Funny but staggeringly incomplete: Arrested Development Season Four

Note: Besides the extensive overall talk on structure, this review is generally spoiler-free until the end, which is marked.

As a single episode of television, “Blockheads,” the 15th episode of Arrested Development’s fourth season, is a perfectly serviceable 35 minutes of television. It’s often funny, it clips along a bit better than some of its companions, and its point in the overall story means that it’s on the “filling in the gaps” side of the season, rather than the “creating gaps” side.

As a season – and perhaps series – finale, however, it fails miserably, and it illustrates how the revived show’s fourth time out fails as a narrative whole.

I feel as if I need to write my look back on Arrested’s recently-released batch of new episodes with a truckload of qualifiers. After all, I am grateful that Netflix chose to resurrect the long-canceled show as one of the streaming site’s original series, and I’m happy to spend some more time with the Bluths, some of the funniest characters in TV history. I would also be remiss if I didn’t point out that the show is still often hilarious, with a couple of episodes that would stack up well against most of the show’s run on Fox a decade ago. As a longtime fan of the show, I’m glad creator Mitch Hurwitz didn’t decide to rely on a preponderance of callbacks in place of new content, and I’m pleased that some of the quirks he didn’t have to retain (like the docu-style faux self-censorship) are still present.

So please keep all of that in mind when I say that this season of Arrested Development was largely unsatisfying for a variety of reasons. If you’re reading this, you’ve also probably read plenty of things by other people who had more time to watch the show faster, so I will gloss over many of the common complaints about the season. Yes, it’s not quite as funny, there’s too much narration and repetition, some of the callbacks are a bit hacky, and the show is definitely hurt by budgetary and scheduling issues that only allowed the principal cast to be together in one scene, but these are all secondary and tertiary complaints when compared to the season’s primary problem: its story.

As individual stories, most of the season’s 15 episodes don’t work on a narrative level, and the overall story of the season is unfulfilling on just about every level except for one (more on that in the final thoughts section). When I finished watching “Blockheads,” I felt an unfamiliar and uncomfortable rankling in my gut: a feeling of disappointment in Arrested Development, a show whose first three seasons I unreservedly loved. I’ll tackle this on two levels – that of the individual episode and of the overall plot.

Rather than showcasing the crazy pinball dialogue and plotting that was the earlier show’s trademark, Arrested’s new season spends each individual episode focusing on a different member of the Bluth family, each one’s story leading up to a climactic night at Cinco de Cuatro, a Balboa Bay holiday invented by Lucille for typically offensive reasons (as an aside, I thought it was a weird choice to open the show’s fourth season with a scene not featuring any of the show’s regulars, although Kristen Wiig is fantastic as flashback-Lucille). Though they often have their own independent adventures, each Bluth also interacts with other Bluths in one-on-one or one-on-two situations, giving the individual stories a greater sense of connection to the overall whole and creating the effect of the entire season feeling like one really long episode or movie.

Unfortunately, that approach comes back to bite the episodes individually. Many of them are too much in debt to the show’s overall plot and struggle to feel satisfying in their own right, often coming to an end before any sort of conclusion is reached. The character arcs feel incomplete for many of the Bluths whose two episodes are over early on in the season (Maeby, Lucille and Buster get an episode each, and the others all get two).

That feeling of incompletion is only enforced by the episodes’ time-jumping conceit, which is sometimes fun and clever but often serves to kill a story’s momentum and makes the early episodes feel like there are pieces missing (a complaint I’m guessing will lessen on a rewatch). The show is also too enamored with its puzzle-box construction a la late-era How I Met Your Mother, sometimes preferring to twist up a timeline when a linear approach would make more story sense. I often had little conception of when events were occurring, both in relation to “real life” and to the season’s other events.

The selection of each character’s number of episodes is another factor in making them feel disjointed, as there’s probably another episode of Michael story wedged into episodes that aren’t “starring” him, occasionally jarring viewers out of the watching experience. A more demanding editor than Hurwitz – and let’s face it, virtually all of these episodes would be improved if a few minutes of their dead spots were chopped down – could have consolidated the George Sr. or Lindsay material into one episode to give Michael, the show’s ostensible star, another episode or two toward the end of the season.

