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I had unreasonably high expectations for the return of Arrested Development. We all did, right? The show was cut off in the middle of a high note: Lucille Bluth stole the Queen Mary II, piloted by a group of gay strippers; George Michael finally admitted his love for his cousin Maeby; and Michael promised to never see his family again, again. For me, that third season was a happy blur. I don’t really remember the individual episodes as well as I remember the warm, fuzzy feeling I got while watching them. This was my twisted TV family, and I loved them, even when they were dating mentally challenged British ladies and doing terrible chicken impressions.
Watching the first seven episodes of the Netflix run of Arrested Development episodes feels like eating re-heated leftovers from a five-star restaurant. You know all the ingredients are still there, but there is no way to recapture that fresh-from-the-oven magic that the Bluth clan had the first time around. That said, the new run has got to be the best damn leftovers anywhere.
Season 4 is structured as a group of vignettes about each character. The first few episodes are largely set-up: We have to find out about the state of the business, the state of the lawsuit against Lucille, the state of the shareholders (including Stan Sitwell and Lucille II). This is the busywork I never paid any attention to as I watched seasons 1 through 3. I don’t really know what the SEC needs from the Bluths, and up until now, it didn’t seem to make a difference. The first few episodes have far too many scenes in which Michael and George or Michael and Lucille hash out the family financial situation — and too few in which Buster or Gob get in the way to comedic effect.
The new season doesn’t take off until Episode 5, “A New Start.” This Tobias-focused episode is the first to do an extended flashback gag, the type that was the bread and butter of the original three seasons. It turns out that while Lindsay was seeking out a shaman in Episode 3, “Indian Talkers,” she was really being followed around the globe by her estranged husband. That sequence is hilarious. Unfortunately, the original set-up sequence isn’t really funny at all. Arrested Development, in seasons 1 and 2 especially, had a gift for layering joke upon joke. Like Gob, creator Mitchell Hurwitz has a talent for misdirection. While you’re busy laughing at Lucille’s fall-down-drunk antics, he’s placed Tobias blue-ing himself in the background, which you later find out is part of a bigger, funnier joke. But for the misdirection to work, the distraction has to be enjoyable enough that viewers aren’t constantly hunting around for clues to the next joke. I was easily distracted in the first few episodes by various Hurwitz Easter eggs. I found myself thinking, “Why is there a film crew in that airport?” instead of “How funny is Lindsay right now?”
But, after a few misfires, the funny comes back. From Episode 5 on, there are sight gags like Lucille II fighting an ostrich, Tobias in a Thing costume, and an incredibly tasteless magic trick (excuse me, illusion) involving Gob as Jesus Christ. There are also verbal gags: Gob apparently doesn’t know how to pronounce the name of Biblical character Job; Tobias thinks he is attending a “Method One” theater clinic, which turns out to be a methadone clinic. After a few of those gags, I was able to settle in and enjoy this newer, but slightly less fresh Arrested Development.
Perhaps most important to Hurwitz and the crew at Netflix, I will probably re-watch the entire season at some point; there are too many missed clues and little visual puzzles to solve. The show plays out far more like an adventure video game than a normal television series. I feel compelled to go back and figure out what the heck I was looking at during the Cinco de Quatro riot, even if I don’t feel the same warm fuzzies over George Michael and Michael’s relationship.
Next time on Arrested Development: Was it all worth it? And is Netflix a viable way to reboot a beloved show?