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Thursday, May 30, 2013

Review: Arrested Development, Season 4

Arrested Development, Season 4
Grade: B
Verdict: This season is ambitious, and in many ways ground-breaking, but occasionally crumbles under the burden of its concept. Season 4 focuses on individual characters rather than a group ensemble, making for a less consistent viewing experience and resulting in both some of the highest and lowest points for the show. Like any season of Arrested Development, it also benefits from compounding references and jokes, resulting in a more satisfying experience in the latter half of the season and upon repeated viewings.

Arrested Development will always hold a special place in my heart. I've probably seen every episode ten times, and the show's jokes only run deeper and and become more intricate with each viewing. It's also always been a very self-referential show; Arrested builds a rich library of long-running gags and inside jokes, and as such it's best appreciated in second and third viewings. It turns out the long-anticipated season 4 of the series is much of the same, but for some very different reasons. 

Ever since the third season ended, the show's cult-like fanbase has been craving a movie. And in some ways, that might have worked a lot better. Several of the actors have gone on to have successful careers post-Arrested, and with such a large ensemble, scheduling everyone to film a complete series was nearly impossible, according to creator Mitch Hurtwitz. This means a full season of the type of Arrested episodes we're used to was out of the question; instead, Hurwitz decided to create unique storylines for each character, assuming they all went their separate ways after the third season. There are a few key dates and meetings where the family gathers, but each character primarily carries his or her own plot, occasionally intersecting or completely colliding with another's. 

Even with the separate plots, the limited on-screen interaction was still too ambitious to schedule. As a result, Hurwitz says about half of the scenes were created by green-screening characters so they appeared to be talking to each other in the same place. Technically, this is pulled off beautifully; I never noticed glaring green screen backgrounds or editing flaws. From an acting perspective, though, I thought this was the most damaging aspect of the new series. I found myself repeatedly distracted by the wooden or unnatural acting in one-on-one conversations; later I realized these conversations were most likely green-screened, which prevented the actors from feeding off of one another and improving. The chemistry this group of actors has is probably the best part of this show, and taking that away pulls out some of that hidden magic that made it so successful.

Fortunately, this season of Arrested isn't relying on recapturing that magic or using the same formulas that worked so well in the past, and this is where the show both redeems and damages itself. This season was written for Netflix; not in the sense that Netflix ordered it, but in the sense that the writers tried to take advantage of new technology (streaming services, all episodes dropped simultaneously). Hurwitz's vision for the series was lofty, and not completely actualized: What if you could watch a group of characters have a conversation, and then choose who to follow out of the room? What if you could pick up particular threads as you pleased, moving freely in and out of plots and without a focus on chronological order? 

The show never quite gets there, and we are confined to individual episodes that must be watched in a particular order. But it gets awfully close; close enough to not only understand but also admire the concept. It's not hard to imagine that the way we consume television and media will look completely different in a decade, and I think this show could easily be cited as an example of how writers took advantage of that new technology in its formative years.

Because of this high-concept, plot-heavy approach, the new season of Arrested isn't for everyone. The show's always been a dense one, but this season is dense not only in Easter eggs and inside jokes, but in plot. It's complex, at times hard to follow, and definitely requires 2-3 episodes of "warm up" time. It also lacks the personal interaction and chemistry from the cast that everyone's come to love. 

The structure of this season really puts a magnifying glass on each character and actor. On a character level, one of the most striking things about season 4 is how irredeemable every character is. George Michael and Maeybe are no longer innocent children, Michael is no longer the competent one holding everyone together, etc. The third season ended with a bit of hope that Michael would escape his family and the burden their dysfunction caused. Instead, he's become his father, and George Michael is slowing turning into Michael.

Overall I thought Tobias, GOB, and Michael's stories were the most solid. I've actually gone back and re-watched these episodes in order of the arc, and I've found viewing them that way more satisfying. Unfortunately some of the high moments in those episodes are offset by some of the lowest lows we've seen in the series - most markedly in George Senior's episodes and in a few Lindsay moments. These are characters that work well as supporting roles, but aren't interesting or compelling enough to carry the leading role. The lowest point, for me, was Episode #2 - George Senior's first episode. Watching the characters green screen with one another is hard enough, but watching George and Oscar constantly interact was downright difficult. 

On the flip side, Tobias and GOB's episodes belong right at the top of any "Best of" list for this series. From "A New Start/ANUSTART" to "Get Away, Getaway..." the series created some of the best long-running gags and delivered the kind of quality comedy we've come to expect from the show. 

On that note, I'll leave you with my ranking of the story lines, from favorite to least favorite:

The Tobias episodes: #5 A New Start  & #9 Smashed 
The GOB episodes: #7 Colony Collapse & #11 A New Attitude 
The Michael episodes #1 Flight of the Phoenix & #4 The B. Team 
The Buster Episode #14 Off the Hook 
The Maeybe Episode #12 Senioritis 
The Lucille Episode #10 Queen B 
The George Michael Episodes #13 It Gets Better & #15 Blockheads
The Lindsay Episodes #3 Indian Takers & #8 Red Hairing 
The George Sr Episodes #2 Borderline Personalities & #6 Double Crossers

The show also ends with a lot of unanswered questions and loose threads. The final episode doesn't even feel like a cliffhanger so much as just another episode in an unfinished season. That does imply, though, that a follow-up season or movie is in the works...!

What did everyone else think?
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  1. Finally finished season 4. It definitely begs for a re-watch. I had a hard time with this season as a TON of the jokes fell flat, particularly the moments between Michael and George Michael, and anything that comes out of Ron Howard's mouth.

    I do believe that the season will hold up much better in the second (third, fourth) viewing. The latter half of the season was much more enjoyable, as we see how all of the pieces fall into place. Hopefully the whole thing is entertaining now that I have figured out what the story is all about.

    Is this the order you recommend watching the episodes in for my next time around? Thanks!!

  2. I think it'd be interesting to watch each arc in order, ie each Michael set, each gob, etc. I tried a few this way and liked it better


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