(I'm going to be watching and reviewing three episodes at a time of Arrested Development. I've gone out of my way to avoid reading reviews of the new season or discussing it on blogs or forums, so these reviews are untainted by outside opinion. Also, fair warning, these aren't recaps or plot synopses. I'm assuming everyone reading has seen the episodes in question and will be launching right into analysis of each.)
Season 4, Episode 1 - "Flight of the Phoenix"
Starring Character: Michael
The thing that this new season of Arrested Development kind of reminds me of based on the first fifth of it is the 2011 film The Muppets. Not in its tone or the kinds of jokes it tells, but just in the sense of us revisiting a beloved ensemble after years away and finding that in the years since they've split apart and are alienated from each other, and then telling a story of (what I assume will be, anyway) them gradually coming back together.
I'm not gonna lie – watching Michael Bluth and company do new stuff for the first time after rewatching seasons 1-3 on an endless loop for seven years was weird, weird, weird (for another, future example of this phenomenon, come talk to me in December of 2015 when I watch Luke Skywalker do new stuff for the first time since before I was born in Star Wars Episode VII). But not bad weird. Indeed, I actually really loved that we reentered the story on this destitute, indebted, rock-bottom Michael Bluth, as it immediately established something that nearly all recent sitcoms (perhaps most egregiously Parks and Recreation season 5) have lacked: Stakes. I also loved the montage of the Sudden Valley housing development filling in, finally letting us see without having to use our imaginations the town the model home was always supposed to be a part of.
There are some definite downsides to the way they've chosen to tell this story largely in flashback, though, namely the fact that pretty huge stretches play out with nothing but Ron Howard's narration and visuals. Arrested Development, for as stupefyingly amazing as it was in its first three seasons, was indeed always a sitcom, with sitcom rhythms. This feels like something else. It doesn't have that A/B/C-plot structure, and very few scenes play out at any length for character interplay and comedy purposes rather than plot purposes. (Though, curiously but comfortably nostalgically, they did choose to stick with the cut-to-white act breaks, despite the fact that no one is going to be watching this with commercials.)
But I did like the episode a lot. It's my favorite of the three I've watched, and it's not hard to pinpoint why: Most of the gang is here! Michael spends most of the episode interacting with George Michael, and we also get lengthy scenes with Maeby and Gob and George Sr. and Lucille (with Buster, Lucille 2, Sally Sitwell and Barry Zuckerkorn all cameoing). Seeing the semi-flipped dynamic of Michael and George Michael is great, and there's surprising emotional stakes in the scene of Michael drawing the ballots; probably the most emotionally "real" Arrested Development has felt since the first half of season 1.
It's clear five minutes in that there's real storytelling at work here, and I respect and admire the hell out of that. It's just my hope that that can be balanced with laughs and quotable lines that measure up to even half of what the first three seasons gave us. Fingers crossed.
Least favorite gag: The "SHOWSTEALER PRO TRIAL VERSION" slashed across flashbacks to the first three seasons. I get it, they pirated their own show, haha. But in practice, this joke is 5% funny, 95% annoying after like, the second time, and we get it like a dozen times across these first three episodes. I'm reaalllly hoping this isn't something that extends straight through to episode 15.
Favorite gag: Probably Michael's "You ever even been on a plane, you piece of *bleep*?" to P-Hound. Arrested Development hasn't missed a beat with their hilarious comedic bleeping. Gob pinning down Michael and feeding him the forget-me-now also made me roar. "Stupid, forgetful Michael."
Season 4, Episode 2 - "Borderline Personalities"
Starring Character: George Sr.
Ok, so here's where things get trickier, and where both the limitations and possibilities of Netflix's revival plan start to become problematic.
First, the limitations: I understand based on everything I've read that bringing the cast together even to the extent they've been brought together in this season was an unholy nightmare in the juggling of everyone's TV and movie schedules it required. The "one central character an episode" structure is one created not exclusively out of the desire to do so but out of pure fucking necessity for Arrested Development season 4 to exist at all.
But there's absolutely no denying that watching one member of the original main cast acting for huge stretches of time across from one-to-zero other original cast members is a problem. (In this case, George Sr. spending almost this entire episode acting across from new characters except for a few scenes with Lucille and Oscar and Barry and a flashback to the Bluth family meeting in the penthouse.) In feels... barren. Naked, if you will. The characters I love are all here, yes, but where's the scenes of them interacting loosely and funnily at at length with other characters I love? It doesn't feel like there'll ever be room for a "Oh, I'm sorry, I forgot, your wife is dead!" scene in this season.
