I've just watched six episodes, back-to-back-to -back-to-back-t o-back-to-back, of the jumbled and unsteady fourth "season" of the beloved cult comedy Arrested Development, which debuted on Netflix on Sunday morning. The return of the rabidly quoted and GIF'd and mythologized series, which ended its original run on Fox in 2006, has been highly anticipated by many, dreaded by others, and probably met with confused indifference by most. So does it live up to the hype, as so many hoped, or is it awful, as so many feared? Well, it's sorta both. So far, anyway.
Creator Mitch Hurwitz decided to try a slightly different style for the fifteen new installments, each episode focusing on one character, while a larger tapestry of interconnected plots is woven around them. It's a more cinematic take, I guess you could say, and it's Arrested 2.0's biggest problem. The joy of watching original recipe Arrested Development was how, in a compact twenty-two minutes, the plot threads eventually tied together in an unexpected and satisfying ways. It was the same genius of Seinfeld, an uncanny ability to take seemingly disparate stories and funnel them into a common stream of cause and effect; in other words, both shows gave us complete, connected worlds. (You see the same thing in Curb Your Enthusiasm, of course.) Original AD's narrative style also was such that we usually got to hear from most of the major characters in each episode, everyone having a role to play as the antics reached their pitch and then settled, somewhat, by episode's end. But these new episodes instead play like a film told in segments, each episode looking at a small section of a bigger, unfolding story. It's a ballsy concept, and could prove to work beautifully by the end of the fifteen episodes, but right now things feel somehow both too hurried and too slow, each character's arc atomized and distant despite the strenuous efforts to make everything interrelated.
Essentially they've taken a typical Arrested episode, blown it up, and dissected it into fifteen parts. Thus all the swiftness and brisk efficiency has been sapped, each overly long episode struggling to get through a lot of plot in order to justify its existence as a standalone entity. Watching these first six parts, I found myself wishing they'd just gone and made more original formula episodes just as they used to be. But I guess Hurwitz and company figured that a seven-year gap required a lot of catch-up, and so instead of jumping right back into the action we get a lot of backstory, about what's happened to this zany family of Orange County nincompoops and malcontents. It's too convoluted to go into here, but essentially everyone is up to their usual money-making schemes and botched attempts at vainglorious self-improvement. Everyone's a wreck, either facing trial or financial ruin or both, and there's a bleaker, more cynical vibration in the air. The original series run ended before the markets crashed and everything went kablooey, and these new episodes are, it seems, trying to tap into the new, darker national sentiment. It works sometimes, the real world mania jiving well with the show's mood of chaos and lighthearted bitterness, but it's also a bit ungainly to see these characters stumble around in the wreckage. When American wealth and enterprise was still booming beautifully, it was a lark to see these expertly drawn bozos and screw ups be so clumsy with their lives, it was comfortable absurdism. But now they feel jarringly real. It's too familiar now, there's an unwitting sorrowfulness to many of their plights, which include joblessness and homelessness. I suppose someone could argue that these new AD episodes are a very much needed satire of these ravaged times, but I'm just not sure this is the show to do that.
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That new, downbeat feeling mixed with the elongated pacing makes for a very different experience than we're used to from Arrested Development, one that echoes past greatness but can't overcome its own weariness. There are call-backs and inside jokes whizzing around like crazy, but many of them feel perfunctory, as if they exist solely to conjure up the old fan frenzy. Where is the joy for those involved? A recurring joke about Ron Howard and Imagine Entertainment smacks of faux self-deprecation, an indulgence laced with a bit of bored anger. Its stomach empty, Arrested Development starts eating itself, all these stringent new acids corroding the walls that separated the show from the real world that created it. The series was always a little meta, but this is a new and unpleasant level of self-awareness. It's garish and, frankly, lazy. Once the inside showbiz gags started appearing on the page, it was maybe time to leave the writers room and take a walk around the block.
At least most of the cast seems invested. This ensemble still makes beautiful music together, that is when they have the opportunity to be in scenes together. So far we've barely had any big group scenes, a shame given how well these finely honed performances reference and complement one another. Best of all is still David Cross's Tobias Funke, a thwarted dreamer whose chief foil is his own laziness and willful ignorance. His episode has so far provided the most laughs, taking Tobias to the depths of post-crash indigence in a way that's almost as sad as it is funny. I love how quickly his ridiculous optimism occasionally gives way to quick bursts of anger — he and Enlightened's Amy Jellicoe might be soul mates. Tobias's episode also gives us a chance to spend some enjoyable time with guest star Maria Bamford, a talented comedian popular in the alt-comedy world but frustratingly not well-known in the mainstream. That said, the new episodes go too heavy on the celebrity guest spots and cameos. While Kristen Wiig makes a few inspired appearances as... someone, many of the other famous faces — among them Ed Helms, John Slattery, and, yes, Ron Howard himself — are distractions. They give the show the appearance of an unconfident sequel, stuffing the picture with celebrities instead of relying on their own material.
Of course, I'll have to weigh in again once I've finished the run, but so far my reaction has gone from pitying revulsion to mild appreciation. Things begin to pick up in the Tobias episode, though the story is still overly complex and, frankly, not terribly interesting. The new episodes are best when they forget all the external pressure, all the years of speculation and expectation, and fall into their old, glorious madcap groove. Those moments are dismayingly rare, but I suppose we should be glad that they exist at all. That's all the post-crash upbeatness I can manage for today.
- Arts & Entertainment