I could really use a Forget-Me-Now.
The fourth season of Arrested Development, the cult sitcom about the dysfunctional Bluth family, premiered at 3 a.m. ET May 26 on the streaming-media service Netflix.
It’s not good.
The series, which first aired on Fox back in 2003—and, despite critical acclaim, was canceled after its third season in 2006 due to dwindling ratings—had developed a rabid fanbase over the years and was thus revived by Netflix, which released all 15 episodes of the new season simultaneously. Following its cancellation in 2006, and amid rumors that Arrested Development would be revived by Showtime or another network, the show’s creator Mitchell Hurwitz gave an exit interview to Entertainment Weekly:
“In truth, I had taken it as far as I felt I could as a series,” he said. “I told the story I wanted to tell, and we were getting to a point where I think a lot of the actors were ready to move on. My instinct was that it was over when Fox pulled the plug. I considered continuing the show because I felt I owed that to the fans. But I am determined to give them some other kind of entertainment that will satisfy them at some point, I hope.”
The time has come. Now, I’m a huge fan of Arrested Development. I own the first three seasons on DVD and on Saturday viewed the show’s entire first season on IFC in preparation for the highly anticipated fourth-season premiere. I even tweeted my favorite quotes from the show for three hours—from 12 a.m. to 3 a.m.—prior to its premiere. After watching all 15 episodes of the new season—about 8.5 hours worth—over the course of the weekend, I don’t understand why Hurwitz and Co. decided to reboot the show in this thoroughly disappointing fashion, but will try to respond to it. Here are the reasons why the new season of Arrested Development is a letdown.
Arrested Development is, of course, about the dysfunctional Bluth family, and some of the series’ greatest moments come when the gang is together bouncing their craziness off one another. But in the new series, all of the members of the Bluth family follow their own separate storylines, rarely appearing together at the same time. Each episode of the series concentrates on a single Bluth character’s story arc, which is revealed during the opening credits: “It’s _______’s Arrested Development.” Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) tries to produce a film based on the family; his son, George Michael (Michael Cera), develops an app, etc. All of the separate storylines weave together Rashomon-style, building up to the show’s climax. It’s a clever conceit, for sure, and the attention to detail is staggering—Lucille’s inmate number is 07734 or ‘HELLO’ upside down on a calculator, which is a sly nod to her adopted son, “Annyong.” Clever though it may be, it doesn’t make for great comedy. Certain gags are set up one episode and then driven home about four episodes later, by which time it’s too late.
“Everyone has their own chapter, but they're all Bluths, so they occur in each other's stories, and it does take place over the same period of time,” Hurwitz told The Hollywood Reporter.
“My Mother, the Car” is a great episode from the first season of Arrested Development with a similar structure to the show’s fourth season. The premise of the episode is that Michael Bluth can’t recall the events of a car accident and tries to piece together what happened through flashbacks. But the mystery unfolds over an airtight 22 minutes, not a laborious 8.5 hours.
When Ron Howard first conceived of the show back in 2002, he wanted the show’s screwball scripts to be the product of repeated rewrites and rehearsal sessions in order to make it appear almost entirely improvised. But many of the actors have become much bigger stars since the show left the air, so due to the actors’ busy film and TV schedules, the show had to develop a creative way to shoot around them, hence everyone having “their own chapter,” like the chapters of a book. According to The Hollywood Reporter, multiples sources revealed that all the key actors who featured on the new season of Arrested Development were paid using the same sliding scale: “The actor ‘starring’ in the episode is paid $125,000. If he or she appears in more than 90 seconds of an episode (but is not the star), that actor receives $50,000. For less than 90 seconds of airtime in an episode, he or she receives $10,000. Finally, if a clip featuring the actor from a previous episode is used, that actor gets another $1,000.”
So, Jason Bateman barely appears in the second and third episodes of the new season—less than 90 seconds of airtime—even though he’s the show’s lead, and the only time the entire family is gathered together comes during a single scene in Lucille’s penthouse apartment that is looped in flashbacks throughout the series. Michael Cera, whom Hurwitz once alluded to as one of the reasons for the show’s delayed return, doesn’t appear in about half of the episodes. It really hurts the actors’ chemistry with one another.
It gets worse. Due to the actors’ busy TV and film schedules, several actors “were forced to shoot alone in front of a green screen; their parts were then edited into scenes with other characters in postproduction, according to two sources close to the production,” reported Buzzfeed. A crucial showdown sequence between Lucille Bluth (Walter) and Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli) was shot in this fashion, according to the Buzzfeed story, as well as “the majority” of scenes featuring the family’s attorney, played by Henry Winkler.
“I think the reason most people like the [original] show is because it’s off-the-cuff and improvised,” the source told Buzzfeed. “You can really see that the actors and extras really, really like working with each other,” this source said. “For a different show it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but because of the nature of the comedy, and the writing, and the direction, [green screening] is something that I think is not a good idea—and I think a lot of fans would agree that they’d rather it not be made if it is not going to be made in the same style.”
The Canadian indie-rock collective Broken Social Scene has often been described as “organized chaos,” incorporating a variety of instruments—and up to 18 members—to create their elaborate, complex soundscapes. I viewed the first iteration of Arrested Development the same way: organized chaos. The show’s combination of chemistry among the cast members and mile-a-minute pacing—including snappy dialogue, roving handheld cameras, and a plethora of cutaway gags like flashbacks, archival videos, etc.—made it seem like this precariously balanced vessel that could crash into an iceberg at any given moment. The fourth season’s dialogue and pacing are sluggish, like Arrested Development–for–CBS, so while some of the screwball antics are still intact, the screwball pacing has all but vanished. Much of the blame for this, it seems, is due to the story structure.
