Arrested Development, a 15-part chunk of sitcom released in a huge block on Netflix on 26 May. After all, it took seven years to get new AD; surely a few extra weeks isn't out of bounds. More to the point, I wanted to make damn sure I knew what my opinion of the new material was, and as anybody who has taken the plunge into Season 4 is aware (and I suppose there's one or two of you out there), it's not something that you can or should form an opinion of too quickly. For one thing, more than anything in the series' first three seasons, watching it at least twice is basically obligatory: first, just so you can make sense of the damn plot, which is complex in ways that even after making that second viewing, and taking my sweet methodical time about it, I still haven't gotten my head around; second, because the new shape of the show is immensely weird, and it takes a few episodes to figure out what the new rhythm of the thing is going to be, meaning that the first handful of episodes, the first time around, are exaggerated in how far afield they seem to be from "good" AD; thirdly, because many (if not, indeed, most) of the jokes in the first five episodes don't even reveal themselves to be jokes until you've seen the reverse side of the same moment, or the payoff, or the establishing details.
In short, the fourth season of AD - and I agree to call it that only because Netflix itself refers to it as such, though what it suggests about the structure of the thing is entirely deleterious to one's ability to appreciate what it actually is - is a complicated puzzle-box: this is above all what makes it a work of genius, and what above all makes it frustrating as hell. Let us begin with the first of these things, the genius of it; for by all means, what series creator and head writer Mitchell Hurwitz (co-directing each and every episode with Troy Miller) have done with Season 4 is a titanic achievement of structural gamesmanship. Whereas the first three seasons of AD, airing on Fox, were typically at their best when they functioned as a commentary on the design of television comedy, these new episodes are even bolder and more complicated: while the earlier episodes traded on the viewer's knowledge of a form that had existed for half a century, this new run of shows is an investigation into a new kind of media platform that it is, itself, inventing. That is to say, Arrested Development, Season 4, is an exploration of the storytelling possibilities of dumping a whole bunch of variable length "television episodes" onto the audience at one time, freeing it up to tell something that is at one and the same time a roughly eight-hour narrative, as well as fifteen discrete stories. The meaning of the overarching-plot becomes clear only because of the ways that individual pieces are in dialogue with each other, ironically revealing details that reshape what we know over and over, right up to the last ten minutes of the last episode. Hurwitz has made it clear that, ideally, this would have all been watchable as a literal hypertext narrative: the viewer could choose where to go at any one of several branching moments where the situations from different episodes brush up against each other; technology proved too much of a limitation (even though he's basically describing one of those long-forgotten mid-'90s CD-ROM storytelling experiments), but the fact that his head was in this space tells us all that we need to know about the game AD is playing with these episodes: and "game" could not be a more appropriate word in this context.
That's bold and challenging in a way that has, to my uncertain knowledge, no cinematic or television analogue (Lucas Belvaux's 2003 Trilogie and Krzysztof Kieślowski 1993-'94 Trois couleurs are the closest it gets), though there are literary forebears: the way that the entire super-plot kept splintering between main characters reminded me irresistibly of As I Lay Dying, and there are other, even closer comparisons. So my hat is off to Hurwitz and his team for making something so brave and forward thinking. It was plainly never going to come together perfectly; very few trailblazers ever hit the mark on the first try. The achievement was in attempting the thing, and that it comes as close to perfection as it intermittently does is simply a great bonus.
Still, my biggest problem with the new episodes derives right out of this same impulse: frequently, it's not that "funny". It's unbelievably clever, 100% of the time, and it only gets more clever the more you live with it. But clever and funny aren't the same, and in the dire early episodes, particularly the second, "Borderline Personalities", and the third, "Indian Takers", are more impressive for how they cease to be troubling and dreadful on a re-watch, not for how they become top-notch Arrested Development, which is something that very much does not happen. Though the very first episode, "Flight of the Phoenix", does actually improve considerably in light of the last episodes, which fleshes out what seems in the moment to be a very weird and out-of-character scenario.
I mean, the fact that I've spent this long talking about the shape of Season 4, without so much as a word about the content of Season 4, really does tell us all we need to know: this was a grand experiment, and a frequently successful one, but it wasn't always great at the simple level of character-driven comedy, and it remains irritating to me how much the open-ended climax is less about being ambiguous (though some of the subplots are, and I love them), and more about setting up an Arrested Development feature. Certainly, the irritating sense in fully half of the episodes that too much energy is being spent on catching us up and not enough on moving forward doesn't resolve itself whatsoever.
