I found it impossible to write about this season without delving into my own tedious history with the Bluths, so here’s the simple, short version of this review up top for the TL;DR crowd: Season 4 of Arrested Development is great! Hilarious, intricate, slyly character-driven, contrived beyond belief, heavy on guest stars, riddled with puns, and unbelievably daring in its structure. Even though its plotting, tone, acting, and comedic pacing deviate—sometimes significantly—from the formula perfected in the first three seasons, the show’s fundamental ambition to construct brilliant, dense storytelling as a vehicle for darkly incisive wit has most assuredly been preserved.
The long version of this review: it’s hard to know how to approach something like this. Numerous questions have plagued me since the announcement of Arrested Development’s fourth season. What does this TV show owe me? What do I owe this TV show? Will it be as funny as it was six years ago? Will it be funny at all? Even if we set aside the immense host of practical concerns—the cast’s chemistry, the impulse to cater to old running gags, Portia de Rossi’s overwhelmingly distracting plastic surgery—there remains one central question for the Arrested Developmentheads (don’t call them that) whose six-year vigil came to an end on Sunday: how am I supposed to feel about this?
I understand both the hand wringing and the unbridled jubilation. I have vacillated wildly between these two dispositions during the ten years that I’ve had AD in my life. The source of our consternation seems to be that we, the fans, want this show to continue to exist, and we want it to remain great. We don’t want it to tarnish its own legacy with a subpar return. But even if it does, I’m going to suggest that most of us will be grateful just for the opportunity to have seen some more of it, and our gratitude will outweigh whatever complaints we might initially feel compelled to voice.
In this sense, I think AD fans differ from, say, Community fans, many of whom disowned that show after the first few episodes of its divisive fourth season. That’s not an indictment of Community fans. They’re perhaps more clearheaded in their assessment of what their beloved show is capable of delivering at this point. Community fans, for better or for worse, haven’t tearfully buried their show in an Aztec tomb and walked away only to have it reappear in their attics six years later. In the eyes of AD fans, at least right now, extra episodes are a pleasant surprise. This show is like a child that can do no wrong in our eyes, and even if it fails miserably, we’ll love and support it, warts and all.
The television criticism landscape at large, however, is sure to be less forgiving. In the years since its cancellation, AD has become the Velvet Underground of television comedy series, the “underappreciated,” “overlooked” lightning bolt of genius that set the template for the modern single-camera comedy landscape. As a result, there is a towering reputation preceding this fourth season’s release. At stake is this show’s spot on every idiotic list of the Best Shows of All Time, as well as the personal cred of those who have recommended it for ten years with a fervency approaching that of The Wireheads. Already the backlash is pouring in, as pop culture outlets hustle to tell it like it is, give us the raw truth about this season. This show just isn’t the same, they say.
Of course it’s different. Different production entities, a radical new delivery system, years of ideas percolating in the mind of Mitch Hurwitz, and a six year gap for the actors, writers, directors, and characters. If season 4 of Arrested Development looked exactly like season 3 (which people unjustly malign in its own right), it would probably be even more disappointing to reviewers than this season is. On a basic level, season 4 of Arrested Development accomplishes what it sets out to do: update us on where the family has been and set the stage for them to reunite. And it does this using one of the most impressive storytelling gambits I’ve ever seen on television.
This season of Arrested Development, in both conception and execution, is an eight-hour-long episode. I think that’s what most of the detractors are failing to understand. It’s framed by the family’s reunion at a heretofore unheard-of event known as Cinco de Cuatro, and it traces the Bluths’ individual journeys—using a cheeky twist on the archival footage methods that are the show’s trademark—from the season 3 finale to this point. There’s a steep learning curve, of course, because Cinco de Cuatro’s role as a framing device isn’t made entirely clear until you get into the back half of the season, but once you see it, there’s no other way to view this season. Criticisms of standalone episodes are worthless, because this is simply one big story told in parts. The binge-watchers did it right.