“In the old show we jumped around so quickly,” Hurwitz told THR. “We'd find out that Tobias photographed his testicles in the bathtub and they got mistaken for a map of Iraq,” he continues. “In the new one, he would photograph his testicles—and then we would spend a little more time with his testicles, we'd investigate, we'd go deeper in and around his testicles in a way I just haven't had the freedom to do, quite frankly.”
Furthermore, the show really drags due to its length. Each episode of the new season is around 35 minutes long, whereas the original episodes ran about 22 minutes with commercials—which actually proved a nice respite from the all-out assault that was the show. “Creative limitations drive creative solutions,” my colleague Jace Lacob told me, and it appears Arrested Development’s confines within a half-hour block of primetime television helped it become the cramped, chaotic slice of comedic brilliance that it was.
Ron Howard, who first conceived of the show and serves as its executive producer, has narrated every episode of Arrested Development. The quirky tenor of his voice, combined with his observant, mocking tone, gelled perfectly with the screwball proceedings. During the fourth season, the narrator (again, voiced by Howard) isn’t funny at all, and is merely used to propel the storyline(s) forward. During the show’s final episode, the narrator says this mouthful: “It was George Michael’s first chance to truly be unpretentious and undo the big lie. On the other hand, she thought he was an unpretentious software genius. If she were to learn that he was merely a woodblock player with a heightened ability to track the passage of time, perhaps she would rightly feel lack of pretension should be a given. If was, after second 23, that he said…”
Furthermore, one of the major storylines of the fourth season is Michael Bluth’s stab at being a Hollywood producer. Imagine Entertainment honcho Ron Howard (the same one) tasks Michael with getting signed release forms from his relatives in exchange for said producer credit. So, Howard figures prominently in the series but none of his scenes really work, nor does the whole movie-within-a-show conceit.
Michael Bluth serves as both the conscience and the moral center of Arrested Development. Whenever he errs, giving in to his conniving Bluth blood, he always realizes his faults and makes up for it by episode’s end. This season, however, is about Michael’s transformation into a self-possessed Hollywood-type—or his moral and ethical decline—which causes great strain between him and his once-beloved son, George Michael. In previous seasons, Michael would do anything for his son. Not here. The new Michael goes as far as dating the same woman as his son. It’s an odd deviation, and isn’t aligned with the spirit of the show.
In fact, many of the characters have devolved from lovable, vain idiots into truly awful people. Gob (Will Arnett) yells at his bastard son, Steve Holt, bringing him to tears, while Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) begins sleeping with a conservative political candidate, and we later learn that her daughter, Maebe (Alia Shawkat), was pimping her out to him. Plus, Lindsay and her definitely gay husband, Tobias (David Cross), barely share any scenes together even though one of the bright spots of the show is their hostile interactions.
The first iteration of Arrested Development had some social and political satire, including the Bluth’s association with Saddam Hussein and their all-too-prescient involvement in shady real-estate dealings, but the new season’s stabs at satire are just too much. There’s Herbert Love (Terry Crews), a right-wing politician—clearly based on Herman Cain—who wants to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico; a shady real-estate agent, played by The Office’s Ed Helms; a kooky doctor busted for overprescribing patients, played by Mad Men’s John Slattery; a Fantastic Four musical conceived by Tobias that should have played for many more laughs; a thread involving the production of an app by George Michael that falls terribly flat, etc. (In fact, most of the celebrity cameos are lame, save a great turn by Ben Stiller as Gob’s rival magician, Tony Wonder, who gets very cozy with Gob.) At one point, Buster (Tony Hale) even re-enlists in the Army because they think he’s gay, and he’s then set up as a “drone pilot” in Anaheim, where he accidentally bombs civilians because he thinks it’s a videogame. They all seem like fairly desperate attempts to be edgy and relevant.
People forget that Star Wars creator George Lucas didn’t direct The Empire Strikes Back or Return of the Jedi, so when the prequel movies were released, fans were surprised to find how sloppy they were. It was all too Lucas-y. The same holds true for Arrested Development. All of the episodes in the new season are co-directed by series creator Hurwitz and Troy Miller. Hurwitz had never directed a single episode of Arrested Development before this season. The best episodes of the series were directed by Joe Russo (See: “Pilot,” “Pier Pressure,” “Marta Complex”) and Anthony Russo (See: “Pilot,” “Top Banana”). Unfortunately, those two are busy co-directing the blockbuster sequel Captain America: The Winter Soldier, due out next year. And, while Miller has a prestigious resume, including directorial duties on shows like Flight of the Conchords and Mr. Show, he currently helms the lackluster talk show Brand X with Russell Brand, and directed the abysmal film prequel Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd.
But more than anything, the new series is missing many of the things we loved most from the original show. Where are Lucille’s snobby one-liners? Tobias’ physical comedy? Michael’s perplexed stares? Gob’s outrageous pretentiousness? Lindsay’s daddy issues? Buster’s relationship with Lucille 2? I guess we’ll have to wait for the movie… if it still happens.