Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Arrested Development (Season 4)

Creator: Michell Hurwitz
Starring: Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, Ron Howard, Isla Fisher, Terry Crews
Original Airdate: 2013

★★★ (out of ★★★★) 

All the addictive elements that made Arrested Development so brilliant and groundbreaking when its three universally acclaimed, but ratings-challenged seasons first aired on Fox, is also what ultimately led to its cancellation in 2006. Creator Mitch Hurwitz predicted our addiction to serialized storytelling years before it actually arrived and the bitter feelings surrounding its cancellation only seemed to grow worse when we realized it possibly could have thrived in an era of DVR's and Netflix. Back then viewers just weren't ready for a comedy series that dense and complex, requiring them to do some work--and maybe some rewatching--to pick up on all the inside jokes, call-backs and references.

It's Netflix's Arrested Development
The single-camera format and incorporation of rare for its time devices such as narration, flashbacks and archival footage demanded and rewarded a long term commitment, but made ratings success an impossibility. It may have only lasted three seasons but what it accomplished during them felt richer and more developed than any longer running comedy series to air before or since. More importantly, it was a show made for binge viewing before we even knew what that meant. The question was never if it would come back, but when, and whether we'd want it to with the risk that it may not be at the same level of quality. New episodes would be compared to what's arguably TV's all-time greatest comedy series. Not the most enviable position to be in if you're a writer.

It turns out the biggest revelation coming out of AD's fourth season streaming on Netflix is that it doesn't feel like it's back. At least in the form we knew. Forget about catching up on the first three seasons in preparation, because, with few exceptions, it really is a completely fresh start. And I've decided that's okay because much as the show revolutionized comedy TV when it first aired, it's doing it all over again in a new way, albeit with decidedly more mixed results. Reaction to the new episodes from fans and critics have been all over the map and that feels right. The first few episodes are really rough, and almost downright shocking in how much they diverge from the AD we all knew and loved. But the deeper you go, the more sense it makes and the funnier it gets, making it the only season of the show youll have to watch twice in order to fully grasp what's happening. Ridiculously dense and even more ambitious, it makes the most complicated season of Lost seem almost straightforward by comparison.

Trying to explain the narrative of the season would be a fool's errand but fans remember exactly where we left off in 2006 when Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) escaped with his son George Michael (Michael Cera) on Gob's (Will Arnett) yacht, fleeing his dysfunctional family for good and leaving overbearing, alcoholic matriarch Lucille (Jessica Walter) to deal with the legal fallout from her role in the Bluth Company's accounting scandal. Of course, as the responsible, likable one, Michael can never truly escape his family or resist bailing them out, so the biggest, most jarring development for fans occurs in the first episode ("Flight of the Phoenix") when we discover the past 7 years haven't treated him well. A failed real estate venture and the shame surrounding his family has derailed his personal and professional life to the point that he's pathetically dorming with his son at college (much to George Michael's embarrassment) while taking classes online.
Michael Bluth falls on hard times in "Flight of the Phoenix"
Considering much of the series' initial creative success hinged on Bateman playing straight man to the craziness and infantility surrounding him, this decision is easily the season's boldest and most polarizing. If nothing else, it pushes and challenges the actor (who appears in every episode) in a way he wasn't before, proving he's basically capable of anything the writers throw at him.  After being the solid anchor for his troubled family for years, it's now Michael who needs something from them that can help turn his fortunes around. Each character gets their own episode, with a few getting more than that, as we're clued in on the details of what happened to "a family whose future was abruptly cancelled." All the intersecting events eventually come to a head on a Bluth-created holiday known as "Cinco de Quatro."

