Sunday, 9 June 2013

Review: Netflix's ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT - The Complete Fourth Season

Sunday, 9 June 2013

written by Mitch Hurwitz, Jim Vallely, Richard Rosenstock, Caroline Williams, Dean Lorey, Jim Brandon & Brian Singleton / directed by Mitchell Hurwitz & Troy Miller

It's relatively common for British shows to continue past 'cancellation', if only as irregular specials (The Vicar of Dibley, Only Fools & Horses). Many UK shows even have long gaps between runs, too, such as Fawlty Towers--where four years separates its two series. Owing to its more business-like nature, cancelled television shows don't get revived as often in the US with the same cast or crew involved; and if they do it's usually because they were highly successful once (Dallas, 24), and not low-rated commercial flops a niche audience adored. That said, things are changing in the wake of Veronica Mars getting a $5.7m movie through Kickstarter donations, and the rise of on-demand providers looking for exclusive shows with a ready-made online fanbase...

Arrested Development was a critical darling and won six Emmy's between 2003 and 2006, but struggled in the ratings before the axe fell after three seasons. And while it's easy to believe this Fox comedy has since become a 'big deal' everyone's desperate to see more of, I think you have to remember the vast majority of people haven't seen it and don't particularly care. But it was brave, influential, and has a large following amongst a lucrative demographic (young, percipient, social people with expendable incomes), so it was a no-brainer for Netflix to revive Arrested Development. The fact it happened is still a minor TV miracle.

Much has been made of the format change creator Mitch Hurwitz has devised for these 15 episodes (many of which are a third longer than the original episodes without commercials, which is a mixed blessing). Given the difficulties of assembling every actor for simultaneous filming, it wasn't possible to return to the full-blown ensemble feel of the Fox show. Instead, each episode focuses on a particular member of the Bluth dynasty, although they're never in complete isolation from relatives wandering into their storyline. It's just that season 4 only has a few scenes where every Bluth's in the same room, which may upset fans who enjoy seeing the Arrested cast bouncing off everyone else within every episode. (But, c'mon, the original run's "ensemble scenes" were usually between three or four characters at the most. This new season isn't so different, and the more episodes you watch the less the absences are felt.)

I don't see too many problems with this new format or agree with most of the complaints I've heard. By having each episode centre on a single character, each one blossomed in the spotlight. This season actually made me re-evaluate the 'weaker characters' and appreciate their personalities all the more. Maeby (Alia Shawkat) benefited from solo attention most obviously, despite only having one episode to herself, and similar is true of Lucille, Buster and Lindsay.

The other key difference is that Netflix continue to think making every episode available at once is the best release strategy. We can argue the pro's and con's of this forever, but I must admit a complex series like Arrested benefits from 'binge-watching' more than House of Cards did earlier this year. A lot of its humour stems from callbacks and continual references, and the narrative of season 4 is heavily intertwined, so it does actually pay to watch all 15-episodes within a week or so. I still can't advocate gorging the season within 48-hours, alas, but it definitely helped my understanding of the tapestry-like plot by watching a few episodes a night, as I caught onto some recurring jokes much quicker.

If you've made it this far and you're still somehow unaware, Arrested Development follows the exploits of the wealthy but dysfunctional Bluth family after their patriarch George Snr was imprisoned for defrauding investors, leaving eldest son Michael (Jason Bateman) in charge of the struggling business and the eccentric family—which includes wino mom Lucille (Jessica Walters), nerdy son George-Michael (Michael Cera), illusionist brother "Gob" (Will Arnett), emasculated brother Buster (Tony Hale), egotistical twin sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), talentless actor brother-in-law Tobias Fünke (David Cross), and his smart-but-foolhardy niece "Maeby".

So what are these new episodes like? Well, things pick up a number of years after the season 3 finale, which I must admit I'd forgotten the specifics of, but thankfully we're given flashbacks to the climactic even of matriarch Lucille crashing an ocean liner. For the most part, season 4 felt like a fresh start, though, with the holdover being Michael's attempt to cash-in on the family's notoriety by producing a movie with Ron Howard (the show's narrator) directing. As you perhaps expect, the season is a mixed bag and not all of the storylines are equally as interesting, but I wouldn't say anything here is outright boring—if only because a good chunk of each episode plants seeds for the future, or crosses into a previous story and makes sense of a confusing moment from earlier in the run. Why is Gob's limo full of bees in the George Snr episode? You'll find out in the next episode.

