‘Arrested Development’ Season 4 review: A chore to watch and a delight to decrypt

May 29, 2013

By now, you know everything.

You have watched every episode of the first three seasons of “Arrested Development.”

You have swallowed Netflix’s bonus fourth season without chewing. You have tried to wash it down with honey from the hive mind. You have begun to gag.

The new season started streaming early Sunday morning. The professional recappers picked it apart almost instantly, littering the Internet with twitticisms. Superfans got exactly what we wanted but still felt bereft — a psychological symptom of 21st-century existence, as well as a fitting response to the sitcom that best satirizes this now-teenaged era.

The first two seasons of “Arrested Development,” which aired on Fox from 2003 to 2005, ennoble the medium of television. The 22-minute episodes are tart, fizzy escapades following a family of entitled Californians whose real estate wealth evaporates after the patriarch (genius Jeffrey Tambor) is jailed for defrauding investors. The show, with its tic-laden characters and top-shelf storytelling, was a bonfire of inanities. It exulted in its inside jokes. It embraced verbal artistry and narrative footnoting. It drew energy from the awful gravity that binds even the most combative families. Above all, it trusted the intelligence and vigilance of its handful of viewers; we, in turn, took possession of this overlooked masterpiece in order to feel superior to the rest of America, which was making “Two and a Half Men” a No. 1 show.


Jessica Walter and Jeffrey Tambor in “Arrested Development.” (Sam Urdank/Netflix)

“Arrested Development” was five years ahead of its time. Its meme-ability predated the rise of the meme. Its parodies of 1 percenters and malfeasant corporations were 1,000 news cycles ahead of the subprime mortgage crisis and the Olympic debut of Rafalca. The metastatic third and final network season, which wrapped in early 2006, thumbed its nose at the mundane forces that brought about its demise: modest viewership, fleeing advertisers and fickle TV executives. Each would soon be immaterial to a series’ distribution and survival.

Thus we have arrived, seven years later, at the Internet resurrection of a beloved television series whose cult has since expanded into a major religion. And we are faced with two questions — one as old as consciousness, the other as new as Netflix Instant.

Do great expectations sabotage greatness?

No, but they can distort it.

Can a binge on fudge-rich, instant-order entertainment truly nourish us?

Yes, but only with a proper digestif. Here’s one, on the rocks:

The new 15-episode season of “Arrested Development” is staggering in its ambition, surgical in its execution and diabolical in its conclusion. It’s a chore to watch and a delight to decrypt. Its overwhelmingness contributes to its initial underwhelmingness. But in time, with a moment to reflect, it begins to feel like the fullest and fraughtest expression of its form.

It is, in a perverse way, the “Ulysses” of sitcoms.

First, its ambition. Even as it undermines its own pretension with pratfalls and vulgarities, Season 4 is a brazen attempt to map the thorny overlap between human isolation and human interdependence. The prideful ego of family good guy Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman at his wits’ end), the slothful id of his older brother Gob (Will Arnett at his oiliest), the bizarre compulsions of family members around them — every character flaw is exaggerated into malfunction for the sake of conflict.

But instead of broadening their cleverness for a wider audience, show creator Mitchell Hurwitz and his crackerjack writers have sharpened it, further carving out the transactional, deceitful nature of the Bluths’ relationships. The heavy viewing experience feels literary, not cinematic. Its meta-ness calls to mind novelist Italo Calvino, for whom the digesting of a story was sometimes part of the story itself.

As long as we’ve got our literature degrees out, shall we make a comparison between infantile Bluth son Buster (the American treasure Tony Hale) and Benjy Compson of “The Sound and the Fury”? Or impose the broken-circle theme in Virginia Woolf’s “The Waves” on Gob’s spiraling self-medication with date-rape drugs (the phrase “Life is a roofie circle” appears in Episode 12)? Perhaps that’s going too far, but Episode 12 also uses a blood spatter to make a “Liza with a ‘Z’” reference. Absurdity is the ambition here.

Second, its execution. To create a jigsawed landscape of familial strife, Hurwitz and his writers use nine characters’ perspectives, eight hours of screentime, and Newport Beach’s “Cinco de Cuatro” celebration (instead of James Joyce’s Dublin walkabout) as a cauldron of character overlap. The show’s belly-laugh density has decreased in reverse proportion to its plot acrobatics, thematic echoes and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it jokes. Quiet references are made to “stimmy” money, for example, and the show trusts us to understand that this is the family’s term of endearment for federal stimulus funds the Bluth company received.

Season 4 is a fugue, not a symphony. To detail the plot would lead to madness. Suffice to say: While the first three seasons of “Arrested Development” drew topical inspiration from the U.S. invasion of Iraq, the fourth season hinges on building a fence along the U.S.-Mexico border. At its core, “Arrested Development” is about compensating for avoidable mistakes, retaliating against nonexistent threats and exploiting both scenarios for personal profit. It’s also about obliviousness (see: Bluth daughter Lindsay) and denial (see: her husband Tobias) and how both conditions are amplified by the narcissism of living outside one’s means (see: Bluth matriarch Lucille, played with vodka in her veins by the magnificent Jessica Walter).

Third, its conclusion. The series’ beating heart has always been the relationship between well-meaning Michael Bluth and his lovable son George Michael (Michael Cera, world-class stammerer). Season 4 addresses head-on the father’s habit of, well, arresting the son’s development, and the resulting confrontation in the final episode serves as a surprising climax. Up until that point, the show had always wink-winked its way out of tricky, serious moments. With one last-minute punch, though, “Arrested Development” tacks a stern asterisk to its playful saga: In our own ways, we are all monsters.

There is much more to like and dislike. Yes, Season 4 gets tangled in its own contrivances. Yes, it is fatty and over-narrated (by executive producer Ron Howard, who has the last laugh). Yes, its ambition inspires tortured criticism that tries to Explain It All.

But its zaniness is exuberant, its complexity awesome, its modality ineluctable. Pop culture is approaching its own singularity, in which our entertainment experience is Borg-like, in which we gorge instead of savor, in which assimilation is paramount, in which we need to know everything instantly. “Arrested Development” has paddled farther into the deep end, away from a world that had finally caught up with it. May it always be slightly beyond the reach of our hooks.

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