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‘Arrested Development’ Season 4: A Cynical Charm

Arrested Development

In sophomore year of college, I watched a lot of 30 Rock. In particular, I watched a lot of the first season of 30 Rock. Why? Because the disc drive on my PS3 broke and all I had on there were ripped episodes from the DivX Stage6 website, a high quality, official repository of unregulated video. I would watch it over and over again late at night when the options were go to sleep, watch Wildboyz on MTV, or go through another round of Liz Lemon shenanigans. The choice was obvious.

In total, I must have watched that entire season no less than 40 times. (There are still a few episodes I can recite in full.) Now compare that with the fact that I’ve seen the entire three-season run of Arrested Development almost as much—and that was an entirely voluntary exercise. I completed this quiz on Vulture in under a minute and got a perfect score. My lifetime track record of quotes goes 1) Star Wars, 2) Seinfeld, and 3) Arrested Development, impressive considering how much more time I’ve had to goose up the numbers with the other two.

What I’m trying to say is I know the series rather well, and even then it felt little more than a casual acquaintance with the new streaming season on Netflix. Through the 15 episodes of this fourth, belated season, it felt an awful lot like seeing a dear old friend you’d neglected to call or text or e-mail for the past seven years; there’s a sensation of talking with a stranger at first, but you slowly settle into accepting that you’ve both changed, though the core of relationship is still there. Somewhere.

Arrested Development

The first few episodes of this fourth season were not especially encouraging. They felt a bit too cynical and too hate-filled. Every other gag was an elbow to the side reminding you that they were canceled. “Hey, remember when they unceremoniously chucked us off the air? Remember? REMEMBER?!” Well, yes, of course I remember. People who haven’t even ever seen the show remember. It’s understandable to be sour about the situation, but the Showstealer Pro Trial Edition watermark felt a bit like not just preaching to the choir but also forcing the choir to preach.

This feeling that you were being talked down to was even found among the characters. Each episode is centered around a single Bluth as they weave in and out of an increasingly complex and absurd web of deceit, and the first one is all Michael. He never was the purest of heart, but he at least was never this much of an ignorant ass. He could be vindictive at times and rather passive aggressive (as shown in an excellent sequence of phone tag with George Michael), but he seems more a mirror for the attitudes and feelings of the show’s creators at being brought back after a protracted death than anything else.

Everything you experience at the front is loaded with cynicism: Ron Howard audibly clears his froggy throat, Netflix nudges you every time that it is a “semi-original” series, and half the time is spent reminding you what happened with a show you clearly spent days at a time watching back when that sort of thing was acceptable. And among the rather somber tone of realizing that everyone’s life had gone to shit either by choice or circumstance, there wasn’t a lot to laugh at or with. My one chuckle-out-loud moment was found with a Franklin-esque moment involving some rather, um, casual racism.

Arrested Development

But then the show picks up. Like, really picks up. It starts to find its footing just after episode three and hits its stride around episodes seven and eight. All that self-aware hatred for itself and its fate turns into the good ol’ Bluth charm we know and love. We get a lot less of characters acting like selfish sinkholes of pity and scorn and more like the dysfunctional band of blissfully ignorant doofuses (doofusi?) that we know and love. We gently fold in returning characters like Mae Whitman’s Ann Veal and George Sr.’s twin brother Oscar rather than dumping them all into the batter and turning the mixer on high like with Sally Sitwell and Lucille Austero.

That is a tough balancing act, though. As much as we would like to consider this a fourth season of Arrested Development, it really does have to consider that for some, this is the first time they’ve seen these characters in seven years. Seven years! In that time, we’ve gotten four The Fast and the Furious movies and Michael Cera grew a mustache, so a slow reintroduction seems necessary, if counterproductive. Arrested Development was always about moving fast and packing in as much nonsense and humor and drama into a half-hour show as possible. If there is one word I can use to describe the first three seasons, it would be dense.

And that’s why the show begins to feel more familiar around the midpoint. Characters like Alan Tudyk’s Pastor Veal and Judy Greer’s Kitty Sanchez make meaningful appearances that go beyond cameos, but they do so within cameo-like time spans. And between bits of dialogue, in-jokes are injected in ways only Arrested Development can manage. The Banana Grabber franchise appears to be alive and well, and there is more than one subtle Mr. F reference for you to ferret out. Gob’s $3,000 suit stuttering reaches all new heights, and there is such a fantastic interpretation of the chicken dance that I felt like my smile was going to tear my head in half. Also, one character’s return is so staggering that I can’t bear to spoil it for you.

