Attested Development

After years of hype and speculation, Arrested Development is back thanks to the tireless work of Mitch Hurwitz and the show’s writers. Watching these characters again has been surreal. I had the same feeling when I saw Toy Story 3 and The Hobbit: I’d watched the previous installments (the LOTR trilogy in the case of The Hobbit) so many times that seeing the same characters in new situations was delightful yet a bit disorienting. Which is how I can best describe the new fourth season of Arrested. The narrative Hurwitz and his writers have created is so labyrinthine and arcane that it will certainly require repeated viewings to fully grasp, just like the show’s first three seasons.

After one run through the season, my main critique is that unlike the original run, the new season lacks a core. Instead of focusing on the family unit throughout the narrative, each episode centers on one main character, with the others coming and going while engaged in their own overlapping story. It’s hard to fall back in love with the family when we only see them in bits and pieces over fifteen episodes. When the story falters, it’s because it upended the show’s tried-and-true structure of Michael being the reliable straight-man, the eye of the Bluth storm. He held the show together — sometimes only barely — so that the rest of the ensemble could wig out. However, with this new season’s decentralized narrative and Michael’s uncharacteristic recklessness, there is no reliable foundation; the inmates are now running the asylum. Whenever we’re following a new wacky non-Bluth character (and there are many of them this season) instead of the family we’ve come to love (or at least be amused by), the show almost always lags. This, combined with the fact that episodes are now 30-35 minutes long instead of their network TV-sanctioned 22, makes for an Arrested Development that doesn’t quite feel like the Arrested Development of yore.

I realize this (lack of) structure was largely a logistical one; they had to film it in discrete pieces simply because it was so hard to get the full cast together at one time. But that challenge turned into a net positive for the show. Its brand of postmodern meta-comedy is perfectly equipped to handle the structureless vacuum season four has created, as NPR’s interactive guide of the show’s running gags illustrates. When so much of the show’s humor is derived from its interconnected meta-jokes, allusions (or illusions), and sight gags, the central storyline — if there even is one this season — is often irrelevant.

In fact, I sometimes found myself disengaging with the main story of each episode with the hope of catching the many in-jokes, callbacks, and other background tidbits that zoom by. One critic found this meta-humor distracting, saying the season “trades far too easily on callbacks to the early seasons, a sort of unpleasant fan service that is depressing to watch.” Indeed, there are a lot of callbacks, but that’s nothing unique to this season. As the aforementioned guide points out, even season one was making callbacks and allusions to itself on dozens of jokes. I’m sure the in-jokes this season felt like a fan service because the fans are essentially why this season exists at all, but they have been the show’s lifeblood since its infancy and almost always impress rather than depress.

And that’s why you always leave a note I’ve attested to the new season development and give a hearty Huzzah! to Mitch Hurwitz & Co. for giving in to the Internet’s collective conch call to bring the gang back together and for going all-out on it. Often I stared at Netflix in wonder, wanting to slow-clap the writers for what they have attempted with this season. While it might have a slightly lower batting average than in the first three, it was a swing for the fences. And like Maeby this season, I think they made it home.