Posted on Tuesday, May 28th, 2013 by Germain Lussier
Arrested Development has never done things by the book. From its very first episode on November 2, 2003, creator Mitchell Hurwitz and his cast made it clear they wanted to push the boundaries of comedy. Jokes were layered, complex and topical. Each character was daring in their own unique way. Every time you rewatched an episode, something new was revealed. The show was so smart, unconventional and groundbreaking that it was almost totally ignored, and Fox cancelled it after three seasons. Like most great art, it was under-appreciated in its time.
Seven years have passed since the third season of Arrested Development finished on February 10, 2006. Since then, the fanbase has grown by leaps and bounds. People continue to discover the show through word of mouth, home media, and through the increasing fame of its stars. On May 26, 2013, the unusually long hiatus ended when the cast and crew unveiled a highly anticipated fourth season on Netflix. Fifteen episodes were released all at once, totaling almost eight hours of brand-new content to continue the story of the family who lost everything and the one son who had no choice to keep them all together.
Keeping with the tone of the series, nothing about this fourth season is traditional. There’s a new structure, a new delivery system and a new spin on comedy. The jokes are sharp as always, but as the season unfolds the idea of consistent laughs becomes less important. The true pleasure in this latest season of Arrested Development is letting the labyrinthian narrative unspool in surprising ways. In comedy, it’s rare to be this hypnotized by a story.
Unlike the first three seasons of Arrested Development, this season is structured like a puzzle. Each of the main characters (Michael, George Michael, Lindsay, Tobias, Maeby, George Sr., Lucille, G.O.B., Buster) is featured as the star of one or two episodes. This gives the audience time to both catch up with what has happened to them since the party on the Queen Mary at the end of Season 3, and also see what they’re up to now. And while each character is the focus of their own episode(s), all appear in a few others too, brilliantly folding over each other until, by the end, you’re left with a plethora of narrative, characterization and possibility.
Make no mistake: though the story is incredibly involved, this fourth season is still as laugh-out-loud hilarious, devilish and whip smart as the prior seasons of Arrested Development. Jokes build one upon another, gags pay off 12 episodes after they’re set up, and there’s plenty of uncomfortable and biting satire. This familiar humor is especially prevalent in the first half of the season, which is good, because it takes about that long to become acclimated to the dense plot and very blurry timeline. Those are definitely issues, but they pay off beautifully.
For example, five minutes into the first episode G.O.B. is talking with Michael and two feet appear, giving Michael quite a shock. The owner of those feet isn’t revealed until almost a dozen episodes later. Once we discover who it is, an entire section of already funny dialogue blossoms with new meaning. The surprising subtext enhances its importance while slightly undercutting the humor. Another example is the way nearly every episode circles back to various locations such as an outdoor celebration, Lucille’s penthouse, and a seafood restaurant. As an audience, we’re trained to immediately trust a location. In the fourth season of Arrested Development, we can’t. Each time the show returns to these places, the camera explores another angle revealing additional information. What we thought we knew at the beginning isn’t close to what’s really going down.
In each of these examples the series at first feels constrictive, awkward and buoyed by its jokes and reputation. Yet as the season unfolds and these reveals expound, the jokes begin to take a back seat. Hurwitz has wrapped his synchronous plot up so tightly the story becomes increasingly more rewarding and exciting than the humor. The laughs are always there, but they’re coupled with legitimate jump out of your seat surprises and edge of your seat tension. Balancing these dramatic elements within a comedic tone, wrapped in a expertly directed package, is how the fourth season challenges the definition of traditional comedy.
Then again, we should have expected that kind of innovation. Arrested Development has always been about bucking the system; it’s never been a show you can fully appreciate by popping in and watching one or two episodes. That’s even more apparent this time around. It’s a different show, a slower show, a more mature show. Hours after finishing the fifteenth episode, I can’t stop thinking about plot lines that remain deliciously dangling. Connections made and forgotten. Genius reveals, payoffs and blocking. Plus this all comes after just one viewing, crammed into about 36 hours. Some of it is frustrating, some is exciting but it’s safe to say, the longer we let this simmer, the more it’ll grow.
Hurwitz has crafted a season of television that is stunning both in its narrative and delivery, as well as its ambition and foresight. Even the flaws, most of which can be explained by the scope of the story, prove that the fourth season of Arrested Development not only begs for more, it demands it.
I’m sure we’ll be seeing the Bluths again. Let’s just hope it’s sooner than seven years. Then again, it might take that long to truly appreciate this wild, wacky, magnificent and divisive season of television.