Nearly everything is told out of chronological order, sometimes making it difficult to distinguish an event that's happening in the present from a flashback. And it's an adjustment getting used to Ron Howard's narrator explaining copious amounts of plot detail and narrative exposition to get us up to speed. Gone from the show are the days where random jokes would come rapid-fire at a mile a minute and you'd have to worry about blinking in fear you'd miss an absurd inside sight gag. Well, there's still some of that, but it's spread wider throughout the course of the season as something you may have noticed in the second or third episode will pay off in the tenth. In this sense, you have to give the writers credit. It would have been easy to fall back on the same successful jokes (and there are still a few), but they came up with completely new ones at the risk of alienating their core fanbase. About as many work as don't, but there's an unmistakable difference in the type of humor, as it's less laugh-out-loud funny and subtler, letting the audience fill in the blanks. But as it wears on, it's apparent some of the jokes are as strong as the ones in the show's original run. It just takes a while to get there.

The writing has definitely lost a step or two, an issue at times unflatteringly highlighted by the extended, character-focused format which seems almost intentionally made for Netflix binge viewing. Without commercials to pad the running time, the show's a good ten to twelve minutes longer, which can seem more like an enternity when trudging through the first few episodes focusing on George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) and Lindsay Bluth-Funke (an unrecognizable Portia de Rossi). Of course, the problem is that some of these characters are better to build episodes around than others, as the show evolves into something slower paced and darker in tone. As expected, there's a noticeably smaller budget, which isn't really that big an issue when you this show was never dependent on expensive effects begin with. Just about the only time it's distractingly obvious is when they try to digitally insert actors into scenes with each other, which serves as another argument against this new, but seemingly unavoidable character-based format  

An injured Tobias Funke with wife Lindsay
The George, Sr. episodes ("Borderline Personalities," "Double Crossers") are especially problematic, if only in just how convoluted they are and how few laughs they offer. Much like everything else, it does eventually come together, but this is the one sub-plot where viewers are unlikely to care. Of course, Tambor is once again spot-on doing double duty as George and his twin brother Oscar but his scheme involving a corporate sweat lodge retreat and the building of a wall never seems to click. It's almost as if they didn't know what to do with George once his legal problems were over, and for the first time, the twin gag actually feels a little forced.  You know you're in trouble when even guest star John Slattery as a hippie anesthesiologist can't even save these.

Lindsay's episodes ("Indian Takers," "Red Hairing") try to return her to her to disingenuous activism roots but instead she's at the center of one of the season's most unfunny gags, as the formerly edgy and materialistic Lindsay character is softened to the point that she's almost nice and normal now. But at least de Rossi proves to be a good sport for letting them joke about her plastic surgery, which otherwise would have been a giant elephant in the room. The George Sr./Lindsay episodes are the only ones that truly drag in a big way, compounded by the fact they come at the start, creating a palpable fear of disappointment for a series that once spoiled us for three years straight without a single clunker.

It's around episode 4 or 5 when the show starts to show shades of its former glory, but a good enough argument can be made that it takes even longer. Hurwitz's plan starts to present itself, the puzzle pieces fall into place and his layout of the season as kind of a Rubik's cube starts making some more sense. The potential movie deal with Ron Howard (fantastic as himself) and Imagine entertainment about the Bluth family that was teased in the third season/series finale starts taking shape, giving Michael a new job as producer ("The B. Team") and injecting the rest of the remaining episodes a greater sense of purpose and unity. New jokes start paying off and everything seems to flow better as it chugs along. It shouldn't come as much of a surprise that the two actors who really knock it out of the park (again) are David Cross as "never nude" and aspiring actor Dr. Tobias Funke and Arnett as master illusionist and womanizer Gob.

