The New Arrested Development
Cinema & New Media Arts | On May 30, 2013
James Poniewozik – TIME Entertainment
If you marathoned old AD before watching this, turning on the first episode (focused on a falling-out between Michael and his son) feels like stepping from a briskly air-conditioned room into a rain forest; everything’s heavy, languid, a little oppressive.
Sometimes the disorientation is good, though, and here you can see Hurwitz using the season’s form to set up an elaborate, Lost-like structure of time-jumping. There are curious incidents and images that set up questions: Why does Michael have a black eye? What does “I got my big Yes!” mean? Why does Gob have a giant crucifix hanging out of his car? Also: ostriches? So many ostriches?
You’ll need to wait. It doesn’t get really funny — old-AD funny — until Episode 4, and then on and off until around the midseason mark. In part, this may be the viewer adjusting to the show’s new rhythms (though to me, the early episodes aren’t funnier upon a second watch). In part, it’s that some of the characters who better carry episodes (Gob, Buster, Lucille) aren’t featured early on. And in part it’s that the interlaced story structure starts paying off, as earlier scenes get context and the season develops its own running gags, rather than riffing on fan-pleasing oldies.
So about that structure. Hurwitz, in an interview with me and elsewhere, has described the new season as a “puzzle,” which it is for good and bad. In a way — this is pretentious, but I’ll say it — Arrested Development is a modernist work, like a Cubist painting or Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying (whose chapters were also told from varying points of view). That is, it’s interested in how perception affects reality, how seeing the same events from different characters’ vantage points reveals misunderstandings and biases, self-interest and personal flaws.
Season 4 of AD uses this device for some hilarious reveals and also to flesh out character. It can even be affecting. The second Lindsay episode is not nearly the season’s funniest, and it runs an excessive 37 minutes, yet it may be one of the season’s best, because it builds to a genuinely revelatory moment, in which Lindsay discovers that she’s far more her mother’s daughter than she would ever like to admit.
Other times, the season mistakes complication for complexity. Seeing a scene twice and realizing that a major character was in the background the first time is … neat, but not neat enough to use the device so often. Many of the episodes are not too long so much as they’re too slow: the pacing is off, scenes are repeated at too great a length and many moments would land better if a second or two were shaved off in editing, as in the breakneck original series. And — partly because of the extensive backstory, partly because of the limited cast — it uses Ron Howard’s voice-over exhaustively; at times it’s like Arrested Development: The Audiobook.
But I should tell you how much I laughed. A little at first, mostly at reminders of the old days. (David Cross pratfalls, how I missed you!) Then more and more, barking at this new season on its own terms. A review like this is a little unfair, because it’s easier to detail the faults, while the best way to show how well the jokes work — to list them — would spoil them. But the show can still stick a verbal somersault (“My bees are dropping like flies, and I need them to fly like bees!”). And considering the gigantic guest list, the casting is mostly effective rather than stuntlike: standouts include Kristen Wiig as an inspired young Lucille, a disarmingly comic Isla Fisher and Maria Bamford as DeBrie, a recovering addict who gives Tobias’ story surprising poignance.
How good this season is overall depends on what you’re comparing it to. Overall, it stands up well next to any sitcom on air now; a few episodes were meandering slogs, but a few others are among the funniest, best-executed sitcom episodes I’ve seen this season.
But in a couple of years from now, when a fan gets bored and decides to stream some AD on Netflix, is he or she likely to choose this season over 1, 2 or even 3? I doubt it. But I didn’t resent the time I invested in it, and I appreciated the chance to get to discover this new kind of TV season as it unfolded.