by Kevin Nye
“And now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together… It’s Arrested Development.”
This narration over the opening credits of the critically-acclaimed first three seasons of Arrested Development proved to be more crucial to the show’s integrity than they may have thought. When the new season premiered on Netflix last weekend after years of absence, all of the new episodes were available for streaming immediately. With parties already in place for Memorial day, some fans privately blew threw the series and finished with their friends (does that sound awkward?). And as mixed reviews are coming in, many are asking, “Does it measure up?” If the answer is “no,” then what went wrong?
The first three seasons were a testament to brilliant television comedy. Featuring a phenomenal cast playing an assortment of off-the-wall characters, brilliantly layered gags that reward multiple viewings, one-liners and quips worth repeating years afterwards (“I just blue myself” and “Loose seal!” among them), the show produced a cult-like following that ultimately resurrected it network cancellation, much like Family Guy. Having cancelled two hit shows only to see them brought back, maybe FOX should give buzzed shows a chance before pulling the plug.
So, was the resurrection worth it?
The new season features 15 episodes running from 28 to 37 minutes (compared to the 22 minutes runtime of the original three seasons. Some of the episodes capture their former glory. Others, including even the second episode of the new season, fall completely flat, devoid of any of the original magic.
In the end, season four proves to be a mixed bag; at times brilliant. At others, disappointingly vapid. And, in the end, raising more questions than it can provide – something we should come to expect of resurrections, perhaps.
For those of us who were let down, let’s not pretend that this is a complete failure. The new season is full of laughs, even tremendous ones, and it did an excellent job balancing repeated gags and establishing new ones. We should learn from past episodes that Arrested Development is always a show that rewards multiple viewings, and will most certainly exceed in doing so, especially in this new format.
That being said, there are a variety of things that seemed off about the new season, the greatest of which, I believe, is the format. Unlike the previous ensemble format of the show, the Netflix version focuses on a single character per episode, with minimal interaction between the supporting cast who,for the most part, are separated. To be fair, this was likely not their first choice, and we may in some ways allow for it given the estranged nature of the characters. George Michael is away at college, and Maebe is still in high school, for example. But the name of the show is… Arrested Development. Many of us probably expected things to remain the same.
In reality, one of the biggest obstacles to the show’s return has always been the cast’s availability. Given it’s original fan base and later cult status, the cast has gravitated toward larger projects. Many of them were propelled in their careers from the show’s success. It was reported throughout the filming that getting all of these actors in one place was next to impossible.
However, it makes sense that Arrested Development would try something so bold. As a show that always pushed boundaries and tried new things, I can’t help but be impressed that they pulled off the interweaving of the story-lines in a way that mostly made sense and was mostly watchable. But what did they lose? I would argue that they lost the heart of the show, and the comedy suffered. As the narrator had always said, “this is the story about a family, whose son had to keep them all together.” What we see instead with this new season is a show that lost everything, and the streaming network that had no choice but to split them all apart. There is even a new voiceover, that says “Now the story of a wealthy family whose future was abruptly canceled, and the one (insert family relation here) who had no choice but to keep his/her life together.” The change in narration was personalized to each episode, showing that this show is no longer about the family, it’s about each member individually.
“I think they made a huge mistake.”
Arrested Development was originally conceived to be a show that was overtly crafted and refined so as to be flawless. Jokes were set up in one episode, only for the punchline to come an episode of two later. The attention to detail was precise for a reason and the original process included rewrite after rewrite, rehearsal after rehearsal, to hone in on a final product that was as funny as it could be from start to finish. Between the many writers and brilliant comedic actors, every facial expression and inflection could be fine-tuned to perfection. With a variety of comedic voices on set and at the table for read-throughs, they had the means to produce a diverse product that truly fired on all cylinders. But with so few actors on set at the same time for this new season, I suspect that the final show is the result of fewer rehearsals and fewer voices adding ideas, thoughts, critiques, and improvements. The result? Jokes that fail, stories that never quite get there, and whole episodes that feel like Buster… err… “lackluster.”
