Review: 'Arrested Development' on Netflix is hilarious at times, misconceived at others
I've finished watching all 15 episodes of the new "Arrested Development." As promised, I've written one big review of the whole thing. The bulk of it's not particularly spoiler-y, so if you haven't watched it all (or any of it) yet, you can safely read until I get to the bullet points. If you want to know nothing at all, don't read, but my thoughts are coming up just as soon as the glitter is shrapnel-grade...
The first two FOX seasons of "Arrested Development" were a miracle: a comedy made up of a staggering number of characters, plot points and tones that had no business working together, and yet did. It was a recipe where every ingredient was balanced in perfect proportion to one another. No one in the cast has ever been used better, before or since, and it's amazing to think of how long creator Mitch Hurwitz and company were able to sustain such an elaborate farcical structure built around so many absurd characters.
If the recipe is even slightly off — say, with the departure of some writers and a reduced episode order — you get the third FOX season, a funny but extremely uneven year dragged down by a lengthy and mostly unsuccessful arc with Charlize Theron as a beautiful woman no one realizes is mentally disabled. And if you try to borrow a few key ingredients — say, Hurwitz and actor Will Arnett — for a new recipe, you get the deservedly short-lived likes of "Sit Down, Shut Up" (an animated comedy with Arnett and Jason Bateman as high school teachers) and "Running Wilde" (Arnett as a slightly less despicable version of Gob Bluth).
In theory, the new Netflix season of "Arrested" — 15 episodes, all released over Memorial Day weekend, bringing back every regular castmember and most of the recurring ensemble — should have been a return to the formula that worked so well, and that made the series so beloved that there would even be a market for a reunion more than seven years after the last episode aired on FOX.
But the new season deviates from the formula in two big ways that the episodes — while very funny at times — ultimately can't overcome. First, Hurwitz had limited access to many of the original castmembers, forcing him to pivot away from the original structure in favor of one where each episode is a spotlight on a particular character. Second, Hurwitz has been very blunt about the fact that these episodes were created in the hope of stirring up interest in an "Arrested Development" movie — and to spare him from having to devote large chunks of the movie to explaining what the characters have been up to since Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) hijacked the Queen Mary in the original series finale.
So it's "Arrested Development," only it isn't. And it's a new season that doesn't even tell a complete story, but rather functions as a prologue to the story Hurwitz actually wants to tell, if someone will ever give him, Ron Howard and Brian Grazer the money to do it.
At one point, Hurwitz talked about embracing the unique nature of Netflix's all-at-once release strategy by designing a season that could be watched in any order, with certain jokes making more or less sense at different points in the season depending on how you chose to watch it. Eventually, though, he emerged from the editing room to admit that it hadn't worked out the way he intended, and that viewers should please watch the episodes in the proscribed order.(*)
(*) He also pleaded with people to not watch them all in a day, out of fear they would tire of the characters and the style of humor after a few hours. Netflix is still pretty new to the original content business, and this seemed the first case where the desires of Netflix executives won out over the desires of a creator, who clearly would much rather the release have been spaced out so no one would even be tempted to marathon at first.
So what we're left with are episodes that are on one level fairly conventional — they even feature fake act breaks, as if a commercial was just coming up, and follows them up with Howard narration to remind us of things that happened only seconds ago — and on another very different, because of the single-character focus and the length. FOX "Arrested" episodes clocked in around 21 minutes; the shortest Netflix episode is 28 minutes, and the longest (and not coincidentally weakest) is 37.
And several things become obvious quickly: 1)That for comedy purposes, less is often more; and 2)That many of these characters were not meant to function as the stars of their own series.
Even the best episodes of the new season (among others, the Michael-centric "The B. Team," the Maeby spotlight "Senoritis" and Buster in "Off the Hook") drag in spots. There's a lot of padding, a lot of unnecessary voiceover exposition, and a lot of half-baked jokes that were left in because Hurwitz didn't have a specific time he needed to cut to. Dealing with ad breaks and set timeslots has its disadvantages, but there's also a ruthlessness that comes with it where you're forced to keep only your best jokes and whatever moves the story forward.