For that reason alone I can understand why viewers may feel bewildered and underwhelmed for awhile, because it takes four episodes before things start taking definite shape and you realise how the writers are constructing a labyrinthine tale. Personally, I was very impressed by the complexity of plotting throughout, which is far more ambitious than anything Arrested has attempted before. I especially enjoyed seeing key events from a different character's perspective (sometimes a whole 10 episodes later), and it was fun whenever one character's story would deepen your understanding of something you've seen before.

To be frank, there were three stories I liked above the others: Michael trying to selfishly get his relations to sign the Bluth's lives away to his movie deal, while dating Ron Howard's mistress Rebel Alley (the excellent Isla Fisher), unaware she's actually his daughter; George-Michael's college years parodying The Social Network, where he also starts dating Rebel later on; Tobias's hilarious struggle trying to get a copyright infringing Fantastic Four musical made, while accidentally becoming a registered sex offender and finding love with recovering methadone addict DeBrie Bardeaux (the brilliant Maria Bamford); and Gob's machinations to embarrass rival magician Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller) which turns into a freakish gay romance.

The other stories were less interesting, but most still had merit and contained some very funny sequences: George Snr trying to get a wall built on the US/Mexico border; Lindsay undergoing spiritual enlightenment and starting a relationship with Marky Bark (Chris Diamantopoulos), an activist who can't discern human faces; Lucille's trial for her seafaring misdemeanour; Maeby masterminding her cousin George-Michael's career after he invents the as-yet-unwritten 'Fakeblock' software; and Buster rejoining the army as a Drone pilot, and later being given an oversized bionic hand.

One issue you can't deny about season 4 is that there perhaps isn't enough pay-off considering the commitment most people will have made sitting through hours of content in a short timespan. The final episode resolved a few issues, but mostly sets up more stories—to be told in either another series, or that long-awaited movie. I'm pleased this suggests Hurwitz is confident more Arrested will be made, even under present circumstances with cast members off doing other things, but it may have been nicer for season 4 to have told a self-contained story without so many loose ends. It wasn't a total frustration to me, but other people's tolerance may vary if they marathon the whole season and emerge bleary-eyed and without much resolution.

Overall, it has some obvious flaws and unavoidable issues that drag things down a touch, but for the most part Arrested Development picks up like it never went away; using most of its logistical disadvantages to its advantage. Although I have to mention this season has some very poor directing and editing at times, together with the occasionally awful sound-mixing, which sometimes gave the show an amateurish feel. I'm not sure what happened for production standards to drop at times, unless Hurwitz's plate was simply so overloaded something had to give.

These new episodes aren't as consistently funny as season 1-3, but the ambition has never been higher, and I found these instalments more rewarding than the bulk of season 3. Several years away from the Bluth's evidently gave Hurwitz a tangible thirst to have fun with them again, and the intricacy of the show and sheer amount of jokes puts most other sitcoms to shame. Above all else, it worked as both a celebration of the original run (with references to old jokes/scenarios, plus cameos from popular characters like lawyer Bob Loblaw, forgettable frump Ann Veal, and incognito P.I Gene Parmesan), but also moved the overall story forward and gave each character something worthwhile to do. I sincerely hope there are more chapters to come in the tale of the dysfunctional Bluth family, in whatever medium.

26 May 2013 / Netflix
4.1 "Flight of the Phoenix" (Michael) ★★½
4.2 "Borderline Personalities" (George Snr) ★★
4.3 "Indian Takers" (Lindsay) ★★
4.4 "The B. Team" (Michael) ★★½
4.5 "A New Start" (Tobias) ★★★
4.6 "Double Crossers" (George Snr) ★★½
4.7 "Colony Collapse" (Gob) ★★★½
4.8 "Red Hairing" (Lindsay) ★★½
4.9 "Smashed" (Tobias) ★★★½
4.10 "Queen B." (Lucille) ★★
4.11 "A New Attitude" (Gob) ★★★
4.12 "Señoritis" (Maeby) ★★½
4.13 "It Gets Better" (George-Michael) ★★½
4.14 "Off the Hook" (Buster) ★★★
4.15 "Blockheads" (George-Michael) ★★★