, golden-age glorification. It was a warm remembrance of being 50% entertained and 50% confused as hell.
At one point, maybe five or six episodes deep, I looked at my wife and said, “I’ve missed this.” The this I was referring to wasn’t the show itself. What I’d missed was the pleasure of not quite knowing what was going on. Watching the first three seasons as many times as we had gave us a god-like knowledge of every episode, a mental catalogue of each inside joke. It was at once discomforting and liberating to watch the Bluths with absolutely no idea what they’d do next.
Clearly, those seeking a simple continuation of the show that stopped airing eight years ago will walk away from yesterday’s release unhappy. But the world we (and the Bluths) live in is vastly different — as exemplified by Michael’s inability to understand his smartphone — and the new season of Arrested Development has adapted accordingly. Season four felt more like a nine-hour movie than a weekly sitcom, which gave it license to be even more disorienting than the already-vertiginous original series. The true pleasure of watching season four came from sitting back, ceding control, and allowing the mayhem to wash over us.
“I didn’t get it either.”
If you’re an Arrested Development fan who didn’t like the new season, then you either only watched the first three episodes or just flat out didn’t get it. Not only did you not get it, but you’re most likely the reason the show got cancelled in the first place. Mitch Hurwitz likes to slow-play with misdirection and running gags and this, as the story goes, was the reason for the show’s failure.
It would be fun to give you my grand theory of season four but, unless you’re socially challenged like me, you haven’t seen it all yet, and I don’t want to spoil it. Also, as it happens, I didn’t get it either. I don’t get the importance of the last line of the show, I don’t get the significance of the recurring map jokes (outside of the Buster cartographer connection before the Great Dark Period), and only now, while I am trying to suss out how to conclude this, do I actually get what the whole season was about (but I ain’t telling here). I left confused and, while I could be angry about that, history suggests I let it simmer.
“I haven’t seen it yet.”
I didn’t get a chance to start the new season of Arrested Development yet, and I guess I’m a little surprised. I watched the show irregularly when it was on TV, then binge-watched the seasons at least once since then, and tracked the ups and downs of the movie project on my site for a couple years. Do you remember how there were about two and a half years where one star would say something about the movie moving forward, only to have their positive news rejected a few months later by a different star?
I don’t know what to expect. I don’t want to expect to be disappointed because I don’t want to be that cynical, but how can a show possibly live up to the expectations that have festered over the last seven years. Arrested Development deservedly achieved cult status when it went off the air, and in order to make everyone happy, they’d have to instantly create half a decade worth of nostalgia. That’s not even possible, Aaron. There’s already a backlash against the show (and keeping with Twitter custom, a backlash to the backlash), but how could anyone expect to love the latest season as much as the previous seasons? I haven’t seen it yet, but I bet somewhere there’s a review of the this latest season from someone who just watched the first three seasons last week. Their expectations aren’t tainted with poisonous nostalgia, and their review of season four would be unbiased. On the other hand, how could you trust someone who is just now watching Arrested Development?
“It was Arrested Development.”
My friend Josh invited me over to his parents’ house for Thanksgiving in 2003. The food was great, but about an hour and a half into the meal, the company had gotten contentious. It was eight months into the Iraq War, and the liberal and conservative wings of the family were airing their political grievances over the pumpkin pie. Josh and I got permission to excuse ourselves from the table — it wasn’t really a discussion as much as it was a shouting match —and we retreated to his room to watch TV. We finally settled on Fox, where we watched a rerun of a show that featured an environmental activist, a Spanish-language television awards ceremony, and a prisoner called “White Power Bill.” It was Arrested Development.
Over the next few years, I grew to care not only about the show, but also about what you could call its paratext — the behind-the-scenes maneuvering and network machinations. The first Emmy race that I followed from nomination to award happened because of Arrested. I learned about fan-driven campaigns to save a show—and how ineffective those usually were — thanks to Arrested. Concepts like Nielsen ratings and burning off episodes, too.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say that I’ve only seen six episodes of the new season at this point. But so far, I feel as I did at my tenth high school reunion.
When I saw my old classmates for the first time in ten years, I felt like I could still recognize and relate to them in the same way I had ten years prior. Most of us were all more “mature” now, but the core of each person was still the same. In some cases, people had made some bizarre personal or professional decisions that I couldn’t understand — but I couldn’t judge them for decisions that weren’t mine to make.
Thus with Arrested Development. The first three seasons were the ones that have marinated in my head for eight years; they ended. I enjoy what I’m watching, but I’m not yet ready to include it in the same mental space I’ve devoted to the original. The episodes feel like a long bonus epilogue, and they’re great — especially the Funke’s duck a l’orange gag. Still, I don’t know if I’m ready to invest my time and attention to watching, re-watching, dissecting, and proselytizing on their behalf. Mostly, I think it reflects on me: I can enjoy season four just fine, but maybe I can’t love any show like I used to.