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Tuesday, June 11, 2013

TV Talk: ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, The Netflix Season

Despite being told for years that we really needed to watch Arrested Development, and even being given the first season of the show on DVD as a Christmas gift one year, we didn't take the bait until about a year ago--six years after its last episode aired. We never did get around to those DVDs, but my stepdaughter Kate shepherded us through the full run of the series on Netflix. Although this show lacks most of the characteristics that render something conventionally "lovable," we soon joined its deeply devoted, although never large, following, and loved it anyway. That following had been clamoring for a continuation of the story of the Bluth family almost since the day Arrested Development was cancelled; by the time we started watching, the plans for a long-delayed "fourth season" were already in the works.

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT, Season 4, via Netflix.com
All 15 of these new episodes were added to Netflix on Memorial Day weekend. Some fans watched them all straight through in one extended binge, some spread them over a few days, and some watched because they had to. Some watched the first few episodes, and then quit; some aren't sure they're even fans any more.

We watched all the episodes at the rate of two or three at a time over the course of about a week, and having stayed to the end, I understand why some people bailed before the halfway point. I'd suggest you pick it back up, though. The individual episodes get better, for one thing: but more importantly, a good deal of what's introduced early on comes back in later episodes--and with a better-established framework, it's a lot funnier when it does.

That makes sense, since one hallmark of Arrested Development's style of comedy was its callbacks and running gags. They're still there, but it takes a little more patience to get to them, largely because of the way this "season" is constructed. A major reason that it took so long for this followup to happen at all was the difficulty of reassembling the show's cast, which forced a different approach to storytelling. The storylines don't move forward in a smooth linear fashion, and there are only a very few scenes that include all of the original characters together; rather, each episode focuses on one Bluth (or Funke, if you count in Tobias and Maeby), joined by just one or two other family members and some new characters.

There are definitely weaknesses at the episodic level. Nearly every individual episode is longer than it should be for optimal comedy--32 to 37 minutes straight through, without commercials (although there are fake "act breaks" where they would go), is a little more of these people than we need in a single dose. Not having all of the core characters in every episode changes the chemistry from the original recipe, and not usually for the better. As I said earlier, this isn't a conventionally lovable sitcom, and it features some of the most fundamentally unlikable characters this side of Seinfeld--Season 4's structure reinforces just how unpleasant these people really can be.

All that said, AD's Netflix season is best considered as a whole rather than in parts. It's essentially founded on just a few events which are frequently revisited from different characters' perspectives, and that structure means that it makes more sense as a single work. While that single work is absorbed more easily a couple of pieces at a time, it's not really possible--or fair--to see it it that way if you don't see all of the pieces.

I'm glad I did. I might, eventually, do it again, and if you loved
AD's original three seasons, I recommend the Netflix season in full. And if you find it a not-completely-worthy followup, might I suggest giving its genuine spiritual successor, Archer, a try? Sterling Archer and Buster Bluth have the same mother. (And Archer's also available for catching up on Netflix.)