And, more weirdly and uncomfortably, the problems the possibilities of Netflix created: These 30-plus minute episodes feel long. I know 30-32 minutes versus the original series' 22 minutes doesn't sound like a big deal, but a huge, huge part of Arrested Development's greatness was its incredible breathlessness. In my most recent rewatch last week, I was continually stunned by how many times I looked at the clock assuming I was 7 or 8 minutes into an episode to find I was 16 or 17 minutes in. It's just so relentlessly-paced. Even in weaker episodes – a million times less in great ones – I never, ever felt time drag for a second. Every episode flashes by in what feels like an instant.
So it was a weird, new and unpleasant feeling – the TV-watching equivalent of putting your sneaker on the wrong foot – to find myself thinking about two-thirds of the way into "Borderline Personalities," "God, this feels long. How much longer is this episode going to go?" I have never, ever, ever, ever, ever thought this about an Arrested Development episode before, so... that's a problem.
Putting these pretty significant gripes aside, I actually did enjoy it. Indeed, the episode had a number of modest laughs and at least three enormous ones, which I'll get to in a second, and I liked the story about George Sr. buying up California-Mexico borderlands and selling lemonade at thousands-of-times inflated prices and am intrigued to see where they plan on taking it as the season goes. But this feels even less like a sitcom episode than "Flight of the Phoenix," for better or worse.
(Oh, and Dan Harmon cameo! Community is obviously the sitcom heir to Arrested Development's crown of greatness, so that was cool.)
Least favorite gag: Probably, I suppose, everything with the vision of the Native American shaman, because that just really doesn't fit into Arrested Development's pseudo-mockumentary style. Though even here, I did like George Sr.'s insistence that they not be seated close enough to Ray Romano that he talks to them.
Favorite gag: Three-way tie between the "Look, a lizard." "CUTE!!!!" exchange between Dr. Norman and China Garden, George Sr.'s immediate "No." to Dr. Norman asking if he wants to watch him and China Garden make love, and Buster's insistence that he was invited to stay because he heard his mother whisper "Don't pull out." when he set his tent up in his parents' room (and Gob's reaction to this unfortunate news).
Season 4, Episode 3 - "Indian Takers"
Starring Character: Lindsay
First things first: The use of roughly half the cast of NBC's poorly-reviewed single-season sitcom Outsourced in this episode's India act has gotta be one of the more unexpected and random TV reunions I've ever seen. If it was just one or two Outsourced stars, I'd chalk it up to coincidence ("COO-IN-CI-DEEENNNCEE!"), but I think this had to be intentional, which is weird because I don't really know that anyone liked that show! Don't get me wrong; the actors do perfectly fine work in their parts here. It was just kind of funny and odd.
Otherwise, this episode, while mostly enjoyable, is crazily all over the place. First, the immediate aftermath of "Development Arrested" (though with Portia de Rossi somehow looking even more astonishingly different than Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat do from 2006 to today, it seems comically absurd trying to play this as being the same day as the original series finale). Then Lindsay is off to India, then back again and living with Tobias in a mansion, and then we launch into the Marky Bark story of the episode's final act. It's a lot of plot to get through, and doesn't leave a huge amount of room for, well, comedy.
Truth be told, I have pretty much the same problems with "Indian Takers" as I do with "Borderline Personalities" in the way it strands Lindsay on her own for much of the episode and the way it seems to take too damn long to get to the point – I really wish the Marky Bark stuff had been sliced down to, like, half the screen time it ended up occupying in the final cut. That doesn't mean I didn't roar with laughter at the flashback to the Thanksgiving miracle in the Fünke family's cupboard, but something felt slack and undisciplined about the half-hour as a whole.
I said above that "Flight of the Phoenix" didn't really feel like a sitcom episode, and "Borderline Personalities" even less so. Well, "Indian Takers" takes it even further. "Borderline Personalities" at least established George Sr. in a set location with a few consistent characters surrounding him, which is sitcom-ish if you squint at it the right way. "Indian Takers," on other hand, is basically a half-hour-long exposition dump with jokes.
Least favorite gag: The Ed Helms realtor scene went on too long for my liking, though I did appreciate the "Bringing Up Buster"-esque reveal that Maeby was standing there all along.
Favorite gag: "Live truthfully, skate through life!" I laughed for like thirty seconds.