Posted by: markfender | May 28, 2013

Arrested Development

Arrested Development is back.

arrested-development-season-4-poster-2And it is still awesome.

Netflix began streaming the 4th season of Arrested Development this Sunday. Guess what I did all day Sunday? Yep, 8ish hours of TV. It’s been 7 years since the show ended, so it was pretty impossible to pick up where it had left off. So, there was some trepidation going into it. Would they be able to forge a new story seven years later with the same panache? Would it just rely upon old jokes retread over and over? After hearing things about the making of it (scheduling was apparently a nightmare with the entire cast only being present for two scenes), I was concerned. And then I read that they were planning on taking advantage of the Netflix-instantly available thing and not making each episode standalone. Each episode was going to focus on a different character and hopefully lead into a larger story. So, a big ambitious project with actors not in the same room, told across 15 episodes with a focus on individual characters? Yeah, that can’t possibly turn out well.

The first episode was kinda weak. It had a few moments, but it was trying too hard to fit in seven years of backstory – backstory that didn’t really make any sense since you were only getting one slice of it. The second episode was also a bit anticlimactic. You could tell that the sense of humor was still present and they were building up to something, but it was still too disjointed to make coherent sense.

Thankfully, the third episode turned it around. It felt a little more standalone than the others (at least as far as the backstory you needed to follow it was already in the previous two episodes) and was genuinely funny. And then the next episode was also funny. So, yes, the weird, convoluted story in which you needed to know the place in the backstory began to make more sense as that backstory was doled out. It would probably make the first two episodes funnier, now that you know where and when they’re happening, but I’m not about to go back to watching them after shotgunning the whole season.

Since the Bluth company is basically gone after the television show, the new season focuses on Michael’s attempts to get permission from every member of the family in order to make a movie about them. This is kind of a meta-joke (What? In Arrested Development?) since there is/was an Arrested Development movie in the works. The particularly clever bit was that, over the course of the show, Michael also manages to rip up every signed contract as he excises his family from the movie about them. So, there’s the typical backbiting and dealing that happens on this show. During the course of this, we catch up with every character and what they’ve been up to over the last seven years. It’s actually fairly coherent when it reveals itself to you, although I’m still kind of curious why George Michael is still in college after seven years.

Arrested Development was famous for its in-jokes. Repeated lines and weird behaviors were par for the course that kept showing back up. The new season actually does a good job with these, leaving them as throwaway instances instead of the focus of the humor. Yes, there are instances of Charlie Brown sad walk, “That was a freebie,” and cornballers, along with scores of others. However, these instances are never the actual joke and only background. For fans, they’ll get it and laugh, but the show is not resting on its laurels. It’s creating new jokes to coincide with those. In fact, it often avoids the obvious easy callback and twists it in a new direction. Granted, as a fan, I was looking forward to those instances and they were present. But they were never the focus. It certainly wasn’t like Austin Powers 3 or anything, where the same jokes get told again from the first two movies, in the hope that you will laugh at them again. The show isn’t relying on the humor of callbacks, but instead creating new material in which it can insert those callbacks. I would probably not want to watch this season without having watched the other three, but not because I wouldn’t get the jokes. No, there was actually more plot from the TV show that got glossed over and would actually lose a new watcher more than not getting why “I’ve made a huge mistake” is funny.

That’s not to say it didn’t stumble a few times. Because of the focus on one character for each episode, some characters got left to the side more than I would have liked. Buster gets one episode and he’s barely even present for many of the others. George Michael bookends the show and doesn’t even appear in background stuff in the middle. Tobias got a little too much. George Senior’s episodes felt a little superfluous. Some of the recurring bits didn’t quite work (Cinco de Quatro was kind of dumb). There were also ADR issues, where it was really obvious that the words the viewer was hearing were not  the words the actor was saying. Even though these scenes were usually with the actor speaking facing another actor so you could only see their chin moving from the side, it was still more obvious than I would have liked. This was probably a product of not being able to get everyone together to film it more conventionally, as they were probably writing as actor’s schedules opened up so everything wasn’t quite coherent yet. There seemed to be some stuff missing as well (Why is Michael wearing a banana stand shirt near the end? It seems like a weird choice that was never explained. Not to mention Sally Sitwell’s insect problem just sort of weighed heavily on one scene, and then disappeared).

My favorite episodes were GOB’s. He’s probably my favorite character on the show, but his episodes were particular standouts. I thought they did a good job of making George Michael seem older and more mature in the stuff that focused on other people, but then finding that he was still as nebbish in his episodes. I also enjoyed the reveal of how the two outliers (Michael and George Michael) who refused to be like their family were actually the most like their family in this season.

There were also a ton of cameos. Tony Wonder was great (as he usually is). Both lawyers were present. Lucille 2 was in the show more than Lucille was. As far as new characters, the standouts have to be Maria Bamford’s recovering drug addict and Kristen Wiig’s flashback Lucille (although Seth Rogen’s flashback George was kind of weak).

Maybe it’s cuz I binged out on the show, but Arrested Development still has it. The multi-pronged plot covered a lot of ground and time, but it actually worked really well. It was more intricate than the show would normally be able to do, and that show was already ridiculously intricate. The humor was still funny while still being new humor (Lucille smoking was brilliant). The callbacks were fun, but not overly heavy (Her?). New running gags were introduced (Fans will be excited to know that even more opportunities for incest were introduced). The situations were as ridiculous as ever (I have no idea how Ann’s plan worked). It’s frankly, an amazing achievement. I was concerned going in that it would be settling back upon nostalgia for a lot of its humor and the new hyper-focus on one character wouldn’t work. It worked and it worked well. The intricate plot and writing were still top-of-the-line. I have never seen its equal.

That last bit sounded really praiseworthy, but I have to say, this new Netflix season might be some of the finest comedy I’ve ever watched. Granted, I was already a fan of the humor. But to see that style of humor be pulled back after seven years away and to make it better than it was seven years ago? That’s a feat. But it did it. Even though I liked House of Cards, I would have to say that this is the bet thing that Netflix has produced. Arrested Development is fucking awesome and you should watch it.

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