"The Final Countdown" to Gob's most spectacular illusion yet.
Of all the episodes, Tobias's ("A New Start," "Smashed") are by far the funniest and come closest to capturing the magic of the show's original run without directly recreating it. Whether he's showing up at a methadone addiction group for his method acting class, accidentally getting busted on a To Catch a Predator-style program, or putting together a musical stage production of the Fantastic Four with rehab patients, nearly everything involving Tobias is comic gold with Cross so earnestly selling the most absurd situations with a goofy cluelessness. Thankfully, Gob's just as sleazy and over-the-top as ever, staging his most elaborately ridiculous "illusion" yet, finding himself trapped in an endless "roofie cycle" and reigniting an old feud with a bitter rival ("Colony Collapse", "A New Attitude"). He also has this huge nervous breakdown scene that's so bizarre and transfixing it defies any conventional description, proving that the series is still capable of perfection when you least expect it.

Of the main main players, Lucille and hook-handed "mother boy" Buster (Tony Hale) are probably the most underutilized, though the latter's single episode ("Off The Hook"), in which he attempts to break away from his domineering mother, is the season's darkest and creepiest, actually playing out out the most disturbing aspects of their relationship that were only implied during the first two seasons. It also leads to Ron Howard's best pop culture reference as narrator. Buster's appearances are primarily limited to only he and Lucille's episode ("Queen B."), making Hale the odd man out and sidelining him with far less screen time than many of the guest stars.

But it's Michael Cera who who brings everything he gained on the big screen back with him to deepen and expand his portrayal of George-Michael in "It Gets Better," which isn't only the best written episode of the season, but an absolute joy to watch from start to finish. Creating the "anti-social network," a fake piracy software program called "Fakeblock," George Michael finds himself entangled in a few giant lies that cause a rift with his father and Cera's astounding in how he keeps the character the same "nice kid" he was while adding dimensions and maturity that make him even funnier.

A reunited George Michael and Maeby
The nature of the relationship between he and his dad (always a strong component of the show) is much more intriguing now that the character is older and there are more directions to go with it. It's work Cera couldn't have done 7 years ago and the one glaring improvement made on a show where no improvements seemed possible. The George Michael greatness even extends into his rebellious "cousin" Maeby's (Alia Shawkat) surprisingly entertaining episode ("SeƱoritis"), which answers the big question of what became of their semi-incestuous sort of romantic friendship. That reunion doesn't disappoint, and with all the problems with scheduling actors we can at least be thankful they have plenty of scenes together and pick up exactly where they left off. It was near the top of the list of details Hurwitz had to get right, and he nails it, as George Michael and Maeby's weird bond remains just as warm, awkward and hilarious as it was.

AD jump-started the now popular TV trend wherein guest stars can be just as important to the story as the main cast. Anticipation was high and they've done a pretty good job keeping a lid on which favorites would be returning, as well as the size and nature of their roles. A moment comes in the first few minutes of the first episode that convinced me everything was going to be alright and the season would probably work. I smiled and laughed uncontrollably as a bruised, desperate Michael climbed the Bluth Company stair car and proceeded to intentionally induce the vertigo of Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli), the show's most valuable and hilarious recurring character.

A big surprise is just how much Lucille 2 we get, with her role greatly expanded to the point that she may as well be considered a regular. Her impact is felt in some way through every episode, as Lucille 1's kooky social rival seems to have her hands in all the family business this time around, with Minnelli again proving just how skilled she is at delivering this material. And if that wasn't enough, there's also a great sub-plot involving her rehab clinic, "Austerity," run by her bizarre younger brother Argyle (Tommy Tune) who in just his few outlandish appearances makes an impression that somehow rivals hers in sheer hilarity. Of all the new characters introduced, he feels like the one who most needs to come back.    

A desperate Michael propositions Lucille Austero
Also among the returning favorites are the Bluth's bumbling attorney Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler), George Sr.'s former secretary and mistress Kitty Sanchez (Judy Greer), the notoriously plain George Michael ex Ann Veal (Mae Whitman), magician Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller), lawyer Bob Loblaw (Scott Baio), screenwriter and former prison warden Stefan Gentles (James Lipton), acting coach Carl Weathers and Andy Richter as themselves, follically challenged Stan Sitwell (Ed Begley, Jr.) and his daughter Sally (Christine Taylor), a heavily aged, completely unrecognizable Steve Holt (!) (Justin Wade Grant) and a lot more.

