Wednesday, May 29, 2013

For Netflix Eyes Only: Arrested Development Returns

Jason Bateman returns as Michael Bluth in the new season of Arrested Development, now available on Netflix

Francine (to Stan): Are you still moping about Steve? Come on. He's just going through a phase. It's like Steve is America and you're Arrested Development. It doesn't mean you're bad, it just means he's not interested in you.
American Dad Season 2, Episode 15 (aired May 7, 2006, three months after Arrested Development’s cancellation)
 
What a difference seven years makes. Running for just three, ever-shortening seasons, Arrested Development (Fox, 2003-2006) was an innovative take on the traditional broadcast sitcom, finding a dedicated but too small audience when it first aired. The show was comedically loose and narratively tight: full of visual puns, interwoven storylines, deadpan deliveries and dark consequences, with many of its funniest gags taking weeks if not years to play out completely. The ensemble cast was pitch perfect, from the young Michael Cera as George Michael Bluth, to the veteran Jeffrey Tambor (The Larry Sanders Show) as his “Pop-Pop” George Sr. and Jessica Walter (Archer) as the passive and not so passive aggressive Bluth matriarch, to Tony Hale’s perennial man-child ‘Buster’.

Arrested Development has long been for me the gold standard of our new era of “continuity comedy”, along with the early (and only the early) seasons of CBS’s How I Met Your Mother. Like How I Met Your Mother, Arrested was a series that hit the ground running, absolutely confident of the rules of its narrative universe and the people that populated it. You can witness all of Arrested Development’s potential in its opening minutes, which lay out the tone and even some of the running jokes for years to come. Re-watching the original series is actually a special delight, as increased familiarity with the characters' past and future histories only deepens the enjoyment.

Critical acclaim couldn’t trump its struggling ratings however, and Fox pulled the plug on the show in 2006. But like many cancelled-too-soon shows in this age of DVD box sets and streaming channels, the years have been kind to the series, further expanding its audience and growing its reputation to near legendary proportions. A year after Fox cancelled the show, Time Magazine put it in its “The 100 Best TV Shows of All-TIME" list. And in 2011, IGN named it the funniest television show of all time (edging out Monty Python’s Flying Circus and Seinfeld for the top spot). Rumours of a new season or even a reunion movie floated around for years, until November 2011, when Netflix and Arrested creator Mitch Hurwitz confirmed their intentions to bring the series back, along the entire original cast and crew, for a new, exclusive fourth season. These, to be sure, are very large shoes to fill (even if they are their own).
 
Jefrrey Tambor and Jessica Walter in Arrested Development Season 4

This past Sunday, May 26, Arrested Development finally returned with a complete fourth season, exclusively for Netflix subscribers. Before the day ended, I had watched all fifteen episodes. All across the world Netflix subscribers were doing the same thing. (Recent data indicates that 10 percent of Netflix users watched the entire season on Sunday, merrily exceeding Mitch Hurwitz’s own opinion on what a recommended daily allowance should be.) As overwhelming (and unhealthy!) as this may sound, I should emphasize, it was a rather good day. With over 8 hours of air-time (episodes ranged from 27 to 37 minutes in length), the new season is slightly longer than a 22-episode regular broadcast season, and longer still than the full extended cuts of all Lord of the Rings films running back to back. It is also, to my mind, an equally epic narrative experience, and certainly more fun by a factor of 10.

Hurwitz and Netflix promised the new season would take advantage of the new distribution model to tell a new kind of story. And it certainly does. Unlike the earlier seasons, each episode takes a single character as its focus (“This is Maeby’s Arrested Development”). The focused telling also brings with it a new addictive quality, ideally suited to the streaming model – Season Four is essentially one long story revealed through multiple threads and perspectives. Each of the season’s episodes spans roughly the same period, which means that we regularly return to a number of key moments of those intervening years: the scenes just after the Queen Mary hijacking which closed season three, Lucille’s subsequent trial under maritime law (itself a wonderful homage to Michael’s longstanding enthrallment with the law of the sea), and most dramatically to the tumultuous “Cinco de Quatro” carnival which brings us closest to the present era. These refrains mainly work as I imagine they were designed to: enjoyable and meaningful scenes in themselves, but further deepening in plot and density with every return. (Out of kindness to those who have yet to watch all the new episodes, I’m deliberately keeping details to a minimum here, since the reveals – when they come – are some of the season’s best moments.)

Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat
Not quite Rashomon in its impact or ambition, there is nevertheless a spiral staircase feel to the narrative. It is not so much a philosophical reflection on subjective experience as an ever-widening field of vision, as the camera pulls back to take in more of what’s already happening. Elements of individual scenes develop as the season progresses, sometimes answering small mysteries (where did Michael get the black eye, what’s happening with Lindsay’s hair, and what's with all those ostriches?), but more often adding to or inverting situations that already made complete sense the first time around. Broken free of the structural constraints of the broadcast model, the new season tells one long, albeit layered and complicated, story over its eight hours, ultimately taking you through a beginning, middle and surprisingly powerful ending.

The talk among critics, Arrested Development diehards, and the blogosphere at large seems to be that the new season is a bit of a disappointment, but speaking from the perspective of this viewer, there's a lot there to love. And I did: that eight-hour stretch was the most painless television binge I've ever experienced, and I thought that the risks the show took for the most part paid off, at times brilliantly.

