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The new, Netflix-exclusive fourth season of Arrested Development is now available for streaming. It has been … not so good thus far. I am just over halfway through this experimental fourth season, and while my feelings could change after seeing it together as a finished product, right now a part of me is wondering why they even bothered with this at all. Episodes have ranged from downright awful (both of George, Sr.’s eps) to terrible (Michael’s and Lindsey’s first eps) to passable (Tobias) to pretty good (Gob). Nothing has so far been nearly as funny as anything in the original three seasons of the show, however. The writing has been dense and layered like it was in the original run, but it just isn’t as clever or as funny (or as concise story-wise) as it was the first time around. Callbacks and celebrity cameos are also numerous and distracting. While the fourth season of Arrested Development hasn’t been a total failure, it is an outright disappointment thus far for me.
The brand-new season is, however, not without its apologists and staunch defenders online. I have read many passionate defenses of the fourth season of the show. I will say right off the bat – that is ok. Comedy is perhaps the most subjective of art forms. What someone else finds funny might be totally different than what I find funny. I have no problem with this whatsoever. I have found the split on the newest season of the show to be about 60% in favor and 40% more mixed – your experiences may vary from mine. What I do have a problem with, however, is seeing people continually apologizing for the low-points in the new season of the show. Why are these apologies necessary? Why should we cut the new Arrested Development season so much slack? It seems to me that if the show isn’t as good as it was before then we should be at least considering harshly criticizing it for the unnecessary bloat, sub-par jokes, and wild shifts in tone. If the show is outright bad (it isn’t), and I would argue that a few of the new episodes are pretty awful (though some have been delightful), then it deserves whatever criticism we heap upon it.
The following are a few excuses I have seen from people defending the weaker points of the new Arrested Development episodes:
1.) We should cut Arrested Development Season 4 some slack because it is breaking new ground.
But is it really, though? It is true that the fourth season is airing on Netflix, an online subscription-based streaming service, when the original series aired on Fox. But is it really “breaking new ground”? There have been original television series broadcast on the internet for years at this point. House of Cards, another Netflix original (though I hesitate to say AD is an “original” series – Netflix describes it as “semi” original), already debuted months ago. Hulu Plus and Amazon streaming services have done similar things as well, with Hulu recently beginning to stream a ton of British television shows exclusively online for American audiences. Furthermore, should we really cut something some slack simply because it is new? I’m not entirely convinced that we should. Just because something is new doesn’t mean it is beyond criticism. It is true that this is the first time a cancelled show has come back to air solely on the internet instead of broadcast television, but again is that an actual reason to shield it from criticism? I would argue no.
2). We should cut Arrested Development Season 4 some slack because it had a seven year hiatus, and hey, this is new Arrested Development so be happy you got anything at all!
If anything, a long absence should only raise expectations considerably. If anything, we should be pointing out that the creators/writers have had seven long years to write good jokes and concise stories for these beloved characters. If anything, we should be super mad that they did not do such a good job with this. If anything, is this not more of an argument for the why even bring it back at all, then crowd? From the beginning, Nick and I have been especially skeptical that Arrested Development would be able to come back and deliver the goods on par with the original run of the show. The first half of the new season doesn’t live up to the original run whatsoever, despite Hurwitz and crew having such a long time to put stories and jokes into place.
3). We should cut Arrested Development Season 4 some slack because they couldn’t get all the actors in one place at the same time so it’s not fair to hold that against it.
Umm, what? The interactions between the characters on the original run of the show were probably the best part of it outside of the dense and layered writing. For example, consider the subtle ways and differences in which Lucille treats each of her children as well as George, Sr. and Oscar. This is absolutely great stuff in both the acting and the writing. So why take something that makes up the bulk of why the show is good and then almost abandon it completely? The show hasn’t lost all of its good character interactions, but there is a notable lack of family scenes that runs deeply throughout the fourth season (by design in some cases), mostly in the Tobias, Lindsey, and George, Sr. episodes. I understand schedules are what they are, but again – why do it at all if you can’t do it the right way? It doesn’t help that needless cameos and guest appearances substitute for the missing interactions, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
4.) We should cut Arrested Development Season 4 some slack because there’s no way it could compare to the show’s original run.