Arrested Development

There are, of course, new jokes, most of which take form in new and utterly delicious characters. The standout to me is Maria Bamford as DeBrie Bardeaux. She’s painfully adorable and acts most as a foil to the audience; she is subjected to interacting with the Bluths for real whereas we can simply watch and laugh. John Slattery is absurdly perfect as “disgraced anesthesiologist” Doctor Norman and Tommy Tune as Lucille 2’s brother Argyle Austero (who is decked in argyle) is ridiculous, graceful, and intimidating all at once. And of course there’s Mary Lynn Rajskub as Heartfire, a woman involved in one of George Sr.’s schemes who communicates by entirely thought. It is the quintessential well from which Arrested Development draws its jokes and results in one of the best gags of the season (maybe of the series) when she tries to order a drink.

Some of the new cast, however, is a bit mixed in their ability to hold their own against the Bluth onslaught. Isla Fisher’s Rebel Alley provides some fantastic fodder for Ron Howard Hollywood jokes, but she ultimately comes across as nothing more than a plot device (though a solid and convincing one, to be fair). P-Hound works well with George Michael but isn’t nearly unstable enough to fit in with the rest of the family. And Terry Crews as a very Herman Cain-ish Herbert Love just kind of falls flat as nothing more than an SNL-quality shell, though SNL alum Kristen Wiig eventually gets a hold of her Lucille Bluth impression (Seth Rogen as George Sr.? Not so much).

All of which are representative of the overarching problem with this season of the show; there’s not enough of the Bluths. For all the idiosyncrasies of having a bunch of inmates running a fiscally irresponsible asylum, they were still a family and were endearing in that respect. They stuck together and loved each other even when they didn’t love what they did to each other, and that allowed us a lot of time with them as a family.

Arrested Development

The narrative structure of the season was both a necessity due to everyone’s busy schedules and an interesting experiment in what was an experimental show for its time, but it doesn’t give us much time with everyone together. Played off of one another, everyone’s particular failings as decent people congeal to form a holistic view of a demented society. Do you know that trust exercise where everyone sits in a circle on another person’s knees? That’s what the underlying structure of the Bluths was, so when you take them out on solo adventures, it breaks down. Instead of seeing how this house of cards is held up with luck and happenstance, we just have a deranged piece of trash floating through the wind.

For all that, though, the green screening really only became an issue for me once with Tobias and Lindsay. It just could not have been more obvious that they were not on the same set at the same time. It probably would have been less distracting if they’d just left the green backdrop in.

But there’s enough there to keep the season going. Peppered with an increasingly maniacal Barry Zuckerkorn, an absolutely ridiculous interpretation of the maritime law infrastructure, and Tony Wonder and Gob’s ever worsening rivalry, we take a funny and dense (if bumpy) ride to the end. The reliance on the narrator to drop info dumps lessens (though the Next Time bumpers are a bit stilted the entire way) and the trademark absurdist escalation permeates the last third of the season. The Pulp Fiction-style timeline begins to dovetail (the owner of a pair of feet we see in the first episode, for example, is revealed) and you realize that though everything takes place in the same handful of scenes, the information we get with each visit builds on the aforementioned escalation until we get the meltdown we’ve been waiting for.

Arrested Development

What we’re left with something…strange. To appreciate most of the fun in this season, you must be well-versed in the previous three. And to get to the good stuff, you have to slog through what appears to be made for those green to the series. This creates an odd balance of appealing to the wrong people at the worst times. Either you hate the beginning and love the end or build a relationship at the front only to be confused at the back. But what this season attempts and accomplishes is what I wholeheartedly believe can only be achieved by Arrested Development after three past masterful seasons. So while this is not what I was expecting, it was also exactly what I needed it to be.

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The Walking Dead’s Problem With Episodic Content

It blew my mind the first time I saw the words “To Be Continued” on a TV. I just couldn’t believe it. For years, I had been trained to believe that within the span of thirty minutes, problems could crop up, break down, and be resolved. Just thirty minutes and people could change. It was a fascinating notion to me as a child since the greatest change I could muster in half an hour would be a feeling of eating too much candy. And then tummy aches. And then I would be fine again, but I digress.

That moment when I discovered stories didn’t always wrap up neatly within the confines of a previously established structure was with Full House. Yeah, it was cheesy and super 90s, but when Comet ran away, my heart sank. And when they couldn’t find him, it wept. It was an oddly moving moment for a kid that never had a dog.

Television has changed since then, though. I don’t just mean the lack of camp and adorable twins but that multi-episode plots usually happen during finales. Television now hinges on major events and marketable moments rather than a likable cast or relatable premise (still important stuff, though). Season and series finales usually happen in two or more parts and they usually happen back-to-back so a half-hour show becomes an hour long and a one-hour show takes up the entire prime time slot. It’s easy to make an inevitable cliffhanger sound extra exciting when you can say it takes twice as long to show.

