TV Review: 'Arrested Development' Season 4 brings laughter and lulls to Netflix
Some episodes shine, while others fall flat
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I skipped the communal madness of marathoning "House of Cards" when it premiered on Netflix earlier this year. I've still only seen six or seven episodes, though I like it enough that I'll certainly finish it this summer. It's a project I'm happy to undertake.
I also skipped the communal self-abuse of marathoning "Hemlock Grove" when it premiered on Netflix a couple months later. I may finish that one as well some day, but more out of my usual much-discussed completist sensibilities than any enjoyment.
Apparently, however, there was something forcing me to watch 15 episodes of "Arrested Development" Season 4 in only 15 hours. I queued up the first episode at seconds after midnight Pacific Time, as East Coasters on Twitter were still ranting about their inability to read clearly written premiere announcements. Poor East Coasters. I ran through eight episodes before passing out at 5 a.m. and then at 10:30 a.m. I was back to watching for the remaining seven.
That was a lot of "Arrested Development" in a very short period of time.
And it was much, much more "Arrested Development" than anybody had any reason to expect. Netflix initially announced a 10 episode season knowing that they were planning on making at least 13 and then those 13 became 15 episodes when all was said and done. But even saying that Season 4 of "Arrested Development" is 15 episodes is a distinct undersell. When it aired on FOX, "Arrested Development" episodes had a network-standard running time of 22-ish minutes. Netflix doesn't care. Without any ad-load, it's the Wild West out there and the shortest of the new episodes is 28 minutes and the longest is 37 minutes. An additional six or seven episodes of material is just squishing out of the sides of what's here, like the melted filling of an ice cream sandwich.
That was a lot of "Arrested Development" in a very short period of time.
One of the major causes of American obesity is, of course, and Netflix’s original programming has become like the Las Vegas buffet of entertainment options, and not the cheap, skuzzy buffets that you might get at the end of The Strip. I'm talking about the buffet at The Wynn or the Beluga, where you're paying $40-ish and the dining experience becomes one of simultaneous gustatory delight and personal recklessness. Yes, you *could* just concentrate on the top-tier seafood items, do only shrimp and crab legs, and walk out after a quick meal. But that's not what you're there for. That's not what you paid for. You paid for the Pan-Asian station and the pizza station and the prime rib and the dim sum and the seven kinds of pie. You paid for the sensation of disgusting satiation. You paid not for the individual quality or merit of anything that you ate, but for the totality of an experience in which the availability of excess supersedes the illusion of free choice.
I'm reasonably sure that on a level of intellectual appreciation, Netflix would do more honor to high quality shows like "House of Cards" and "Arrested Development" by parceling out the distribution. Let people digest each morsel, contemplate each idea. Drag viewers along for several weeks, even if not for the months that network shows require.
"That network shows require." Netflix doesn't want to be thought to be playing by network rules. While networks have been forced to provide more choice -- OnDemand, iTunes, online streaming, DVD releases, etc -- over the years, Netflix is all choice. Nobody's forcing you to watch any particular way. You might get pulled into marathoning because you're loving the show or because you're a sheep, but that's on you. And my very different approach to "House of Cards" and "Hemlock Grove" and "Arrested Development" proves, at least somewhat, that the freedom isn't an illusion. If you don't care about the Internet ruining things for you, you can take six months to watch one show. Or you can do it in one or two breathless spurts.
I don't think "House of Cards" has suffered from my delays and I really can't tell you if "Arrested Development" benefitted from my haste.
In its three years on FOX, I loved "Arrested Development." In its 15 episodes on Netflix, I found myself frustrated by the wide variation of my response. Attempting to give the whole season a grade is pure folly. Out of 15 episodes, there are four or five episodes I'd put in the "A" range. There were two or three episodes I'd put in the "C" range. And the majority of the episodes were variably uneven, hardly devoid of brilliance and the sort of hilarity that most currently running shows can't even approach, but usually diluted to an infuriating degree by the structure and lack of structure of the endeavor.
For "Arrested Development" creator Mitch Hurwitz and his talented team of writers, Season 4 rises and falls on that unusual pairing of self-imposed structure and self-denied limitations. At times, the 15 episodes work much better than you'd imagine they possibly could and at times they stumble on entirely avoidable obstacles.