But anyway, that content. Covering a great many years between 2006 and 2011-ish (twice through, the chronology still badly throws me), Season 4 is mostly spent with the nine members of the Bluth family in more-or-less isolation, as we see what they've been up to since "Development Arrested", the initial series finale. The "more-or-less isolation" is a big sticking point: even at its very, very best, the new AD suffers from an utterly unavoidable problem, that the characters work better when they're pinging off each other, and the show doesn't help itself by front-loading the two characters, George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) and Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), who are least effective in the absence of anybody else. Still, a humongous population of returning and new guest characters, some of them truly brilliant (particularly Isla Fisher's Rebel Alley and Maria Bamford's Debrie Bardeaux, who get more screentime than most of the alleged "main cast"), still gives the episodes an ensemble feel, even when that ensemble is weird and unrecognisable.
As everybody has commented: yes, the intervening years have been hard on the Bluths, so hard that it's not entirely funny; Michael (Jason Bateman) in particular has been turned into such a deluded tragic figure that I found both of his featured episodes to be somewhat uncomfortable (and I am firmly opposed to the instantly-controversial "voting out of the dorm room" scene, which is just flat-out cruel). But this show was always about making fun of the basically bad people at its center, and using them to comment on the dreadful things in society that they represent, and in that respect, AD is still at the top of its game; the commentary on the housing market collapse, though weirdly nostalgic, is as good as any of the Iraq War or Bush family jokes in the first three seasons (and "That way you have it" is already shelved alongside the classic AD catchphrases, in my household anyway), and the free-for-all military satire of "Off the Hook", the only episode to heavily feature Buster (Tony Hale, the busiest member of the cast, thanks to Veep) is even better, with the episode itself one of the few that feels like it can stand head-and-shoulders with the best of "old" Arrested Development.
And, of course, there's still plenty of just outright great humor, in all its absurd, culture-referencing glory: even the weakest episodes have some good stuff, while the best ("Off the Hook", the two Gob episodes, and Maeby's "Señoritis" are my personal favorites) have a level of complexity and invention much the equal of any other comedy told in any medium in 2013; Gob's first episode, "Colony Collapse", especially is a monumental epic of character-driven gags, social observation (the bland pop song "Getaway" is one of my favorite inventions of the whole season), callbacks both subtle and forced, a terrific expansion for the returning characters of Ann Veal (Mae Whitman) and Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller, who gets one of the season's best gags in the form of a magazine ad), and it's hardly an accident that most of the season-in-review essays have cited it as the moment where the jump from "I'm glad that these characters are back, but hm" to "OH MY GOD, THIS SHOW" takes place.
Certainly the funniest stuff is backloaded, even in a re-watch, which is mostly due to the characters getting their spotlight moments (saving Michael Cera's astoundingly complex, ingenious pair of episodes till the end was a coup of story structure, but it really hurts the comedy that George-Michael is barely present for the first three-quarters of the season), and even in its brightest parts, the flipside of "even the weakest episodes have some good stuff" is that even the best episodes have at least one bit that simply doesn't work, or goes on for too long. And the degree to which almost every one of the 15 episodes (outside of Gob's #2, "A New Attitude", and Tobias's (David Cross) #2, "Smashed", an episode I wasn't otherwise keen on) feels like it has too much plot even for the over-long running times granted to these episodes gets wearying: it's one thing to acknowledge that there are seven years' of plot to summarise, another to pretend that there are seven seasons' of episodes to cram into one.
Still, this is funny and inventive like nothing else out there, and whatever its limitations, a failure of nerve isn't one of the problems. Given time, I am certain I could love this season, though a top-notch movie would make that process a lot easier, making this feel like a legitimate prologue and not just a giant parenthetical. It's not the classic Arrested Development, but the complex, marvelously intricate thing that it is in its own right is still well worth the time and obvious love it took to make it.
Ratings & Ranking:
"Colony Collapse" (Gob #1)
"A New Attitude" (Gob #2)
"Off the Hook" (Buster)
"Blockheads" (George-Michael #2)
"A New Start" (Tobias #1)
"It Gets Better" (George-Michael #1)
"The B. Team" (Michael #2)
"Red Hairing" (Lindsay #2)
"Queen B." (Lucille)
"Smashed" (Tobias #1)
"Flight of the Phoenix" (Michael #1)
"Double Crossers" (George Sr. #2)
"Indian Takers" (Lindsay (#1)
"Borderline Personalities" (George Sr. #1)