I disagree with this wholeheartedly. The principle creative team behind the new season is largely the same behind the original run of the show. The creators had an opportunity here to show us that something like this could be done, and could be done right (sorry, Family Guy). Hurwitz and company have botched that almost entirely thus far. I can admire the ambition behind the project, and at the end of the day I’m glad they proceeded with this experiment just to say it was done, but when you can’t even get the tone of the original run of the show correct, you know something has gone deeply wrong. Again – at its highs (particularly the Gob episode), the fourth season of Arrested Development works pretty well. Unfortunately, a good percentage of the show just doesn’t hit the high notes, and I think it is totally fair to compare the new stuff to what came before.
I want to say again that I don’t think this new season is horrible. I think individual episodes run the gamut from awful to pretty good, as noted earlier. I really don’t want to be one of the people making excuses for the fourth season, either. So, as a rebuttal to what I find to be egregious defenses of the new season, I’ve decided to add a few criticisms that I feel are both fair and appropriate. Feel free to add your own criticisms or disagree with me completely in the comments.
1.) The show has, through eight episodes, relied far too much on cameos, guest actors, and stunt casting.
Poor Chris Diamantopoulos. The guy just can’t catch a break. After guest starring in Community’s ill-fated fourth season and the critically-maligned final season of The Office, Diamantopoulos is unfortunately cast in Arrested Development season four as Marky Bark, the son of a one-off character from season one of the show. He is also Lindsey Bluth’s love interest (because she’s on yet another split from Tobias). Unfortunately, Diamantopoulos is, simply put, wrong for the show. It isn’t entirely his fault – Diamantopoulos is a fine comic actor. The writing for the character is just horrible, and his character traits are just plain unfunny (he can’t see faces for reasons never really explained except to pile on the “Lindsey is vain” jokes). He has a few funny moments (such as mistaking Lindsey for someone else in a phone booth), but on the whole he just doesn’t work in the AD universe, exactly how he didn’t work in the Community or The Office universes either.
The biggest offenders (and really, the most baffling creative choice) as far as the cameos go have to be Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig, who are cast as the 1980s versions of Jeffrey Tambor’s George, Sr. and Jessica Walter’s Lucille. In previous seasons, Tambor and Walters played the younger versions of themselves with comically ridiculous wigs, and this worked fine for all involved (the low-budget film stock sometimes used in flashback scenes contributed to the comedy as well). For whatever reason, Rogen and Wiig have replaced the “younger” versions of the two in the fourth season. While Wiig has her moments (lording over young Buster’s “summer camp” was funny), the two largely just do not work whatsoever, particularly Rogen, who never seems comfortable in the role. At some points it feels like Rogen is attempting a Tambor impression, but then he’ll drop it almost as soon as it begins. Wiig is a talented, gifted comic actress, but her Lucille is just not the Lucille we’ve come to know and love – Walters owns the role (she, along with Will Arnett’s Gob, have always been AD’s MVPs).
Other celebrity cameos throughout season four range from awful (Karen Maruyama and John Slattery embarrasses themselves in largely unfunny roles in the dreadful George, Sr. eps) to just fine (Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, in a bit of meta stunt-casting, are pretty good in the Michael stories) to pretty good (Maria Bamford is great as Tobias’ love interest/junkie DeBrie Bordeaux, Andy Richter and his fictional four identical brothers return and get a few big laughs). Not surprisingly, the wide range of cameos and guest stars end up much like the quality of the episodes themselves – widely varying. The best thing to say in this regard is that around episode eight, things begin to feel a bit more natural and the bizarre cameo choices seem toned down a bit.
2.) The tone, rhythm, and overall style appropriate to Arrested Development are well off.