As many of the critics point out, the new season isn’t simply a return to the form of the original series – and that for me is the largest part of its charm. Unlike Family Guy and Futurama, two other famously-cancelled Fox series which returned from extinction (the former to Fox itself and the latter to the Cartoon Network), Arrested Development is a live-action comedy. Animated series – it is perhaps needless to say in this 24th season of The Simpsons! – can hold fast to a strict formula and come and go for years. But the seven-year gap between Season Three and Four needed to be dealt with, not least because Michael Cera isn’t the springy 17-year-old he was way back in 2006 when we last saw George Michael. And Mitch Hurwitz and the gang brought some big guns back to the table – all the old guns, behind and in front of the camera, and some new ones to boot.

The returning main cast is uniformly excellent. And the large guest cast is full of surprises, with some great flashback scenes to a young George and Lucille (played by Seth Rogen and SNL alum Kristen Wiig) and Henry Wrinkler’s real life son Max playing a young Barry Zuckerkorn, the Bluth’s terrible lawyer. (Winkler himself returns as the present day Zuckerkorn.) Justin Grant Wade returns as Steve Holt ("STEVE HOLT!"), though you may barely recognize him with a bald cap giving him a receding hairline and the running joke that he's aged beyond his years. (That gag actually proved a little distracting to me, and his scenes with Will Arnett’s G.O.B. are admittedly not the series at its best.) Terry Crews turns as a Herman Caine-inspired politician is spot-on. And Mae Whitman’s mousy Ann Veal returns, with a literal vengeance. And on the subject of prematurely cancelled shows, the third episode, guest featuring half the South Asian cast of NBC’s Outsourced, was an extra-special treat for me.

David Cross and Portia de Rossi
One understandable critique of the new season is that the Bluths have scattered, in the events following the end of the third season, and, as a result, the ensemble cast is very rarely together in the same room at the same time. (The new season repeatedly drives home this fact with a running gag of empty chairs with cast photos stuck to them.) In fact, only one character – appropriately enough Michael (Jason Bateman) – appears in all fifteen episodes. And this is, to be clear, something rather different, as earlier episodes depended a lot on the interactions of the entire ensemble as well as the particular frustrations of the always levelheaded Michael. So a caveat to the committed fanbase: there are no full-cast chicken dances in Season Four. But, to be honest, why retread the same ground? New constraints bring new creative possibilities. The 22-minute episode and contract commitments of its network run gives way the more flexible air time of internet streaming and to new and different contract issues, bringing with them new possibilities. It is, after all, these same constraints that lead to some of the best scenes of the season: specifically, the game of ‘liar’s chicken’ Michael and George Michael engage in over multiple voicemails, or how Jeffrey Tambor (as George Sr. and his twin brother Oscar) hilariously plays opposite himself for two episodes, demonstrating how much can be done when the right people are behind and in front of the camera.

Part of the brilliance of the original Arrested Development came from its tweaking of one of the unwritten rules of classic TV comedy: characters can’t learn, grow or develop from their experiences. (Consider Jack Tripper forever misconstruing overhead conversations and poor Bart Simpson, wearing the same t-shirt since 1989.) Arrested – for all its ambitions into deep backward continuity – took this norm to the extreme. The family dynamics set out in the opening minutes of the series never shifted, and if they developed in any way it was only to flesh out, largely through an exploration of their dysfunctional family history, the compelling reasons for that stasis. (This is one of the many meanings of the show’s title: the Bluth family is as stuck in their ways as their Sudden Valley housing project.) And we see a lot of the same here in the fourth season, especially in the hilarious Tobias (David Cross) storyline. But for others– George and Oscar, Michael, George Michael, G.O.B., Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and even Lucille – there is actual movement, though not always in a positive direction, and even (heaven forefend!) possible moments of self-knowledge. All of this builds up to the final scenes of the fifteenth episode which have a genuine and uncharacteristic emotional force. This is new, but it’s also rather great. Ambitious storytelling is always welcome, however it makes its way to our living rooms. The new season is more than merely a complicated exercise in visual storytelling (which of course it also is!): it’s also one long, rich story that actually gets somewhere. What that now “uncancelled” future will look like, only time will tell.

For all the creative power at work in the show, the fact of instantaneous worldwide distribution is perhaps worth pausing on, even if we may quickly grow used to it. As streaming content becomes more and more prevalent, the rise of original programming takes the new technology to a different level. (Like Netflix, both Amazon Instant Video and Hulu Plus have begun producing original programming.) As with its successful House of Cards and last year’s Lilyhammer, Netflix owns the material, which means no international rights management issues and no delays for non-American audiences. For a Canadian long frustrated by the appalling differences between US and Canadian Netflix content, this in itself is a delight.

Rumours of a follow-up film continue to fly around, though personally I’d prefer a fifth season in the same style to an Arrested Development feature film. In the meanwhile, join me while I queue up the fourth season for a second time.


Mark Clamen is a writer, critic, film programmer and lifelong television enthusiast. He lives in Toronto, where he often lectures on television, film, and popular culture.

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