The problem lies within that break. When (or if, I guess) that show makes it to syndication, the chances of those broken-up bits being aired properly are slim. This week may be part one. Next week might be the pilot. It’s a mess. But the separation of the gestalt also breaks up the story as originally envisioned, and it happens in the worst way.

Commercials work as act breaks because they offer very brief respites that build tension and anticipation over a manageable period of time. It is perfect for the medium, so naturally breaks between episodes offer an even better delineation since we apply a meta anxiety to knowing this is how this particular chunk ends.

Think about this in the context of The Walking Dead, the adventure game series from Telltale Games. It is currently on its fourth and penultimate episode and has thus far garnered almost exclusively giant handfuls of praise. Not only will I include this on my shortlist of Game of the Year contenders but also proselytize it to everyone with ears and a bank account containing at least $24.99.

But the problem is that these five episodes operate on a television seasonal or miniseries framework. The first three episodes are standalone and yet fold so well within each other. They might as well be three big ol’ beanbags that are absolutely wonderful on their own, but when placed adjacent to one another, it becomes a god damn party. A dark, twisted, and mildly depressing party full of evil people, good intentions, and mindless zombies, but still a party.

And two weeks ago (one week ago for Europeans), episode four—entitled Around Every Corner—was released and guess what: it’s still dark, twisted, and mildly depressing. Lead by Book of Eli scribe Gary Whitta, Around Every Corner contains probably the darkest moment of the series thus far, and given what I’ve seen and done in the first three episodes, that’s saying quite a lot. But it’s also the weakest episode, and that’s because it’s the first of a two-part finale.

The general shape of a story is something like a roller coaster. You’re building and building for what seems like forever to the peak of the story (the climax) only to ride it out to the end after a very large, Skrillex-shaped drop (the dénouement). But little humps happen along the way. Up to the top, you jolt and rattle around. On the way down, you’ll encounter turns and loops and things. The dramatic implications of these incidental movements correspond pretty well to how jarring they are when reflected in a narrative plot.

And as we’ve previously discussed, those little bumps make for perfect breaks. Between episodes, you can take a snapshot of the track and it could work as another, much more boring roller coaster in microcosm, each one complete with its own set of humps and drops. But naturally, the biggest, overarching climax invites for the best break since it usually represents the transition into the third and final act. That is why it’s called a cliffhanger; you make it all the way to the edge of the climax and then you’re left hanging. It’s effective.

But it also breaks the entire preceding sequence of events. Roller coasters don’t end with you on top of the hill for a good reason; there’s no catharsis. Well that and how the hell are you supposed to get a dozen people down from the top of a roller coaster, but whatever. You don’t get that sweet release. You’ve chopped down the tree, decorated it with tinsel and lights, wrapped all the presents, and then Christmas is canceled. It’s unsatisfying, frustrating, and a bit cheap-feeling. You can’t take that dramatic structure and just break it in half. Then you don’t have a drama; you have an angry audience.

It’s a subtle difference between that and a teaser ending. With a teaser ending, you still get resolution at the end along with the falling action of the story. It’s satisfying but still manages to toy with that part of you that wishes it had kept on going. The modern Marvel superhero movies were great at this. Each movie was its own self-contained story, but the stinger after the credits showed what it’s like to keep the audience on the hook without putting them at the edge of a cliff, staring off into nothing. Teasers are what we got with the first three episodes. A sheer cliff face is what we got with episode four.

But that isn’t the fault of Telltale or the series or even Gary Whitta. At some point, you have to play into the traditional narrative structure and that means breaking it off somewhere that works. You can’t do it too early or people lose interest as then they don’t get the cliff or the drop. If you do it too late, the resolution diminishes in importance as their minds begin to fill in the blanks as they see fit. The weakness of Around Every Corner is just natural to the structure. Done anywhere else, and episodes three and five would have been weaker for it.

The penultimate step to the finish is always a necessary step down. You have to rear back and rev up for the finish. Around Every Corner does what it can and does it well (this is by no means a bad episode, just the weakest when compared to the other three absolutely spectacular entries into the series), but instead of ending on a sense of foreboding mixed with reserved, extremely cautious optimism (how long does that last in a zombie apocalypse?), you are left with frustration not knowing or understanding what is going on.

But that hopefully means that the last episode, No Time Left, is all the better for it. Hopefully that means it’s one incredible ride down a blood-soaked mountainside. Hopefully we finally get that sweet, sweet drop.


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