After more than a week of pondering, I think I've finally figured out the point of Season 4 of "Arrested Development": I can only assume the goal was to cure TV aficionados of wanting to revive any classic show, ever.
Much of the fourth season serves as an equivalent to the kind of scary warning the Bluth kids used to get from J. Walter Weatherman, the one-armed man who menaced them as kids. But instead of instilling terror as to what might happen if we put an empty milk container back in the fridge, Season 4 stands as a warning to anyone who's advocating for the return of a show for which they had great affection: Be careful what you wish for, because the results can be deeply misguided.
Buster's late-season outing, Episode 14, works from start to finish; there are lines that land here and there, and some of the satire of the movie-making business is amusing. John Heard, a news anchor, and Ron Howard, who also narrates the show, emerge as key supporting players in the expanded Bluth universe (which also unfortunately contains some characters that veer dangerously close to ethnic stereotype). The fourth season also contains some of the least funny "Arrested Development" gags of all time: Clinical depictions of George Michael's kissing technique and flashbacks to Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen as young Lucille and George Sr. are all stilted and unfunny.
Ultimately, though, it's not about whether one line, gag or episode works or doesn't. The problem is that the season as a whole is, like a Bluth-constructed house, built on a shaky and unsuitable foundation. It's notable that Buster's gloriously goofy outing isn't too closely connected to the overly contrived story that, as the season drags on, drains a lot of the fun out of "Arrested Development." The one consistent element of the new season is the way the hydra-headed plot strangles momentum, undercuts comedy and depletes character moments.
Sure, in its original incarnation, the show was known for its callbacks, running gags and dense storytelling, but what "Arrested Development" was mainly known for back in the day was its unobtrusive cleverness and its ability to deploy its wit, intelligence and savage satire with a light touch. It was a comedy souffle about horrible people that won our affection in part by showing that some of the Bluths wanted to be slightly better, at least some of the time. Its cynicism and satire were balanced by entertaining depictions of cluelessness, obliviousness and also a little earnestness. Real emotions occasionally emerged -- and they helped ground the satire and silliness of Seasons 1-3 -- but the tone rarely strayed from bouyant goofiness.
Most of this season, on the other hand, reeks of flop sweat.
Much about the new season feels like it's been beamed in from Opposite World: The characters labor in service of contrived stories, rather than the stories subtly adding to our understanding of the eternally misguided Bluths. One reason Netflix wanted to make more episodes was because executives found that fans repeatedly watched episodes of the original series, but the grinding gears of Season 4's mechanical plot are so obnoxious and obtrusive that they often get in the way of enjoying the Bluths' idiocy. It makes me sadder than I can say that I have no urge to rewatch 14 of the 15 new episodes.
Watching Season 4 of "Arrested Development" is like meeting a friend after you've spent a decade apart, and growing increasingly uneasy as you discover they've followed their most grandiose and problematic instincts quite far down the rabbit hole. Something that once felt effortless now reeks of frantic, misdirected effort, and all the flailing attempts to connect the dots of the story mainly serve as a reminder of how little structural complexity matters if the characters, the tone and ultimately the magic get lost in the shuffle.
So what can we learn from "Arrested Development's" return? A few things, I think:
1. Giving creators all the power isn't always the answer.
Much of the mythic narrative of the television industry depicts a put-upon writer-creator who must battle clueless TV executives in order to create something great (there's even a whole subculture of shows devoted to this scenario: "Episodes," "Studio 60," "30 Rock," etc.). No doubt that situation plays out more than it should, but what gets far less attention are the situations in which studio or network executives stop creators from making mistakes and/or falling down those tempting rabbit holes. This happens more often than you'd think, but it clearly didn't happen with "Arrested Development."
Having corralled creator Mitchell Hurwitz for a fourth season, I can only imagine that Netflix executives thought he knew best how to revive his acclaimed show. But the first big mistake Netflix let him make was to focus each episode on a particular character. Whether this was due to actor availability or part of Hurwitz's aesthetic ambitions for the season doesn't really matter. The forced, flat results speak for themselves.
As we well know, the Bluths are a little bit awful (or a lot awful) in the aggregate. Individually, they're almost insufferable. Sure, half the reason we loved "Arrested Development" back in the day is because these people are selfish dopes. But a season devoted to relentlessly exposing each individual's flaws is not only deflating, it's also not particularly funny.
Linsday's narcissism, Michael's well-intentioned myopia, Tobias' cluelessness, Gob's need for approval -- they were all certainly there during the show's original run. But these self-absorbed qualities somehow offset each other in the original episodes, which usually featured most or all of the Bluth family. Before you could get tired of Tobias' lack of self-awareness or George Sr.'s selfishness, another family member would come along with some scheme or strategy that was clueless and wrong in a different way.