But a long episode can work when you're bouncing from character to character, and story to story. The great thing about "Arrested Development" was that it had such a deep, powerful bench that you couldn't really object when we would cut away from Buster fawning over his mother to George-Michael battling inappropriate feelings about his cousin, or from Tobias painting himself blue to Gob doing a chicken dance. Here, you're stuck for the duration with George Sr. or Tobias, and many of these characters who perfectly accented one another struggle to function on their own — or alongside new characters introduced because other regulars weren't available that week. Some of the new additions are a lot of fun — it's a pleasure whenever Howard (playing an exaggerated version of himself) steps out in front of the camera to remind you what a good comic actor he is, and I really enjoyed Tommy Tune as rehab director/menacing tap dancer Argyle Austero — but others (notably Chris Diamantopoulos as face-blind nature activist Marky Bark) are just a drag on the proceedings. I like Andy Richter (who, in the continuation of a gag from the series, plays himself and his identical quintuplet brothers), but when he's appearing more frequently and at greater length than some of the regulars, something has gone awry.
As a go-to source of accidental double entendres, Tobias Funke was a delight; as the tragic, deluded hero of a pair of new "Arrested" episodes, he made me wish we would get back to George-Michael's dorm room already.
Keeping the characters separate also throws off the emotional tone of the series. On the series, the Bluths were a selfish, destructive clan, but they largely damaged each other. Here, we see them ruining other people, whether it's Tobias with his fragile junkie companion DeBrie (Maria Bamford) or the never-ending tragedy that is Mae Whitman as Ann "Her?" Veal. At times, the darker tone is an interesting one — the new episodes give us Ann's point of view far more than the originals did — but at others, it's just unpleasant.
Nowhere is the tonal shift more obvious than whenever Michael is around. It's not that Michael is appreciably more narcissistic or oblivious than he was in the FOX days, but that he seems much more awful when he's not being judged alongside Gob or Lindsay. Michael is the only character in every episode, and his estrangement from George-Michael is meant to provide an emotional through-line for the season. But the sentimentality of the original series was, like the rest of it, a very delicate balancing act, and when Michael seems like a bigger jerk (even if his behavior isn't that much worse), it throws off that balance. And watching his parents and siblings struggle to learn anything about themselves without Michael around is usually fake pathos, because the show doesn't want the rest of the Bluths to grow up.
The great delight of the series — and the reason it remains so rewatchable, and such an enduring Netflix hit that the company would finance these new episodes — was the way Hurwitz, Jim Vallely and the other writers would run jokes out over multiple episodes, or even seasons, sprinkling in just a bit at a time (say, glimpses of blue handprints all over the model home during the period where Tobias was hoping to join the Blue Man Group) as a reward for viewers paying careful attention. There are a few jokes that recur over these 15 episodes (one involving Bluth family tipping policy, another about Tobias' vanity license plate), but for the most part what you get are running jokes strung throughout a single episode (or, in the case of certain characters, over two), which exhausts the gag much more quickly.
In place of that structure, Hurwitz has conceived the entire season as a big puzzle. You'll hear, for instance, George-Michael and his roommate discussing a top-secret bit of software they're working on, but you won't find out exactly what it does for several episodes. And that ultimately feels like more of an intellectual game than it does a wellspring of humor. It can be gratifying to find out who was kicking Lindsay's seat on a flight to India, but it's not an especially funny payoff.
And in several cases (I'll identify them when we get to the bullet points), there's no explanation at all. So either Hurwitz somehow didn't have time for those resolutions, despite the padding present throughout the season, or he's holding out explanations for this hypothetical movie he wants to make.
And that's ultimately what's most frustrating, despite some incredibly funny set pieces — almost all of them involving two or more of the original characters interacting in ways we instantly understand (like Buster helping Lucille deal with the conditions of her house arrest). The new season doesn't really work as its own thing, but as a prologue for this movie that no one in the industry has shown the slightest inclination towards making, despite Howard and Grazer's attachment as producers. If a deal had already been struck for a movie, or perhaps for an additional Netflix season — either of them requiring the cast to be around full-time — that could dispense with all the exposition and tell Bluth stories the right way, then this season would be an acceptable, sometimes hilarious stopgap: the most elaborate, expensive webisode series of all time. But since there's nothing concrete beyond these 15, this is Hurwitz leaving everything up in the air out of a kind of blind optimism that seems a second cousin to the sort his fictional creations use to make their decisions.
