Apocalypse, n. [ME. apocalipse; L. apocalypsis; Gr. apokalypsis, an uncovering, revelation, from apokalyptein, uncover, reveal; apo, from, and kalyptein, to cover or conceal.)
1. revelation; discovery; disclosure.
2. [A-] the last book of the New Testament; the book of Revelation.
3. certain Jewish or Christian prophetic writings which appeared between the years 250 B.C. and 150 A.D.
- Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary, Deluxe Second Edition
There is a reason for the definition above, and it is not the article writer’s jaw-dropping pretention. Nor is it because the arrival of the Netflix-based fourth season of Mitchell Hurwitz’s Arrested Development is a sign of the Judeo-Christian apocalypse (It is not, unless “Generally Hilarious Character-Driven Sitcom” became a horseman recently).
No, the new season Arrested Development is an apocalypse in the first sense. Throughout the 15 episodes that make up the season, each member of the long-and-often-deservedly-suffering Bluth clan find themselves confronted with major revelations about who they are in relation to themselves, their family and the world around them. And, as can happen when someone confronted with a major revelation, they change. Without exception, the Bluths close out this new season in vastly different places from where they were at the end of the original run and the start of this new season. They are still the Bluths, but their individual and group status quos have been shaken irreversibly.
The questions about Arrested Development and its transformations are these. Do these changes work with who the Bluths are as characters? Do the circumstances that bring the changes about justify them? Does the new storytelling style Hurwitz and company have adopted for season four present those changes is a narratively satisfying way? Does the new storytelling style present the Bluths and the people who interact with them in a dramatically satisfying way? Are the cast, for whom these characters are iconic roles, still comfortable playing roles they left behind in 2006? Does Arrested Development still have something to say about the real world, as it did when it poked holes in the US’s early to mid 2000s political and social environments? Does Arrested Development still have that impressive balance of character development, character regression, social commentary and straight-up absurdity that makes the initial run so well regarded? Is it still funny?
The short version is this: Yes. Yes. Generally yes, but not without serious pacing problems. Generally yes, but not without a big plot arc that trails off into narrative oblivion. Yes, and the new cast do an admirable job of keeping up with them. Sometimes, but more often than not the commentary feels like it is arriving a few years too late. Sort of, since the new different-main-Bluth-each-episode storytelling style requires a fundamentally different balance than the original run, but for the most part it acquits itself well. And lastly, yes, more often than not.
Arrested Development season four is as different a show from the original run as the Bluths are different people at season four’s end. Quite a bit about Arrested Development has changed, and a noticeable amount of it is not for the better, but at its best season four does character-based absurdist comedy as well as its earlier incarnation. A more specific and potentially spoiler-filled discussion of what works and what does not follows below.
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Arrested Development‘s fourth season is a flawed, potentially very flawed piece of television. This does not make it a bad piece of television by any means, but there are parts of it that, for this writer, do not work. And their not working damages Arrested Development in a big way. Chief among these flaws is the uneven and often badly drawn out pacing.
Arrested Development‘s fourth season episodes do not have a consistent run time. The shortest of them, George Sr.’s “Borderline Personalities” and Tobias’ “A New Start” come in at 28 minutes. The longest, Lindsay’s “Red Hairing” is a full 38. By comparison, Arrested Development‘s original run never went over 22 minutes. Part of this is attributable to the new storytelling style and delivery format. Rather than focus on the Bluths as a whole, season four puts each individual Bluth in the narrative spotlight one at a time (with the exception of season finale “Blockheads”, which focuses on both Michael and George Michael). The Bluths cross paths and intersect with each other’s individual storylines constantly, but whichever Bluth the episode focuses on will receive the lion’s share of the attention. And being distributed exclusively through Netflix means that the episodes are free from the restrictions of a television broadcast schedule. The only time slots they fit into are the ones the viewer chooses for them.
