Arrested Development: There Are Always Ratings in the Banana Stand
by Jonathan Pilley (@omnicomic)
There was a time long ago (seven years to be exact) when Arrested Development was a darling among viewers, but failed to make any headway in the ratings. Fox canceled the show, as it has a habit of doing with shows fans adore but don’t bring in the ratings (see Firefly and The Sarah Connor Chronicles). Ever since then, the show developed cult status, becoming oft quoted by everyone and proving to last much longer than its abbreviated three-season run. There were always promises of another season and Netflix answered those promises on May 26, with the debut of the highly touted fourth season of the show.
The biggest question surrounding the return of the show was whether or not too much time had passed for it to maintain the originality that made it so endearing in the first place. Would fans still be fascinated by Never Nudes? Would George Michael and Maeby actually become Les Cousins Dangereux? And would the show maintain the biting wit and jump-cuts that helped make the first three seasons some of the greatest television of all time? The answer is a little murky.
The entire cast came back for fifteen episodes, something truly remarkable considering just about all of them have launched successful movie careers off the back of the first three seasons of Arrested Development. Having them all back lends legitimacy to the fourth season, as if any single member didn’t come back there a serious blow would have been dealt against the idea that the new season could actually be any good. Unfortunately, because of the aforementioned success, not all the actors were in the same place at the same time.
While there is an overarching story tying the individual episodes together, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer and Mitch Hurwitz had to get a little creative with the storytelling. To do so, they essentially gave each character their own episode that tied into the larger storyline. The fragmented storytelling was a far cry from the more tightly woven paths of the characters in the original three seasons. There was maybe one or two scenes in the fourth season where all the characters were actually together at once and the absence of that great cast chemistry sort of hurt the feel of the new episodes.
Of course, despite the individual episodic feel, the story still manages to feel incredibly tight and self-contained. Netflix itself admitted that this was something of an experiment in television show viewing, as they made the decision to release all episodes at once to feed our “binge watching” needs. This also meant that the episodes could–in theory–be watched in any order and you would still get a sense of what was going on with the Bluths. There are some parts where it worked really well and others where the fact that the cast couldn’t be together for the entire filming is felt onscreen.
There’s also something of an anachronistic feel to the fourth season. While it references the events at the end of season three, the fourth season itself takes place years later and uses some flashbacks to fill in the gaps. Some fans would think it would make the most sense to just pick up where the third season left off, but obviously many of the cast is older and it might not have worked. It is a little jarring though because at some points you do feel that it’s picked up right where it left off, while at other points you feel it’s moved very far forward.
Arrested Development thrived on comedic timing and malapropisms to really deliver the laughs. There was also the network TV aspect of it on FOX, where they had to do certain things to make sure the censors would approve the episodes. In the fourth season, however, they don’t have those restraints and the show’s creators really run with them. Everything from prostitutes with politicians to sexual offenders living together in one neighborhood is fair game. These scenarios do have their funny moments because of who’s involved, but they seem a little edgy for something like Arrested Development.
Despite some of the things mentioned above, the fourth season does manage to create some truly memorable moments and laughs. There are some bits that are flat-out hilarious (most of Gob’s storyline and Tobias’ insistence on reviving the Fantastic Four as a musical) and really call back to those earlier seasons of the show. George Michael and Michael Bluth get to explore the relationship more extensively and maturely, something that the original show lacked. And Lucille Bluth becomes the criminal mastermind, even avoiding a dried noodle shanking in the process.
There are moments in the fourth season that are pure brilliance and moments where it seems they tried too hard. The concept was sort of a lose-lose proposition for the creators regardless. If they made it too much like the original, fans would say they couldn’t come up with something new. If they made it completely new, fans would say there wasn’t enough of the original material. Instead, the creators strived for a happy medium between the two and while the outcome isn’t as cerebrally comedic as the original seasons, it’s still a solid season of episodes with a familiar cast in familiar situations.
Netflix and Arrested Development should be commended for taking such a bold foray into new episodes by offering them out of order, all at the same time and edgier. Not everyone is going to enjoy the new episodes as much as the old, but at least we get to spend a little more time with one of the most functionally dysfunctional families in a long time in the Bluths. And like those moments where Lucille Bluth winks at the medication, the show winks at its fans, knowing they’re watching and winking back.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars