Sunday, June 2, 2013

Arrested Development Season 4, Episodes 13-15

(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 13 - "It Gets Better"
Starring Character: George Michael

For a couple of years, back when I first discovered Arrested Development in college, I'm pretty sure George Michael Bluth was my favorite television character of all time. I delighted to no end in his every awkward moment, and Michael Cera's comic delivery was phenomenally great for any actor of any age, let alone a teenage kid. (His delivery of "What, yeah, that's... fine. Ok, I guess. I don't care... stop." when Michael greets him in "S.O.B.s" remains one of the funniest lines that isn't really even a line in any sitcom ever, and that's all thanks to Cera.) So it's both meant as praise but also a little disappointing to report that George Michael's first season 4 spotlight, "It Gets Better," is... pretty good.

Like Maeby's spotlight in "Señoritis," where it was revealed that her Opie Award was just the final headshot to a dead career and that her life was a mess, the most notable narrative twist this episode pulls is the revelation that George Michael's seeming accomplishments – i.e. Fakeblock – are actually bullshit. There is no privacy software. Fakeblock is just a wood block app whose reputation spins out of control. And that was all a lot of fun (and rewarding for the longtime Arrested fan in how it plays off George Michael's woodblocking way back in the season 1 episode "Best Man for the Gob").

Where the greater story falters a bit is in George Michael's romance with Rebel, which the final third or so of the episode is dedicated to. Unlike, say, Maeby's dalliance with Perfecto, the show seems to be asking for a degree of actual emotional investment from us in this story, and I'm just not sure what's there justifies that. We already kinda did George Michael and Michael liking the same woman way back with Heather Graham in season 1, and all this just kind of seems like them trotting that story back out again, only this time spread over a whole season instead of a single episode and a lot less light on its feet.

But on the other hand I did really enjoy the alternate angles this episode gave us to Michael's story in "Flight of the Phoenix" and even Maeby's one episode ago. The way snatches of seemingly privacy-software-related conversation between George Michael and P-Hound back in the season premiere were revealed to have whole new woodblock-related meanings was wonderfully clever (and, speaking of P-Hound, I loved the Eduardo Saverin spoof with him at the end). I like everything that's here... I'm just not sure I like everything about where it's headed. But we'll get back to that when I discuss the season finale in just a minute.

Lastly, I have to give Netflix or Mitch Hurwitz or whoever wrote it credit for their technically-honest-but-wildly-dishonest episode synopsis: "At UC Irvine things get steamy when George Michael finds himself in a love triangle with his best friend Ray and his girlfriend Becky." That's such a bold, cheeky misrepresentation of "It Gets Better" that I have to wonder if it's a last-minute joke added to poke fun at HBO for their "Sam and Gilly meet an older gentleman" description for the Game of Thrones episode "Second Sons."

Season 4, Episode 14 - "Off the Hook"
Starring Character: Buster

"Off the Hook" is a study in contrasts. It's the most cartoony episode this season and maybe the most cartoony since the Jetpants vs. Mole fight back in "Mr. F" – I mean, it's primarily about an emotionally stunted man-child's struggles with his super-powerful robot hand – while also containing the single darkest joke of Arrested Development's entire 68-episode run as Buster is tricked into becoming a mass murderer when the US military gives him control of a Middle Eastern drone while telling him it's a video game, which he then uses to bomb what he believes are fictitious weddings, schools and hospitals. I mean, that is dark. That is dark, dark, dark, dark fucking stuff. But, all the same, I'm not going to lie and say I didn't laugh, because I did.

Looking beyond that one gag, it's a fun episode, albeit not one of my favorites of the season altogether. It feels light on Buster interacting with fellow Bluths, probably on account of Tony Hale's Veep shooting schedule, though it does offer yet another very funny viewpoint of the big Bluth penthouse meeting near the beginning (and Hale's delivery of "I'm glad they saw it..." to Michael after being told about his exposed testicle is a keeper).

The stories of Buster readjusting to life with his new robot hand and integrating himself with the Love family are both pretty fun, though the latter story in particular had me wistfully thinking that in a more normally structured and paced sitcom season this is something that could've been fun to watch unfold over the course of a four-or-five-episode arc. As for the twists at the end with Lucille 2's murder, well, I'll talk about that a little more in a second. (I did appreciate the final Fakeblock gag, though.)