However, the episodes’ primary problem is that Hurwitz often seems to eschew traditional three-act storytelling. It’s no mistake that the season’s two best episodes – Tobias’s “A New Start” and Maeby’s “Señoritis” – are the two that have the best establishing beginning, narrative build and definitive ending (it’s also probably not coincidental that Tobias and Maeby are the two characters least connected to the family in the show’s original run). Many of the others are content to start on a recap or to be all second act and no narrative build, and a lot of them don’t end so much as abruptly stop.

All of this is, to a certain extent, forgivable, as the show generally manages to sustain interest in the ongoing plot. It is also funny and at times genuinely gut-busting, and it was great to learn that Hurwitz and most of the actors still had a bead on what makes their characters compelling and funny (I laughed as hard at the final few minutes of “A New Start” as I did during any moment of the first three seasons). However, the episodes’ lackluster narratives were dwarfed by the problem with the overarching plot, which is that it doesn’t resolve in any way.

Prior to Season Four being released, Hurwitz said in interviews that he has more of a story to tell with the Bluths, either through another television series or, preferably for Hurwitz, a movie. In the season’s final moments, viewers realize too late that the preceding 15 episodes don’t tell their own story at all, but merely serve as a prologue to something that may never happen. In fact, the events that the season set up seemingly make it harder for the theoretical movie to given their time-sensitive nature (remember, it took us seven years to get Season Four, most of which takes place between 2008 and 2012 due to the actors aging).

Previous seasons of Arrested Development – and indeed, virtually all successful seasons of television with an ongoing plot – work because they are self-contained. They’re not always about the same thing for the whole season, but they begin in one place and logically proceed to another place, and then they conclude on a logical stopping point. Oftentimes a good season will end with a cliffhanger, but it will still feel like its own thing (see Heroes, for example, which still has a really good first season despite being a really bad TV series).

Arrested Season Four, however, only exists because we have affection for earlier, better seasons of television, and when it ends, it feels as if there should be 10 more episodes left in the season’s run. What’s worse, it stops at a point when most of the show’s characters are at their worst points, with no chance of being redeemed unless Hurwitz gets his passion project. It would be nigh unforgivable if the final shot of the show before it cuts to credits is the last we ever see of these characters, but it seems likely that it may be.

In essence, Hurwitz gave us part of a television season and then puts the onus on his fans to agitate for a continuation to the story. Not only does this reek of audience manipulation (the cynical “Save Happy Endings” campaign from ABC immediately springs to mind), but it assumes that audience demand will bring back an expensive cult TV show that mainstream viewing audiences largely rejected 10 years ago. If wishes were dollars, Arrested Development would have those six seasons and a movie Community fans are desperate for, but you and I have no real power over what happens next.

In the end, Arrested Development Season Four is an ambitious, funny, flawed thing that is only half-completed. Hurwitz should be simultaneously applauded for playing ambitious TV pioneer and scolded for pulling a move that, depending on what happens with his movie, is inconvenient at best and narratively reprehensible at worst.

——

A few other thoughts (spoilers therein):

– Seriously, think about how most of these characters’ stories end. George Michael and Michael are on the outs and literally in the middle of a conversation, Lindsey is about to run for office, and Buster and Maeby have both been arrested. We have no idea what happened to Lucille 2, or if she is even dead. Nothing is resolved.

– If you feel as though I’ve been a little harsh, there really were a lot of things I enjoyed about the season. Tobias’s license plate gag is probably the best one the show’s ever done, and Gob’s “Sound of Silence” and “Stay Away Getaway” runners are pristine. So too are the show’s many recurring motifs, like the black employees who do much of the Bluths’ manual labor and who then are or are not tipped.

– There is one narrative point on which the overall story really does succeed, which is thematically. Season Four is very much a story about what happens when a family, even a very dysfunctional one, finally decides that it’s not worth it anymore and breaks things off. With a few exceptions, most of the Bluths are not better off without their family’s support system, destructive as it is. This becomes very poignant at times, particularly for Michael, as it’s quickly revealed that his responsible streak in the show’s original run really was because “he had no choice but to keep them all together.”

– There are probably too many rake gags in the season, but count me as someone who originally didn’t like the roommate vote joke and slowly enjoyed it more and more as it was referenced again and again.

– Finally, I would be remiss if I didn’t say that the season is definitely ambitious from a formatting perspective. Releasing these all at once and allowing Hurwitz such creative control results in a twisty, thought-provoking thing that is wholly unlike any other TV comedy, and the show is interesting and noteworthy for that in and of itself.

—–

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