Saturday, June 1, 2013

'Arrested Development' Review - The Entire 4th Season

        On the fifteen episode fourth season of Netflix's Arrested Development, we learn of the fates of each member of the Bluth family over the past seven years as their fates collide together once again leading up to the annual Cinco de Cuatro celebration.

        The sooner you realize and accept that this 15-episode season of Netflix's Arrested Development is different than the series that ran on FOX from 2003-2006, the more likely you are to appreciate what it is trying to do as a piece of experimental, genre-breaking season of television. Creator Mitch Hurwitz very easily could have gotten this commitment for a season of episodes from Netflix and come up with 10 episodes (the original episode order) that highlighted past recurring jokes and sight gags while revisiting these characters without changing them a whole lot - like many reunion specials actually do. Instead he decided to be more ambitious. Was this a result of not being able to have the entire cast available full time? Or the internal optimist side of Hurwitz, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer that are still anticipating a movie followup? Who knows. But this season of 15 episodes largely succeeds and fails for those two main reasons. It was a risk to have each episode follow just one member of the cast with the rest of the main and recurring players flowing in and out of the narrative. And in moments, it is just as brilliant - sometimes even more so - than the original series. But, at the end of the day, these fifteen episodes were just the first act of the full story that Hurwitz and all want to tell. So realistically, we are left judging an unfinished story which leaves it audience very much up in the air because no deals have been made for any more followup - be it another season on Netflix or a movie.
        One of the reasons Arrested Development was so beloved by critics and accumulated such a big vocal cult following was because of how intricately funny it consistently was and how its ensemble nature allowed each member of the cast to feel greatly utilized even though it would constantly cut back and forth with multiple storylines at once. Even if it tried selling a story that didn't work, the episode was largely dragged down by it because of the million other things also going on in the episode. The ensemble nature of Arrested Development is largely missing from this new season which tonally makes it feel like a separate entity altogether. Gone too are the fast cuts between narratives and characters. By focusing on one main character in each episode, that particular episode will either succeed or fail depending on how that character is used for 30 minutes of screentime. Before watching a second of this season, I was anticipating the Gob, Lindsay and Lucille episodes because those were largely my favorite characters from before and the ones that I thought could handle the screentime. While others like Tobias, Buster and George-Michael, I was unsure of how they carry an entire episode. To my surprise the Gob, Buster, Lucille and George-Michael episodes were some of the best episodes of the season. While the Lindsay and George Sr. just dragged on and on and on hitting beats that just weren't necessary or funny enough for the character or the story.
        The new episodes are also extensively longer then the FOX version of the show. On FOX, each episode clocked in around 21 minutes. While on Netflix, the series has the freedom to go as long or as short it wants - with the longest lasting 37 minutes and the shortest being 28 minutes. Each episode largely works as an exposition piece (excruciatingly so in the first few episodes) to update viewers on what has happened to each character in the past seven years of their life. Because of this, many have viewed the second episode of the characters who got one to be the superior one. I disagree because only the second Michael one was largely better than his first. The Tobias and George-Michael episodes were largely even with their firsts while the second episodes for George Sr., Lindsay and Gob were much worse than their first ones. And then, there are the characters who only got one episode this season - Lucille, Buster and Maeby. Those three episodes were also some of the best ones of the season because they were able to tell their stories in their simplest ways possible without too much bloat and needing to figure out how to weave in and out of the season's overall mythology. All the episodes could have benefited from trimming some things off and tightening other stuff up in editing. However, they were still a great viewing experience especially as they go along and you get answers to various "mysteries" teased earlier - like the noises from inside the model home, who did the shaved legs belong to who had been with Gob, etc.