And other than the sort of "movies > TV" thinking that was already starting to become outdated during the original FOX run, why exactly is Hurwitz so excited to make a movie? Yes, it might be his only opportunity to get all the regular actors in the same place at the same time long enough to tell a story, but it's another case of radically changing the very specific formula that made "Arrested Development" a classic in the first place.
Or perhaps he realized this over the course of making these episodes. As Maeby says at one point late in the season (paying off the final joke of the original series), "I gotta tell you, I think movies are dead. Maybe it's a TV show."
Some more specific, spoiler-y thoughts:
* Buster helping Lucille smoke was originally not going to make the final cut, and was shown to critics in January as a deleted scene. We all understandably fell out of our metaphorical chairs watching it, and I was glad Hurwitz put it back in. Just an amazing piece of physical comedy, and one that works because the relationship between those two characters is so well-established that it needs no additional context. (When we were shown it, in fact, it didn't yet have the narration explaining why she couldn't go out to the balcony herself; it was just that funny on its own.)
* Most efficient reprise of a former "Arrested" guest: Scott Baio as Bob Loblaw, who came in (alongside Henry Winkler, no less), was responsible for some amusing doubletalk ("a Bob Loblaw law bomb"), and got off the stage quickly. I'm also a complete sucker for Lucille's reactions to Gene Parmesan's disguises, though Gene away from Lucille does little for me.
* Most frustrating reprise of a former "Arrested" guest: Justin Lee as Annyong, whose appearance was much too brief. It's not that Annyong is a particularly multi-dimensional character, but he works well as a background gag.
* Most frustrating near-reprise of a former "Arrested" running gag: George-Michael (wearing matador pants, no less) bails out right before doing his own take on the Bluth family chicken dance. Fifteen episodes and not a single chicken dance, much less a chance to see someone new doing one? Cruel.
* Best reprise of a minor former "Arrested" running gag: using this real Pete Rose ad to continue the joke about how he represents the various bases of love.
* My memory of the original series isn't encyclopedic enough to recall whether George-Michael really never met Lucille 2. Is that right?
* Speaking of Lucille 2, her fate is obviously the big mystery being held out for the alleged follow-up, but there were several other unclosed loops, including two different crucifix gags involving Gob: who sabotaged his resurrection trick, and how did the giant cross wind up in the limo? Given the structure of the season, that felt odd.
* It's no "Big Yellow Joint" or "Mock Trial with J. Reinhold" theme, but I suspect I'm going to have Mark Cherry's "Getaway" stuck in my head for a while.
* Nice to see Christine Taylor and Ben Stiller (real-life spouses and separate former "Arrested" guests) share some screen time together, but how do you suggest that Sally Sitwell shares her father's medical condition without letting her dust off her old "Friends" bald cap? (Another possible former role callback: George Sr. slowly becoming a cross-dresser, just like Jeffrey Tambor did back on "Hill Street Blues.")
* The idea of Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen playing Lucille and George Sr. in flashbacks might have been funny, but they were never given anything to do, and it also broke with the show's pre-established pattern of having Jessica Walter and Tambor do it. Max Winkler (Henry's son) at least had some good jokes to deliver as the young Barry Zuckerkorn.
* Also not given enough funny material, especially given her amount of screen time: Isla Fisher as Rebel Alley. Hurwitz is usually very good at taking strong comic actors (or even mediocre ones like Baio) and giving them funny things to play, but other than her PSAs, Rebel was a fairly straightforward love interest for Michael and George-Michael.
* The episodes were still being completed pretty close to the Memorial Day weekend release, which is how they were able to include a relatively current reference like Maeby citing the most famous phrase (the one involving punting) of the sorority letter in her profane Opie acceptance speech.
* Do Charlie Kaufman and Spike Jonze get any royalties from the low ceiling gag from episode 4?
* The Netflix experience was pretty smooth on Sunday and Monday during the daytime when I had a chance to watch episodes, but starting Monday night (when more people had returned from holiday travel), I began getting error messages a lot of the time.
* Funnier animal gag: Lucille 2 wrestling the ostrich, or the Funke family trying to cook the duck?
* As I said above, everything with Ann was great, but especially her performing a real-life version of "Straightbait" on Gob and Tony Wonder.
What did everybody else think?
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at email@example.com