As a somewhat disappointing side note, though, I do have to admit to being completely underwhelmed by the literal doctor's reemergence here. Which is a damn shame because, as I've mentioned, his "he's going to be all right" gag is very easily one of my top ten jokes in any sitcom in all of television history. Like, that moment had me guffawing on and off for about a week straight. In contrast, I just barely cracked a smile at this episode's literal doctor gag (and what smile I did crack was mostly just "Oh yeah, I loved this character."). A shame.

Season 4, Episode 15 - "Blockheads"
Starring Character: George Michael

Ok, first off, as for this episode itself: I liked it. It did a good job at highlighting Michael and George Michael's relationship, and the Twin Club voting out was as enjoyably absurd a set piece as we've had this season. I also liked getting to see most of the main characters in the episode's final act and the reveal of the truth behind the Cinco de Cuatro riot ("Hello darkness my old friend...").

But as we reach the season finale we reach the time for reflection about this season's collective eight-hour run, and I find myself torn in many strange, conflicting directions, some of which I figured I'd be feeling months ago when they first announced this project and some of which are complete surprises.

First things first: Did I like Arrested Development season 4? Yes. I'd go so far as to say very much so. I'd probably even call it my favorite live-action TV comedy of 2013 so far (a claim helped by Community's fourth season being run by strange interlopers, 30 Rock only airing a few episodes this year, the bottom falling out from Parks and Rec, and New Girl and Happy Endings both being good but not good enough to get truly excited about), albeit probably not enough to match the sheer, unadulterated enjoyment of Bob's Burgers if we're factoring in animation.

Things to praise about this season range from the sheer inarguable joy of seeing so many actors step back into their best roles ever (ok, ok, Carl Weathers' best role is still Apollo Creed, and for Mae Whitman it's a tough call between Ann Veal and Amber Holt) to the remarkable ambition and density of its nonlinear storytelling. It's not many TV seasons I see where I can honestly say I've never seen a TV season built like that before, and Arrested Development season 4 is one such season. It also, while always keeping its toe dipped in the past, didn't entirely rest on the series' previous laurels, putting in the work to build new running jokes from the "Sound of Silence" zoom-ins to the parmesan/mustard snacks to the ostrich motif to Mark Cherry's anthem to Getaway.

But if you were to ask me if I liked it as much as I like the show's first three seasons – or, to be honest, even half as much as the first three seasons – my honest answer would have to be no. I only had to pop on about thirty seconds of an episode from the classic series to make it crystal-clear that, while I definitely find neo Arrested funny, I don't find it to be nearly the dizzyingly, cripplingly, stupefyingly hysterical experience that I found the show's original run. I just don't, and no amount of analysis and reevaluation and rewatching can change that. Ultimately, Arrested season 4 does, I regret to say, bring down the overall averaged-out quality of the series as a whole.

This isn't one of those things where it's tough to put my finger on either. I can tell you exactly the three reasons why. Reason number one – and the only one really imposed on Hurwitz and company by their limitations rather than being a deliberate choice – is the spread-out, one-main-character-at-a-time episode structure. And yes, I recognize that because of these actors' schedules this was the only way this season was going to happen, but Arrested Development was an amazing ensemble comedy. It was bigger than any one actor, even Jason Bateman. And having so much of the cast apart and missing from several episodes hurt. It just did. There's no way around it.

The other two problems comedy-wise for this season are ones that Hurwitz and company created entirely for themselves, which makes them even tricker. There's the extended – sometimes, as in the case of "Red Hairing," really extended – episode lengths, which robs the show of much of its breathless, stumbling-over-itself-in-a-rush-of-punchlines comedic momentum, which was previously far and away, by orders of magnitude, the most stunning, brilliant and impressive in the history of sitcoms. As I've mentioned in these reviews, this season marked the first time – and the second, third and the sixth – that I've ever checked the time during an Arrested Development episode in a "How much longer is this?" kind of way.

Also, this season is way more plot-focused, not only in the macro sense but also in its scene-by-scene rhythms. You could count on one hand the number of scenes in this season that feel comedically loose, more interested in the joy of watching characters interact than in laying out plot points and exposition and setup. In a way – hell, in a big way – I admire how odd and ballsy this is for a sitcom. But on the other hand it slurped some joy out of the proceedings. Old Arrested told a great, politically charged story, but it was always about one part plot to five parts comedy; in new Arrested that ratio often feels damn near switched.