It ends up being the new faces who, for better or worse, have the biggest impact on the season. The idea of Michael unknowingly getting involved with Ron Howard's "illegitimate daughter" Rebel Alley is a good one, but Isla Fisher just never seems right for the role despite how hard she tries. Maybe the problem is that she does always seems like she's trying, which is an occupational hazard in the AD universe where random spontaneity rules the day. Charlize Theron's mentally handicapped Rita was admittedly a tough act to follow, but part of me thinks casting Bryce Dallas Howard as herself in Fisher's place with Michael not knowing her identity would have been far funnier and better suited to the meta comedy the show specializes in. Instead, Fisher comes off as if she's performing in a traditional sitcom, which this definitely isn't. What saves her is being sandwiched between the two strongest storylines, and Bateman and Cera, who are clearly the MVP's.

Terry Crews fares pretty well as Herman Cain-like conservative politician, Herbert Love, who's in cahoots with George Sr. in his building of the wall and takes a romantic liking to Lindsay. Unfortunately, those are the season's two weakest sub-plots, so his game performance is mostly done a disservice. Maria Bamford is a memorably goofy addition as Tobias's meth-addicted girlfriend DeBrie while Chris Diamantopolous is buried in nonsense as Lindsay's love interest, the "face blind" ostrich farmer Marky Bark. The stunt casting of Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen as a young Lucille and George Sr. in flashbacks has generated a lot of discussion, and while the execution of it never really works and Rogen just phones it in, Wiig actually seems to have studied Jessica Walters, impressively incorporating many of the actress's mannerisms into the performance.

Guest star Isla Fisher as Rebel Alley.
So now we know. Everyone was wondering what Arrested Development would look and feel like if it ever came back and here's our answer. Fans hoping for the return can probably be split into two camps. Those who demanded it maintain the same exact tone, style and quality of the original episodes and others who just wanted the characters come out for a curtain call or reunion special. What we got was closer to the latter, which is fine, but if Hurwitz and company plan to keep going with this (and right now it looks like they are), I'm not sure they can successfully continue this approach without making some changes. The episodes definitely need to be shorter and tighter and there was too much reliance on the narration, which likely stemmed from the need to catch viewers up on 7 years worth of backstory for eight main characters. There's a lot potential here if they play their cards right and plenty of open-ended storylines to be continued in another season or movie. The finale ("Blockheads") is basically a cliffhanger.

While I can certainly understand the fact that the well deserved boost these actors' careers got as a result of the series made scheduling impossible, it's also easy to sympathize with fans who may feel this shouldn't have been attempted unless the entire cast was available at once. Actors need to pay the bills with other projects but I'm still not sure how I feel about the series being treated as a gig everyone does on the side, as there's no question not having an the entire ensemble together limited the creative possibilities. But within those limits, they came up with something truly inspired and original, refusing to rely on the old stand-bys (no Banana Stand!) in favor of expanding the universe and tweaking its format for new kinds of laughs. Like the Bluths themselves, it's kind of a mess, but with an undertaking this ambitious, that was inevitable. Compared to its previous incarnation, it's tough not to view this new more binge-friendly AD as somewhat of a disappointment. But, honestly, anything would have been. What matters most is that it's still more clever and innovative than any comedy currently on TV.           

1 comment:

Jennifer Aguiar said...

Arrested Development: Winner of the Outstanding Comedy Series Emmy its first year out, Arrested Development is the kind of sitcom that gives you hope for television. It's one of those shows where you can watch over and over and still laugh at every joke.Arrested Development Seasons 1-3 dvd box set follows the fictitious Bluth family, a formerly wealthy and habitually dysfunctional family, and is presented in a continuous format, incorporating handheld camera work, narration, archival photos, and historical footage.