More after the break. And yes, I already know that this is a rambling, loose, poorly edited review in which I'm going to complain about "Arrested Development" Season 4 being rambling, loose and poorly edited. Like Mitch Hurwitz, I am a victim of the freedom of the Internet.
"Arrested Development" Season 4 was always slightly hamstrung. Hurwitz was determined to fill in the gaps between when we left these characters and the present day, but he was never going to have access to a full cast of stars who all had busy schedules with a variety of regular and recurring TV roles elsewhere, as well as movie parts and theater parts and all manner of additional duties.
That's how we ended up with a structure in which each episode mostly has a single point-of-view character and we see how that character's live has played out, while also intersecting with the different members of the Bluth family. Part of the dizzying mastery of the show's initial run was the ability to integrate most or all of the ensemble into every episode, interweaving characters with a dexterity that was sometimes astounding. Here, Hurwitz and co-director Troy Miller are working with time and space, making a puzzle that is no less ambitious as it skips around years and locations, often with very limited signposts and, initially, very few explanations.
"Arrested Development" has always had a game-like aspect for fans. Other than "The Simpsons," it's possible that no show has ever been as confident in its audience's ability to retain information and just hold onto it, storing a set-up in the deep recesses of the brain for weeks or months just waiting for an eventual payoff, or returning to beloved recurring jokes with clockwork precision. The Season 4 model relies heavily on a highly trained fanbase. Hurwitz and the writers know that if a number of sequences are set-up in the first episode, viewers aren't just watching what's happening in the foreground. Yes, we're paying attention to the foreground at a harbor festival or in a police station, but we're also noticing in Lindsay and Tobias appear to be fighting in the background, if there's a loud cough, if a reclining airplane seat crushes an unseen passenger, if a familiar automobile hastily zips by.
The game is much more important than the narrative or the character growth in "Arrested Development" Season 4 and, in this way, marathon viewing is ideal. The various stories, which I won't spoil, are only limitedly engaging. A surprising amount of the season is spent on legal wrangling, whether it's the securing of life-story rights for a movie, all matter of trademark and name rights, ownership rights in a new Internet venture, Maritime law or land rights in a border dispute. Because I have a somewhat misspelled connection to a newly introduced legal force this season, I was tolerant of much of what was happening without investing in any deep way. It's OK that I wasn't sucked into the plot of the new "Arrested Development" episodes, because the show was often marvel assemblages of moments with exactly enough thread to tie everything together every 22 minutes.
In this case, though, somebody took five or six stories that could have been told in 22 minutes, or at least in 66 or 88 minutes, and deconstructed it down to 15 episodes of component parts. There's nowhere near enough plot to justify that. Instead of plot, Hurwitz and the writers string viewers along with little mysteries and they pay off reasonably well, leading right up to a finale that's more of a prelude to the long-discussed "Arrested Development" movie than a conclusion to a season of TV. After 15 episodes, there's almost no satisfaction of a journey fully realized and if I thought this were the last we'd be seeing of the Bluths, I'd probably be actively angry. Instead, I think a movie studio will notice the pent-up enthusiasm that spilled forth on Saturday night and they'll figure that if the budget for a feature is kept on a reasonable scale, there's be no way not to get a small, but tidy profit in no time.
When I praised the show's ability to dance between characters and storylines in its original incarnation, I should add that you never really felt like "Arrested Development" was a show that came easily, but the talented creative team made it look smooth and effortless. The Netflix episodes are herky-jerky and awkward. There are disorienting directing and editing choices and I'm assuming weren't choices at all, but the practical reality of the show's production necessities. The amount of repetition of plot and character details to keep audiences in the look is pretty exhausting and as clever as Ron Howard's voiceover narration may be, much more than in the original series, I felt like it was being used her to finesse over plotholes or to make sure that viewers were able to keep track of the moving pieces. For a show that is, as I've said, very conscious of the intelligence of its audience, this becomes jarring.
You sense Hurwitz and his team maybe aren't sure how well everything comes together other than the dozens of interlocking mysteries that form the spine of the narrative, but not its body. Yes, the pieces go together, but there's a flabbiness to the storytelling that isn't "Arrested Development" at its very purest. It isn't just the three or four minutes of repetition that could have been trimmed from every episode. There's there in the jokes and there are even some jokes that don't play exactly right. A perfect "Arrested Development" episode is and was like a Spartan warrior -- perfectly molded for only one form and only one purpose, with zero percent body fat.
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