I guess I'll sum it up this way: Arrested Development season 4 is to the first three seasons as The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey is to the Lord of the Rings trilogy, an enjoyable years-later fourth installment that comes from the same creator as the original and contains most of the stuff I loved the first time around, but with something about the overall alchemy off just enough to create an uneasy effect.

I had been planning before this season's release to do an update to my Ranking Arrested Development list where I slot in the fifteen new episodes, but now that I've seen them I have no idea how I would even go about comparing episodes of season 4 to the first three seasons. They're so utterly different in every way; it'd be like comparing apples and protractors. So I'm pretty sure I'm not going to bother, at least not yet. (But, for the record, if I went ahead and did it anyway, "Colony Collapse" would be the highest-ranked season 4 episode, somewhere around the low 30s or high 20s, and "Borderline Personalities" would be lowest, probably one slot above "Ready, Aim, Marry Me!")

But it's really the story of Arrested Development and the Bluth family I want to talk about here (and, again, how weird is that in the first place, for the overarching story to be the overriding topic of interest for a sitcom?). Not so much what's there as what isn't there, namely any kind of ending or resolution whatsoever.

Here's the thing about the original Arrested Development: Its cancellation was a tragedy, but its ending wasn't. Oh, I was pissed when it got canceled. Fuck, I was enraged. I wailed and pissed and moaned and complained and gnashed my teeth in both the real and online worlds, and to this day there's a very angry LiveJournal post from me out there in the cyberether from the day it was canceled. It remains, in the moment, far and away the cancellation I've been most outraged by (keeping in mind that I wasn't a TV fan to witness the premature ends of Freaks and Geeks or Firefly when they happened).

But it ended well back in 2006, and it ended with its fire still burning. Hell, it even ended with four or five episodes of advance cancellation warning to wrap it up (I remain unclear to this day whether the show's insanely meta and brilliant fifth-to-last episode, "S.O.B.s," was produced before or after the cancellation notice, but I know for a fact the final four were after), thus letting them cram lots of satisfying resolution into that final arc, bringing things to a place where, had that been the end, it would have without question been thought of as our greatest sitcom forever. Sure, there was the lingering question about where Michael and George Michael were headed on that boat, but it ended.

But now, as of the end of season 4? Buster has been framed and arrested for Lucille 2's murder, Maeby's been arrested as a sex offender, George Sr. and Lucille are getting divorced, Lindsay's election still lingers, and worst of all, Michael and George Michael's relationship – the one bright spot the original series finale assured us was solid as Iraq – is in ruins; at its worst point ever.

After the end of season 3, we wanted more, but in no way did we need more. The story had been told. But now? We truly and flat-out need more, because this story has not been told. There are so many balls up in the air ("Those are balls."), and if it ends here then the narrative of Arrested Development, previously for all its darkness and cynicism a deeply satisfying one, will in retrospect be really depressing and frustrating.

And yes, Mitch Hurwitz wants to do more. And I'm sure most of the cast does too, but absolutely nothing is in stone and we've been told over and over what a nightmare it was to sort these guys' schedules and assemble them for just this one season. Another could take years. It could be impossible. And of course I hope my fears turn out to be misplaced silliness, but I'm really concerned about the future of Arrested Development, which I never was before. After those first 53 episodes, maybe I wanted more, but I certainly wasn't concerned. What we had was brilliant and as close to perfect as any sitcom has ever been, and if it turns out that Arrested Development's fourth season is it for the franchise, I suspect any future rewatches by me will end with "Development Arrested."

I feel I've gone a little off the reservation of what I originally intended to write here. As I said, I did like Arrested Development season 4. There were many, many laugh-out-loud moments spread across its eight hours, and I think the mental image of the camera slowly zooming into Gob's face accompanied by "The Sound of Silence" will keep me giggling for months. It's clever and layered as hell and almost certainly the best live-action TV comedy of the first half of 2013. But it does dilute the perfection of what came before – a series that I often declared my favorite of all time – and I'm probably going to be sorting out my feelings about that for years.

1 comment:

  1. 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.