Neither of these is, on its own, a bad thing. But together they trap Arrested Development with a narrow focus and no structural limits but the ones it sets for itself. And the result is filler. Every episode of season four stretches its subject material a little too thin, particularly when trying to connect something from the original run to the new run, or trying to recap material from another character’s episode. Ron Howard does a lot more narrating than he has done in the past, and he frequently feels less like a witty narrator and more like an exposition device. At its weakest, season four drags. Even the weakest episode contains something funny, but the space before and after that something becomes an exercise in frustrated waiting. The great screenwriter Shane Black said of story pacing in an interview that “We’re in a culture where people want to be deafened, apparently. And there’s an elegance, which is somehow missing. It used to be that when people talked, they talked in a very communicative way. They varied their tone, they varied their pitch. Now they just yell at you when you fall down.” At its best, watching Arrested Development is like having a conversation Shane Black would love. At its worst, they variance in pitch and tone is still there, but is consumed by narrative silence. A few more revisions and a shorter, consistent running time would have helped considerably.
Season four’s other great flaw is that it has lost the original’s topicality. Although the original run’s incorporation of the early days of the Iraq War and the Patriot Act into its text and subtext has made it into a bit of a period piece now, during its initial run it was timely and pertinent to the conversation. Season four does incorporate the United States political and social situation into it text and subtext, but because of the large stretch of time it covers and the mixed amounts of focus parts of that time receive, much of the material it works with feels slightly stale. These issues; abuse of corporate power and improper relationships between the US government and assorted major corporations, the state of the US economy and the treatment of immigrants, are all still big, important issues that comedy can tackle and start conversations about. But the specific manifestations of those issues that season four chooses to focus on are tied to the mid-to-late 2000s.
Halliburton and the collapse of the housing market receive pointed commentary. The commentary is often funny (Halliburton rebrands itself as “Halliburton Teen” to try and escape criticism, Lindsay and Tobias get conned into buying a house that would make Versailles look restrained from an openly corrupt agent who Tobias promptly tries to hire as his entertainment agent), and the housing market collapse is a major plot point, but it all comes across a bit like a stale chocolate chip cookie. It is still funny/tasty, but would have been better earlier. Even the more recent political material in season four feels a bit behind the times; a conservative black politician named Herbert Love (Terry Crews of the NFL and The Expendables) with a knack for putting his foot in his mouth through speeches and sloganeering resembles Republican Presidential candidate also ran Herman Cain, seven months after the election. To season four’s credit, a bit on drone warfare works quite well, but it is an exception to the stale commentary surrounding it. Season four’s somewhat dated political focus does not damage it as badly as the pacing (and much of the material is funny), but it is disappointing and renders it an immediate period piece.
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Season four’s last major flaw is both its most frustrating and its least damaging. In “Borderline Personalities,” George Sr.’s first focus episode and the second overall for the season, George Sr. and Lucille hatch a plan to beat hated rival Stan Sitwell (Ed Begley Jr.) on the contract for a massive wall on the US/Mexico border. The wall and its status (who is building it, whether it is getting built at all, who supports it and who stands against it) becomes one of the major factors in season four’s plot. And it goes nowhere. Part of this is attributable to George Sr.’s episodes suffering the worst of the season’s pacing problems, but mostly the wall exists in the space between the world around the Bluths and the Bluths’ personal development, where it gets stuck.
Funny things happen because of the wall (the series’ climax involves a literal horde of angry Mongols stiffed on their wall construction fee), but nothing ever happens with the wall itself. George Sr.’s crisis of masculinity and his brother Oscar’s increased confidence are partially connected to the wall and feature some of the season’s best moments of writing and acting (Jeffery Tambor nails the two brothers, who remain themselves even while taking on each other’s character traits), but the wall itself remains a dead end. The wall drifts out of season four’s narrative before a brief resurgence of importance in “Blockheads,” which marks the only time a directly-wall-related plot point is funny without assistance from one of the Bluths’ character arcs or a separate plot point (the moral of the story? If you hire a literal horde of Mongols, pay them the money they have earned. And also probably do not refer to them as a horde. The Bluths have issues with race). Otherwise, it is a dead end. More good comes of it than the pacing, and the issue it is based on (US/Mexico immigration) is more timeless than the more specific and dated political commentary elsewhere in the season, but it comes across as a missed opportunity in what is otherwise a pretty strong season.
