by Paul Deines
One of the funniest and darkest moments of Arrested Development’s long-awaited fourth season involves the funeral of a realtor (Ed Helms) who kills himself after the housing bubble bursts. The priest admonishes the mourners that his death should remind everyone to live within their means. One of the congregants, Tobias Fünke (David Cross), interrupts to announce he with redouble his efforts to become a star, so the departed will have died in vain. For Tobias it is a moment of personal triumph, awful self-involved triumph.
Season 4 of Arrested Development dropped on Netflix on May 31st and immediately became the subject of derision from disappointed critics and fans alike, before disappearing from the national consciousness. A Season 5 or movie seems pretty unlikely at this point, no matter what brave faces Netflix execs put on.
I have to disagree with the hemming and hawing. Mitch Hurwitz, Jon Glazer, Ron Howard, and company faced a many challenges, most notably the mixed blessing that virtually every actor from the core ensemble experienced astonishing success since the initial cancellation in 2006. Getting them on the same set all at once was nearly impossible, and Hurwitz’s solution is a bold gambit.
Season 4’s narrative rests on four scenes during which the full ensemble is together, and each episode focuses on an individual member of the Bluth clan. So there is a fair amount of leaping back and forth in time, revisiting the same events from different vantages. Early rumors speculated the episodes could be viewed in any order. Hurwitz denied this, but it seems like this could have been the original idea, since many jokes do not become funny until they are revisited in later episodes.
Consequently, the weakest episodes are the first ones. We’re dropped immediately into the middle of Michael Bluth’s (Jason Bateman) personal collapse, and one of the season’s unfortunate extended sequences (no commercials means an additional 10-15 per episode), involving Michael’s attempt to rig a vote to expel one roommate from his son’s (Michael Cera) dorm room. The joke is the obvious inadvisability of the plan and Michael’s many bootless attempts to explain it. This repetition pushes into Sideshow-Bob-and-the-rake territory, but only in the later episodes when Michael is still insisting his vote-rigging was viable does the laughter happen.
The vote sequence succeeds, though, in landing a heartbreaking final beat, and more than any timeline trickery, these cathartic downers are true innovation. Everyone I talk to believes that decentralizing the narrative from a sympathetic audience surrogate, namely Michael, has affected the show’s tone. Really, though, the tone seems off because each character is, at last, forced to reckon with his or her awfulness.
Examples: Tobias allows an addict lover to relapse so he can mount a play. Lindsay’s (Portia de Rossi) entitled activism sours into know-nothing xenophobia. Buster’s (Tony Hale) mother fixation turns Norman Batesish, and Gob (Will Arnett) descends into a haze of self-loathing and drug-induced memory loss. A recurring joke of him staring into space while “The Sound of Silence” warbles on the soundtrack is unerringly funny, but it speaks to the gamble Arrested Development’s creative team is taking. Many of these moments are startlingly affecting. Lucille’s (Jessica Walter) arc ends with her begging another character to understand and validate the decisions she’s made (it reminded me of Livia defending her many murders to Claudius). Gob’s struggle to find revenge is at once very funny and touching in its portrayal of the way shallow men struggle to connect. And Maeby’s (Alia Shawkat) episode, the best of the season, captures one of those everyday tragedies: how youthful precocity can so easily yield adult disappointment.
Which is not to say that the season is not extremely funny. Arrested Development thrived – like the best seasons of The Simpsons or 30 Rock - on a dense concentration of jokes, more than anyone could catch in one viewing, and frequent references and embellishments upon these incidental jokes. It’s what made the show near-impossible for casual viewers to drop into, and it’s also the essential attribute of the show. Season 4 happily keeps it dense – the bleakness of the narrative would be unbearable otherwise – and it offers countless new comedy set-pieces: Tony Wonder’s new gay act, the And Club, the unwieldy literal slogans for Imagine Entertainment and Jerry Bruckheimer Films, C.W. Swappigans, and on. Newcomers like Helms, Terry Crews, Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Maria Bamford, Tommy Tune, and John Slattery all kill.
There is also much that does not work. The George Sr./Oscar (Jeffrey Tambor) arc promises something like a Prestige-esque identity twist that never materializes. The season leans pretty heavily on Liza Minelli’s Lucille 2, never the funniest character. Even weaker is Rebel Alley (Isla Fisher) the new love interest who appears in pretty much every episode. I don’t recall anything particularly off about the Lindsay episodes, but only because I don’t remember them much at all. And not to carp, but no Bluth Banana Stand? It was part of the viral marketing for God’s sake.
Season 4 wraps up like an Antonioni film, right down to the stark, pregnant final image (one that is sticking with me, a visual rebuke to the first moment of the first season). There’s a posited murder that is never solved, an election that never happens, a film never produced, a thousand lies never uncovered, and so on and so on. Surely, Hurwitz and company are banking on another season or a movie, but I’d sort of love if this was the end, fraught as it is with hope lost and meaning undiscovered.
I think the ennui of this season is perfectly suited to the time. The show in its first incarnation ran from 2003 through 2006, during George W. Bush’s uncontested era. The Bluths were stand-ins for idiot white men like Michael Brown (whose tenure in FEMA began in 2003 too). They were entitled, overfunded charlatans whose sole concern was not their own prosperity. History caught up with them in 2008, when scores of real-world George Bluths – Dick Fuld, John Thain, Bernie Madoff – fell from grace. As of 2013 it appears they’ve learned nothing.
Not especially satisfying in a sitcom-y way, not even a smart-groundbreaking-sitcom-y way. Season 4 dares to acknowledge that the Bluths are amusing but not lovable. They are what’s wrong with America and any humor to be derived from them is of the gallows variety. I look forward to watching the season a second time, and I hope others will do the same.