        The spotlight episodes also largely showed what each of these characters are like when they are taken away from the main family. What made the original series so great was to have this collection of horrible people acting horribly amongst each other while Michael is just dumbfounded by the decisions they make and yet can never seem to leave them. But since this season's structure largely took each character away from the family, it mainly resorted to showing this people as horrible human beings which instead of being hysterical came across differently because now they are destroying the lives of other people. Part of what made the pair of Tobias episodes work was how well David Cross and Maria Bamford played off of each other - even though he is completely destroying this somewhat innocent woman's life. Similarly, the recurring joke with Mae Whitman's Ann Veal had been a comedic highlight in the previous seasons but it was wonderfully rewarding to see that character get back at Gob with that straight-bait with Tony Wonder. Perhaps the biggest emotional through-line of the season was the deterioration of Michael and George-Michael relationship. Michael, in my opinion, was the character who changed the most in these episodes. Perhaps it was because he wasn't interacting with his family most of the time and thusly did not always come across as the sanest person in the room. But he too felt like he came from the same family of selfish and narcissistic people. George-Michael, too, grew more into his Bluth family skin - as largely evidenced by his almost debut appearance of his version of the chicken dance (seriously though 15 episodes and no chicken dance, come on!). That punch that closed the final episode - excluding the epilogue of course - felt emotionally satisfying and the closest thing we got to resolution to this ongoing story this season. It showed how separate these characters have grown while still showing how they will always come back together - mostly to high comedic effect.
        And now on to the cavalcade of guest stars this season. It seemed that every role needed for the season was filled by some recognizable face. The show's structure has always allowed for guest stars to pop in and out of the series - and some were even pivotal to some great recurring jokes (Her?). But arguably, the best thing about the original series was how the main cast played off of each other. But because the fourth season couldn't get the entire cast back full time, a big necessary evil was an over-reliance on recurring guest stars. And like the first three seasons, there were guest star that were great and those that were terrible. I loved the additions of Isla Fisher, Maria Bamford, Tommy Tune and of course the great return appearances of Ron Howard, Mae Whitman and Henry Winkler plus his son, Max Winkler, who was the perfect young Barry Zuckerkorn. (However, it did feel like a misfire for the show to only use the young Winkler for this role and not capitalize on his directorial abilities). And then, there were the guest stars who directly correlated to the show's inability to know when enough was enough for a certain gag. I love Chris Diamantopoulos as an actor but Marky Bark's face blindness was single-handedly the worst joke of the season and the show kept using it and using it. Similarly, Liza Minnelli's Lucille Austero has pretty much been a two-joke character (her vertigo and her love for the different Bluth men). The show definitely relied on her way too much in these fifteen episodes and I'm unsure of her supposed murder as being the best main plot for the prospective follow-up. And finally, there was Kristin Wiig and Seth Rogen as young versions of Lucille and George. Their stunt casting was largely stunt casting - they weren't really asked to do anything different from what they usually do or to be especially funny unlike Max Winkler - to compensate the fact that Tambor and Walter weren't available even though they constantly were playing the younger versions of their characters in the flashback sequences.
        But even though I have largely pointed out what doesn't quite work in these fifteen episodes for me, I still would like to point out that I did enjoy watching these episodes. These characters have consistently been amusingly great to frequently watch. If I've ever been bored I know, I can put an episode of Arrested Development on and be satisfied with it. I welcome these episodes as great examples for re-watching - even though there is some that I do dread the prospect of having to view again. But again, these are just great characters that have given each of these actors the best and most memorable roles of their careers. Something I don't foresee being topped for any of the main cast anytime soon. Which should be considered a huge landmark for the actors, the creators, the fans and the overall show.

4.01 "Flight of the Phoenix" - Michael (B)
4.02 "Borderline Personalities" - George Sr. (C+)
4.03 "Indian Takers" - Lindsay (B-)
4.04 "The B. Team" - Michael (B+)
4.05 "A New Start" - Tobias (B)
4.06 "Double Crossers" - George Sr. (C)
4.07 "Colony Collapse" - Gob (A-)
4.08 "Red Hairing" - Lindsay (C+)
4.09 "Smashed" - Tobias (B)
4.10 "Queen B." - Lucille (B+)
4.11 "A New Attitude" - Gob (B+)
4.12 "Señoritis" - Maeby (A-)
4.13 "It Gets Better" - George-Michael (B+)
4.14 "Off the Hook" - Buster (A-)
4.15 "Blockheads" - George-Michael (B)