More importantly, the ensemble is missed in front of the camera. Arrested Development is at its best in the interactions between characters. I am currently recalling my favorite moments in the show’s history… the chicken dance, the Seaward, the family’s reaction to Ann (“Her?”), and all of these scenes work because of the way the actors play off each other and respond. Even when they were not in the same room, they were at least in the same episode. If you think about it, no storyline from Season 4 is so ridiculous that you wouldn’t see it in seasons 1-3, but the difference is in the editing. Gob Bluth becomes a limo driver for a pop star, Tobias organizes a Fantastic 4 based musical at a drug rehab facility, George Sr. tries to buy land and sell it to the government on the Mexican border only to flip flop and flop the flip. These are all potential stories from any season! But here, they become ridiculous when you are forced to stay with them – a single storyline – for an entire episode. Before, you might see all of these stories happening simultaneously, skipping around at the height of the family’s insanity for it all to come together with a big payoff after 22 minutes. At a longer runtime and fewer places to jump to, the show lives for a while in every moment, and there is no balance. In seasons 1-3, Michael’s sincerity, George Michael’s innocence, Maeby’s tragic family situation, and even Buster’s aloofness balance out Lucille’s manipulation, George Sr.’s scheming, Gob’s narcissism, Lindsey’s materialism and Tobias’ complete zaniness. Such characters all appear to belong in their own stories, but without each other to give them context and balance, those stories are so drastically different that they are unrecognizable as part of a whole.
This is the truth of all sitcoms. Characters that exist as caricatures – Kramer, Joey Tribiani, Barney Stinson, or Tobias Funke – only work if they have a straight-man… err…. a “more normal, down-to-earth” character to play off. Arrested Development, no matter how crazy it got, always brought it home with a down-to-earth Michael Bluth, the only self-reflective one who realized the mistakes being made and at least attempted to address them. Here, when an episode is just about Michael, it runs the risk of not being funny; if it is only about George Sr., it runs the risk of not being redemptive; if it is only about Tobias, it runs the risk of being so zany. The result is that the series has become more like a Farrelly brothers movie than Arrested Development.
It’s up in the air (unsurprisingly) whether Arrested Development will come back for a season 5, or perhaps a movie. If it does come back, I hope that they learned from this. As I’ve already said, the show was and still is still funny. I still enjoyed it and looked forward to watching each episode again. But there is something missing, which I think is recoverable if they (as they did in previous seasons) are playing a long game. What the show misses most at present is the togetherness that once endeared them to us as viewers. I would love to hear “the story of one family who lost their magic, and the one network that had no choice but to bring them all back together.” Indeed, there were glimpses of this in season 4, so I know they’ve still got it. But it will take a commitment from each part of the cast and crew working together – like a family – to really do it right.
This is a lesson the world has been learning again in the last century. The Enlightenment produced an individualism that has found its way into every fabric of our society, from personal computers to fast-food to “a personal relationship with Jesus” to free-market capitalism, the world fell in love with a myth that we are enough on our own, that we can do it on our own, and that selfishness is okay, if not good. Into such a false perception, the Christian witness proclaims One, holy, catholic and apostolic church – a collection of diverse, disagreeing, diaspora people united in Christ for the sake of the world.
The church is beginning to recover this sense of togetherness, but how long will it take? How long before we realize that the Bible has much more to say about us being all together “in Christ”, rather than “Christ in us” individually? How long before we realize that mega-television-churches allow us to sustain a feeling of church without ever meeting and experiencing life with a member of the Church? How long before we take seriously the early but pervasive scriptural witness that “it is not good for man to be alone”? How long before we finally get it – that we’re far better together than we are apart, and that we will always be more than the sum of our parts?
If Arrested Development taught me anything, it’s that a diverse group of people need each other to succeed. The dialectic of unity and diversity is felt as much on-screen as off. And we understand a lot about ourselves when we realize that even a group of extreme caricatures are way better off when they are together than when they are separated. Are we any different? More pertinently, is your family any different?