The first half of the season is very Michael-, George Sr.- and Lindsay-centric. Since their stories are less disposed to the big reveals of the Cinco de Cuatro event, these episodes can feel kind of sluggish at times. I was personally a fan of the recurring bit about Michael trying—and failing—to game the roommate vote, and the George/Oscar madness in the desert successfully introduced this season’s more deliberate pacing. Lindsay’s episode was clearly the weakest of the bunch, but a combination of Portia de Rossi’s new face and her character’s tendency toward one-note materialism doomed it from the start.
I think the slower pace of the writing is what turned off a lot of people at the beginning of this season, but the show’s charm has never been Sorkinese crosstalk. The original run’s seemingly rapid-fire quips always felt like the consequence of an overabundance of jokes coupled with a 22-minute runtime, but they didn’t necessarily make for easy viewing the first time around. A lot of our collective perception of this show as a joke explosion is the result of viewing it for years on DVD, where it’s easier to go back and pick through the exchanges that we initially just smiled and nodded through.
And when you consider that these episodes have ballooned to an average of a half hour, the pacing seems to have adjusted nicely, and it almost has a humanizing effect on a lot of these characters. Tobias doesn’t wander into the kitchen just to spout something about swallowing balls and then disappear within fifteen seconds. George Michael isn’t perpetually having a fit of nervous giggles before leaving in a flash to avoid being interrogated. Things are less frantic, and even if the jokes-to-seconds ratio has gone down, the hits-to-misses ratio remains the same.
The pacing issue dissipates anyway as you get into the season’s back half and the pieces start to fall into place during the Maeby, George Michael and Lucille episodes. New glimpses at old scenes are slyly revealed, callbacks to this season’s brand-new jokes are slipped into dialogue, and interlocking satirical concepts mesh beautifully down the home stretch. The show has a lot of topical send-ups—presumably gathered during its intermission—to knock out, some of which are fresh and hilarious (the combination of Entourage and the Justin Bieber phenomenon, for instance) and some of which are awkward and stale (Terry Crews as a version of Herman Cain, Lucille’s stint in the cast of Real Asian Prison Housewives of the Orange County White Collar Prison System). It can be easy to forget how much of a sucker AD is for “S.O.Bs”-esque gimmicky episodes and arcs (which would later be embraced by shows like 30 Rock), and this season gives us just enough of that without letting things get excessively stupid.
As far as the Bluth family and their personal arcs, I don’t see any reason to complain. Almost all of them have spent their years away from us doing what they might be expected to do. Michael is smothering George Michael at college. Maeby is still misapplying her considerable resourcefulness and charm. Tobias is misreading words and being a terrible actor. Buster is an infantile weirdo. GOB has a particularly shameful Forget-Me-Now spiral before finding redemption in the arms of someone who is equally narcissistic. The essential traits of these characters are intact, but their situations are new, and most of them have little moments of growth during their episodes.
I keep coming back to the structure, though. Maybe I’m in the minority on this, but one of the most memorable reactions I had to the show’s initial run was a sense of constant awe. The complexity of the plots always worked in service to brilliant comedic payoffs, and I often found myself staring in fascination rather than laughing aloud. Arrested Development has always been a laboratory for Hurwitz to try out new ways to make a sitcom, and this most recent conceit is his most impressive feat yet. The season is a self-contained web of coincidence and deceit, or, as David Cross put it, “[It's] like if you could mash up a Venn diagram with a nautilus shell. And then put that inside a Möbius strip.” The first episodes become much funnier in light of the information we receive in the later episodes, and Hurwitz has even suggested that there are clues regarding the season’s cliffhanger to be found throughout all of the episodes. Just because Arrested Development looks different doesn’t mean that it’s not as good. In fact, quite the opposite is true: its startling new look reaffirms its status as the most innovative sitcom on (or off) TV.