This is especially notable in the first Michael episode, both of the early George, Sr. episodes, and Lindsey’s first episode, though it is also somewhat troublesome in Tobias’s first episode as well. The comic timing doesn’t really hit its stride until maybe Michael’s second episode or Gob’s first episode (confused yet?). The problem here is that the story is so convoluted that it is hard to get a good feel for what is going on, which makes the situations just less funny overall. A second or even third viewing of the fourth season will help with this, but comedy should be funny initially as well. I can honestly say I made it through the first two entire episodes without laughing a single time. I did laugh during the third episode at something Tobias said, but that was the only time I laughed during the first 90 minutes of the new season. When Michael’s second episode came on, the show started to feel comfortable and natural again, but it should not have taken four episodes to do this, especially if they were written all at once.
I also noticed some really bizarre green-screening effects throughout the first chunk of new episodes. I imagine this was due to actor’s schedules being what they were, but they made the show seem incredibly strange and off-putting in certain places. It is very noticeable in the George, Sr. episodes (as well as a few other, scattered places), which does not help the George, Sr. storyline whatsoever – it only adds to the jarring nature of those bizarre, unfunny episodes. Additionally, while I liked the second Michael-centric episode, it was incredibly difficult to get over the fact that Michael is in such a bad place in season four. Michael was the straightest of straight men in the original run of the show, and the tone of his character is markedly off in the first episode. After he regains a sense of purpose (which is a convenience of the growing story, I realize), however, he begins to feel much more like the old Michael.
3.) Certain jokes and one-note character aspects have continued, and are not nearly as funny this time around.
One of the biggest issues I have had thus far with the new season of Arrested Development is that the show has featured far too much Lucille Austero for my liking. Austero, also known as Lucille 2, is a one-note character who was played out in season one and often the worst part of season two (the show’s all-time worst episode revolved around a Lucille 2 love triangle). I don’t mind Liza Minelli as an entertainer, but she has thus far dragged down season four a bit too much for me, especially considering her status as the de factor leader of what used to be called the Bluth Company, as well as her on-going political candidacy for a congressional seat (in what is so far the show’s least funny plot, even if it does mean Terry Crews is getting work). Everything I’ve said about Lucille 2 could also be applied to the maritime law stuff (which has been painfully unfunny) as well. Seriously, AD, we get it: Michael has a long history with maritime law. It just isn’t very funny or interesting.
Additionally, while I have enjoyed what the show has done with Tobias thus far in season four, I have to object to yet again splitting him and Lindsey up. I know this has to do, once again, with the scheduling just not working out, but I miss the Tobias/Lindsey dynamic, and we’ve gotten far too little of it so far. A few of the biggest laughs of the early episodes has been their neglect of Maeby, their daughter. I also have to object to the show’s continual use of the phrase “A New Start,” which when spelled and read out loud a bit differently takes on a whole new meaning. This is obviously an attempt to get Tobias another “Therapist/Analyst” moment, but the returns on it have been diminishing for me. If it sounds like I am being a bit too hard on old Tobias, rest assured – his episode was delightful, and probably the funniest one next to the Gob-centric ep. I just want him to interact with his family, which is what he does best.
I have incredibly high standards for anything with the name Arrested Development on it (sans the mid-90s hip hop group). The show is consistently rated as one of the funniest, best written television programs ever, and it is my second favorite television show of all time (after Seinfeld). This new season has been incredibly ambitious, and I am glad it exists. It has had its fair share of very funny moments (particularly after the first three dreadful episodes) thus far. The later episodes pick up considerable steam as the season progresses as well, even if the story isn’t as concise as I’d like it to be. Season four just doesn’t feel entirely like Arrested Development to me, however, and I think a fair amount of criticism is both expected and fully justified. I know it was pretty much impossible to catch lightning in a bottle once again, but I have to say that I still expected better than what has been so far delivered on. Please keep in mind that I don’t think this is the worst thing ever, and that I am only halfway through the fourth season. I hope it gets significantly better from here.