The Great Irony of ‘Arrested Development’ Season 4

By  · Published on May 29th, 2013

Resurrected like a dead dove by Netflix, there’s no doubt that Arrested Development 4.0 is a beast made specifically for the internet. It’s no longer bound by commercial breaks (only answering to the internal metrics for how the streaming service defines commercial success) or the act structure and 22-minute length traditional TV entails. With the same bulk-drop mentality that Netflix started with House of Cards (which gets its own AD shout out), viewers can choose whether they want to watch one episode per week, a handful at a time, or all in one sitting. These are the two major structural differences that streaming provides, but there’s also the instantaneousness of social media that was largely missing when the show originally ran on FOX between 2003 and February 2006, ending its third season almost exactly a month before Twitter launched.

It’s also not hard to imagine that it was the internet that brought the show back. With fan pages dedicated to connecting all of its dots and collecting all the quotes, the cult aspect of AD flourished on message boards and in memes alike, and its popularity within Netflix’s own walls must have been an enticement to push for a fourth season. All of that makes it feel a bit like the show once dubbed “too smart” for TV was an orphaned child who’s found the home she was always meant to live in.

But like all families, there’s a bit of disfunction. The original run of the show was marked by clever turns of phrase and physical comedy, sure, but its magic was in delayed gratification. Pejorative or not, the show demanded dedication and detailed attention because all of the puzzle pieces that came into focus, slowly revealing segments of the entire story or deepening a gag. It was a show that required patience (especially when FOX bizarrely aired episodes months apart from each other), and it finds itself now in a world where knees jerk so hard that opinions get etched in stone. Deliberate restraint is meeting immediacy.

That’s the great irony of Arrested Development’s embrace of the internet. The first episode really is a chore. With an unbearably long emphasis on a moronic scheme to get Michael (Jason Bateman) voted out of George-Michael’s (Michael Cera) dorm room (his last refuge after failing epically on the business end), the timing just isn’t there. It lingers and sputters where the old incarnation would have driven through and tackled four more subplots before the first commercial dropped. On the whole, it’s due to the new format which focuses entire episodes on one character as they navigate the new fine mess they’re all in. A necessity for an ensemble cast with impossible schedules, it’s a serious cross to bear, and AD stumbles because of it at first.

Naturally, in an environment where critics were typing furiously in an effort to publish the first verdict, and where reactions to just about everything happen in real-time, the initial tablets coming down from the mountain were laced with failure and disappointment. The next two episodes – a labored narrative about George Sr.’s (Jeffrey Tambor) scam sweat lodge and a tragic descent into Lindsay’s (Portia de Rossi) Vuitton-filled headspace in India – didn’t fare any better, reinforcing the terrible idea that somehow, some way, the thing we loved was now a deformed monster.

Yet again, Arrested Development demanded a little patience. Episode 4 finally shows the hint of a larger hero’s journey for the show’s straight man, and then Tobias (David Cross) jumpstarts the season with a hilarious, vanity-plate-adorned trek through an Indian hospital and a method acting clinic that isn’t a method acting clinic. It’s also another reminder that the side characters were always the real standouts, and while the new format shaves the nature of Michael and George Sr.’s inequities bald, it gives a brighter spotlight to the weird and wonderful motor that really kept the family going.

The next ten episodes are riotous. Everything clicks into place, building off the platform the earliest episodes provided. It’s not like having a clean bathroom makes scrubbing the toilets any fun, but at the very least, those first three installments find their pay off down the line as a labyrinthine mystery unfolds to explain a thousand smaller mysteries. Agatha Christie would have loved this season.

Since the show has always appealed to meta elements, it’s tough not to read too deeply into episode 13’s title: “It Gets Better.” If Hurwitz and company really are mad enough geniuses to predict the initial blowback against the new incarnation of the show, they might have done better to use that title for episode 4, but the message is essentially true. Older seasons had dull episodes, too, and season 4 unfortunately (or fortunately) puts all of its bad eggs right upfront. Take heart. Season 4 of Arrested Development gets better.

It’s lucky, then, that the irony of a slow-to-develop show awkwardly finding the right home on the instant gratification machine of the internet comes with the built-in pleasure/opportunity of not having to endure a week before getting to the good stuff. Giving it one more shot after an hour-and-a-half is a lot easier than grinding your teeth through a stale three weeks. In that sense, the problems stemming directly from the show’s new format are hamstrung by the speed of the internet and saved by it.

Hopefully those looking for the show they once loved won’t deepen the irony by waiting 7 years for Arrested Development to return, only to give up on it after 3 episodes.

Movie stuff at VanityFair, Thrillist, IndieWire, Film School Rejects, and The Broken Projector Podcast@brokenprojector | Writing short stories at Adventitious.