And that is true. Arrested Development season four is, for all its flaws, kind of fantastic. This is due to a few specific reasons, but they all trace back to the thing that made Arrested Development great in the first place; its characters. The Bluths are a triumph of writing and acting. By rights, they should be some of the most hatable television characters this side of Clay Davis and Joffrey Baratheon. They are, by and large, terrible people. When they are not impossibly ignorant of their immense societal privilege, they flaunt it. They are so casually racist that they wonder if the Mexican community thinks Cinco de Mayo is anything other than a day to come in and work for them, and create a holiday of theirs that is specifically designed to destroy Cinco de Mayo and get their servants back to work, Cinco de Quatro (where everyone ultimately ends up and most of season four’s plot points come to a head). They are an arrogant, corrupt collection of nitwits and jerks whose bad behavior starts to sink into their generally decent kids in a big way, and they all inspire incredible amounts of empathy.
Each Bluth receives their own episode or two in the spotlight, and they spend most of that time doing increasingly terrible, arrogant, selfish things. And more often than not, these terrible, arrogant, selfish things blow up in their faces and leave them even more alone and damaged than they were before.
Lucille may be a criminal mastermind and a strong contender for the coveted “Most Abusive Fictional Mother Since Margaret White of Carrie” award, but she finds herself abandoned and written off by everyone. She plays a terrifying villain in Tobias’ musical adaptation of Fantastic Four, because she is as bad a person in real life as her character. And this has been eating away at her in a way that she is running out of ways to deny. Michael, free of the position of “the Good Bluth Son” spirals into over-possessive terror at George Michael’s increasing independence and adulthood. When the opportunity to find success as the producer of a Ron Howard-directed biopic of the Bluths presents itself to him, Michael happily cuts a series of deals with his estranged family for their life rights that he subsequently reneges on when their awful behavior manifests more openly than his own, in a desperate attempt to be his own, successful man and impress a beautiful woman (Isla Fisher).
The Bluths dig their own graves and seal their own fates, and as awful as they are, their occasional hints of decency and the overwhelming amounts of isolation and despair they bring on themselves inspire genuine sympathy. The Bluths are horrible people, and frequently get worse through the season (even George Michael, who discovers a great command of the Bluth family lying ability). But despite all the pain, all the absurdity and all the despair they bring on themselves, they just keep trying to find a way out and find themselves. That is understandable, and to some extent even likable. It is a triumph of characterization.
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The cast, despite the seven year gap and some rustiness in the early episodes, do a great job of bringing the Bluths back. Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter push themselves when they could easily have rested on the shells of George Sr. and Lucille. Tambor does the best work he has done on the show with Oscar and George Sr.’s gradual transformation, particularly when Oscar has to interact with his brother’s family. Walter balances Lucille’s ruthlessness and abusive tendencies with the awareness that made that abuse so effective and an uncanny ability to react to Arrested Development‘s absurd world in surprising ways. She sings a showstopper in Tobias’ well-intentioned, constantly lawsuit threatened and completely terrible Fantastic Four musical. She dodges a would-be-assassin’s sharpened noodle knife. She tolerates the shrine Buster built to her after her arrest (it involves enough martinis to give Connery’s James Bond pause). And she sells all of it.
Tambor and Walter are the stand outs, particularly since Tambor is tied so heavily to the disappointing wall plot, but the rest of the cast take to the parts with aplomb. Alia Shawkat, who gets less screen time than some of the family, brings self-loathing to Maeby’s previously extant blend of ambition, creativity and longing for attention that makes “Senoritis”, her lone episode, one of the season’s best for both comedy and pathos. Michael Cera subtly corrupts George Michael; he remains, in the words of the narrator “a good kid”, but succumbs to the Bluth family knack for/addiction to lying and concealing his identity to break away from his Dad. This is both funny (Wait for the mustache. And the lonely housewife in Spain.) and dramatically satisfying. It’s Cera who closes out the season, and if George Michael punching his overprotective, increasingly selfish dad in the face is Arrested Development‘s last image, then it is a worthy one that lives up to both the series’ comic and dramatic sides.
Arrested Development season four is a resurrection, to get back to the religious imagery for a conclusion in the best sense of the word. It is another shot fired for television-style storytelling in a world where the idea of how television programming is consumed is changing dramatically. It is faithful to what came before without simply regurgitating catch phrases and images, and its new material is frequently worthy. One joke in particular, culminating in a boy who swallows a mouse, stands as one of the series all-time best examples of layered, multilevel humor. The pacing, dated political subjects and that blasted wall subplot do some real damage, but overall, Arrested Development‘s fourth season is a welcome return to one of fiction’s most fascinatingly, hilariously dysfunctional families.Previous