I somehow wound up writing a lot more about Arrested Development than I had expected, but held off on deciding what I thought about the fourth season, for reasons I went into in those earlier posts. But in the end, I should probably have the guts to make a judgment. So here it is: I didn’t like it, didn’t think it got better as it went along, and don’t think it’s a very good show any more. Arrested Development on Fox was a terrific show. Arrested Development on Netflix is, in my opinion, a poor one.
When I say it didn’t get better as it went along, I don’t mean some episodes weren’t better than others. In particular, the next-to-last episode, focusing on Buster, had some funny ideas and some attempts at reviving the political commentary of the original. But all the episodes had the same problem consistently from beginning to end: every idea, good or bad, was stretched out too long. The scenes all go on past the point where you know the point they’re trying to make. And then they’re repeated in other episodes from other points of view, and the unpleasantness of seeing the scenes again
does not make up for is not made up for by whatever little connections are revealed between them.
Many of my other problems can probably be traced to the budget and scheduling issues, but not all of them. The fact that the narrator never shuts up, or that the show is slathered in background music to an extent that might make the producers of Pushing Daisies blush, may have something to do with the need to fix these scenes in editing; narration and music are the easiest crutches to lean on when trying to save a slow scene. But the glacial pace wasn’t a necessary outgrowth of the one-character-per-episode format. It’s more that they had about one movie’s worth of story and chopped it up into slow, barely-resolved episodes, instead of doing short, satisfying character vignettes. There’s no reason why an episode focusing on one character can’t be at least funny, if it has a plot that is not padded out to 35 minutes, and if the guest characters are interesting. That didn’t happen here. And I think the callback jokes tend to be substitutes for actual jokes, which are generally not very good this time around (and have a disturbing tendency to lean on references that have already been beaten into the ground, or easy stereotypes, or any of the other ways in which this version of Arrested Development isn’t any better-written than Ousourced).
Most of all, though, the whole season confirmed my worst fear, that Hurwitz was so obsessed with the nonexistent Arrested Development movie that he would deny us any sense of resolution, or even a point, in these single-character episodes. Without giving too much away, large portions of the season seem like an push for the movie that may never be made, and the whole season is essentially telling us that if we want to see the characters redeemed, we’ll have to let them make a movie. The idea is to reduce every character to his or her lowest point, so that they can all reunite and become a family again when the budget and schedule allows it. Even if there was going to be a movie, this would be weak writing. As it is, it ranks somewhere with the U.S. version of The Killing: a padded-out story that doesn’t even give us a catharsis.
I suppose this will place me in the category of people who just don’t get what the show is trying to do, a category I’m happy to be in. Already, as I said before, there’s some breakdown between people who see this as a new paradigm, a revolution against traditional ideas of entertainment (which I’d believe more if Hurwitz didn’t want to make the most conventional thing of all, a feature film). I’ve already seen, on one message board, Fox executive Preston Beckman pilloried as a dinosaur of old media because he doesn’t like the new episodes and doesn’t think much of Netflix’s claims to having created a new paradigm. This, apparently, makes him an old-fashioned guy who’s bitter that his network let this gem get away. More likely he just doesn’t think it’s as good as it was when he and other executives were giving notes and making it conform to TV convention. And I agree.
There’s also going to be some breakdown between people who prefer darkness and people who don’t. The new season is, by design – and to make us long for that movie – much darker than the original; the characters don’t have each other and aren’t really a family, and sink very low. Since I think there’s much more artistry in doing what the original did, and making a light comedy about dark subjects, I can’t enthuse about that either. That the show now wears its darkness on its sleeve is a sign of its artistic decline; it’s another show that replaces subtext with text and thinks this is an improvement. Dark is easy. Callbacks are fairly easy. (And a number of the callbacks are based around the easiest things of all: puns.) Making a lighthearted show that doesn’t shy away from darkness, and writing good jokes that don’t depend on familiarity with some other episode, are the hard things that better shows than the current Arrested Development – like, say, most of them – are accomplishing every week.
Finally, I just don’t care for the execution of the show. I’m not talking about the budget, though they clearly did not have enough money. It’s perfectly possible to make a good-looking show on a minimal budget; Louie has proven that. This show just looks drab, with clumsy editing and sound mixing, and (like I said) obvious over-reliance on narration and music to try and distract attention from the slow pacing.
Right now I’m a little bit afraid to revisit the original Arrested Development, but I know that it will remain as good as ever even if this is the last we ever see of these characters. (Again, I don’t believe there will actually be a movie, and even if there is, it’s pretty cynical and crass of Hurwitz to make a season pretending that there will definitely be one.) It’s silly to take it personally when I don’t like a batch of TV episodes, but it’s hard not to do so. The original series was terrific – even season 3, which season 4 partisans are arguing was inferior to the current batch (it’s not, in any way). Seeing the same characters become unfunny, and similar joke ideas become flabby and poorly executed, feels like it somehow tarnishes the legacy, but it doesn’t.
And while there are a some things I don’t like about Hurwitz – such as everything he’s done since 2006 – I also should not blame him for the fans who are saying that this is a new model, breaking the rules, you dinosaurs just don’t get it, man. That will eventually wear off, as it usually does, and the show will be evaluated for what it is. Since no one will ever choose this particular format for a TV series out of anything other than necessity (I can see someone coming along to create a real TV season that has more interlocking stories and points of view, but that’s not the same thing), arguments over the format are almost a red herring.
The writers didn’t choose this form because the way we consume media is changing, they chose it because this was a way to deal with the fact that the cast wasn’t together. And if they were together… I think many of the problems would still be the same. Now, if they had executives on their tails forcing them to cut the episodes down to 20 minutes, make the scenes punchier, eliminate redundancy and not go too dark, that would help. The original Arrested Development, like most good TV shows, was not a product of a creative genius shackled by network restrictions. It was a product of everything that went into it. And yes, that includes network notes.
Update: When I wrote the above, I didn’t see that Mitch Hurwitz had already weighed in with the classic defense used by the very defensive: “The viewers and the critics have traded places. They’re resisting change – you’re fighting for it.” The idea that bad reviews come from people who are resistant to change is common, and overlooks the classic fact: while truly brilliant and innovative work sometimes breaks rules, truly bad work always breaks rules.