There's nothing wrong with episodes more focused on a particular character or storyline, but Season 4 of "Arrested Development" over-focuses on individual elements without apparently realizing how detrimental that is to the whole. And I should be clear: Netflix isn't the first entity to give a showrunner too much control. The last season of "Torchwood" and the only season of "John From Cincinnati" are only two examples of creator/executive producers run amok. We can only hope the "Veronica Mars" return displays more discipline and perspective about what works -- and what doesn't.
2. Maybe the old ways aren't so bad.
What we think of as the evolution of television is a great thing, given that there are so many more ways to access filmed stories. The medium itself is growing and changing all the time.
But we don't want to throw out the baby with the bathwater. I'm all for experimenting with linearity, characterization and form, but only if these strategies increase our investment in the characters, the story and the world. "Louie" does this well. The new season of "Arrested Development" does not.
When actions are divorced from consequences, or consequences don't arrive for several episodes, that leads to a sense of disconnection and disengagement. Once I got the sense that every "Arrested Development" episode was largely a laborious device meant to connect one set of plot points to another set of plot points, it was hard to feel engaged by anything that transpired among the human beings on the screen.
I don't think "Arrested Development" should have merely replicated the kind of episodes that aired during its original run. Season 4 didn't necessarily have to feature tight, 21-minute stories that involved every character in similar formats. But most of the episodes in Season 4 are simply too long, contain too much filler and are too convoluted. Truth be told, after a while, I began to miss the elegant economy of old-school "Arrested Development."
As Ryan McGee and I have often said in our podcast, a classic episode of television is a beautiful thing. Being able to tell a rich, evocative or funny story in 21 or 42 minutes is a valuable and worthwhile skill that we should honor, even as the industry thinks about ways to evolve beyond it.
3. Just because a site acquires content doesn't mean it can create top-notch new content.
The traditional television industry can certainly use a shakeup. It is responsible for a lot of junk every year, and it often doesn't do a good job of sustaining and nurturing excellence.
Having said that, holy cow, there's a ton of great TV on right now, and most of it was created by the networks and studios we often beat up for their various failings. My end-of-year "top TV" lists were chock-a-block with decent, good and great shows, and those rosters were compiled before I saw "Orphan Black," "Continuum," "The Americans," "Rectify," "The Bletchley Circle," "Defiance," "Hannibal" and Season 2 of "Enlightened."
I'm all for the digital revolution, and I know we've got to give new venues time to mature, but I've not yet seen consistent proof that the executives responsible for original content at Netflix, Hulu and Amazon can help create (as opposed to acquiring) rosters that are anywhere near that varied or good.
The Amazon pilots I managed to check out this spring were generally pretty anemic and disappointing, truth be told. I'm only halfway through Netflix's "House of Cards," and though it has a very good cast, I find it a bit chilly for my taste, which is why I'm still only half-done with it (horror isn't my thing, so I didn't bother with "Hemlock Grove"). The Hulu originals I've seen -- "A Day in the Life," "Battleground" and "Spoilers" -- were well-intentioned but cheaply made and certainly not must-see offerings.
Look, I'm all for new sources of cash and distribution for those who have really smart, interesting stories to share. I just hope that these new online venues start building up track records half as impressive as that of the average basic cable network.
4. How we interact with a show over time -- well, that is tricky territory.
Both "The Wire" and "Arrested Development" were justly acclaimed while they were on the air, but it was in their DVD and on-demand afterlives that they truly became pop-culture touchstones and acquired the lofty status they now enjoy. The good news is, we now have more ways than ever to let people know that they should check out gone-too-soon gems (and here's another shout-out to "Better Off Ted").
The bad news: Things that shouldn't be revived might be, which is a little frightening (the reasons "Friday Night Lights" should rest in peace could be the subject of whole different essay). And sometimes creators appear to learn the wrong lessons from the cult reputations their shows develop.
"Arrested Development's" cancellation was followed by years of praise for the show's elaborate gags and its attention to detail, but just because it rewarded intense viewing doesn't mean the plots and the minutiae were the only things that people enjoyed about the show. What if "The Wire" was revived but as a vehicle for Omar's badassery, rather than as a meditation on the death of a great American city? It would likely feel as hollow and unproductive as this "Arrested Development" revival, or Season 4 of "Community."
Speaking of time, would my impressions of Season 4 change if I'd watched and rewatched it over a period of months, rather than days? I doubt it. Problems this big don't require time to digest, though I needed several days to process my disappointment before I could write about the comedy's return.
5. Like members of the Bluth family, maybe we need to grow up and move on.
I'm glad that, these days, the death of a TV show is often like a character's demise on "Supernatural" -- not a finality, but an inconvenience to be overcome. But as I wrote when the "Veronica Mars" Kickstarter was announced, it's inevitable that we'll be disappointed by some of the revivals that come down the pike. If you enjoyed Season 4 of "Arrested Development," that's great. For me, as I dragged myself though the new season, it felt as though my prediction had come true far sooner than I'd thought it would.
The cast is as sharp as ever, but they deserve better than this. If there's more money in the banana stand, let's hope it's better spent next time. But maybe it's just time for us to move out of the model home.