For a long time now, I have felt like my life has been leading up to a momentous event. Emerging from my first year of university? Entry level. Becoming a Proper Adult who can manage to not starve to death for 8 weeks at a time? EASY. Prelims? Give me a break.
What I’m talking about is a far bigger deal than any of these things. The pivotal, life-affirming occurrence I want to talk to you about happened to me on Sunday 26th May 2013.
Let me set the scene for you. The sun was shining and the birds were singing. My warm disposition matched the beautiful Oxford view outside my window, as I, radiant with new found happiness, blissfully rotted away in my bed for a good three hours, devouring the newly released Season 4 of Arrested Development like the television-dependent scumbag I am.
This was the moment TV fans had been waiting on for months (and, for some, even years): Arrested Development, a show which discerning critics routinely hail as the best sitcom of all time, returned with a lot of fanfare. The internet was abuzz with interviews, observations and infinite blog posts anticipating the new season, all 15 episodes of which were released simultaneously on the show’s new home, Netflix.
Season 4 offered a dramatic overhaul in terms of format (each episode focussed on a specific character). This felt jarring, especially when the old format, which put the level-headed Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) at every episode’s centre – allowing his backstabbing, money-grabbing family members to appear in more supporting roles – had worked so well.
Added to this was a running time up to ten minutes longer than the original series’ episodes, and a confusing, constantly criss-crossing narrative structure. All of this put together creates significant problems for something that should have worked beautifully.
But that’s not to say it isn’t funny. It’s really, really funny – none of the actors miss a beat, and the old running jokes (of which there are approximately a million) are seamlessly combined with new ones (my favourites are Lucille and Buster’s adoption of the phrase “hot mess”, and the overture of “The Sound of Silence” by Simon and Garfunkel during Gob’s more emotional moments).
The writing – structurally, at least – just doesn‘t feel quite as sharp as it used to; the prolonged running time renders proceedings sluggish; and the new, single character-focused format spotlights performances which are too grating to carry entire episodes.
The opener, focused on Michael, was great. Little meta-nods (like the change of the opening credits’ narration to “Now the story of a family whose future was abruptly cancelled”, and the fact that Michael’s phone calendar is stuck in 2003), combined with the revelation that the once reliable Michael Bluth is now as desperate as the rest of the family, are both comforting and intriguing. Also, Kristen Wiig as a young Lucille is perfectly cast – she’s hands down the season’s best guest star. Michael’s second episode fares similarly well: he is becoming much more selfish as a character and it’s funny to watch him turning into a real Bluth. Also, narrator Ron Howard becomes a recurring character. It’s meta.
Elsewhere, Gob, Maeby, Lucille, Buster and George Michael all had stellar episodes, even if the structure did at times (read: always) feel muddled. Gob’s second episode, during which he falls in love with his bitter rival, Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller) is probably the highlight of the season (although Buster’s installment was also fantastic – Tony Hale’s brattish screams of “MOTHER” alone were enough to cement that – so I’m not 100% decided). The actors who play these characters, especially Will Arnett, who is pathetic, sinister and hilarious as Gob, are properly wonderful to watch, and the strength of the characters they play – testament to their respective performances – makes their episodes feel less clunky than those of weaker characters.
My favourite moments were the resurrection of Lucille’s old exagerrated wink, the giant “HER?” above the heads of Gob and Ann’s wedding guests, the confusion over Maeby’s “FROM: GANGIE 4: FACELIFT” cheque, Michael and Gob’s fight in a children’s ball pit, and George Michael’s return from a year in Spain as an “OS (Overtly Sexual)” male. All of this, and much more, was brilliantly executed.
Sadly, the funny doesn’t extend to the entire season. George Sr., Lindsay and Tobias all had two episodes each, but this was too much for characters to whom maybe seven to fifteen minutes of screen time (sometimes less) was given per episode in the original series, and who are prime examples of excellent ensemble members who just don’t warrant the focus of entire half-hour segments. Some of the runnings gags still made me smile (Tobias, clad in body paint and Never Nude cutoffs, exclaiming “I just blue myself for the first time in five years!” was perfect), and Mad Men’s John Slattery was a very welcome addition to George Sr.’s two installments, but in general, these six episodes feel weak and bloated compared with the rest.
Arrested Development was a mixed bag fourth time around. Though the show must be commended for constantly pioneering at the boundaries of the traditional sitcom format, it sometimes felt like it had to sacrifice some of its blistering pace and unforgiving comic style for this to happen. That said, hearing the old jokes again was quite a thrill and it’s rumoured that an AD movie is to follow shortly. Between now and then, all we can do is wait – so fire up your Cornballers, take to the Seaward, and shout “COME ON!” into the wind as you rewatch this most rewatchable of sitcoms for the thousandth time.