I have not seen all 15 episodes of Arrested Development season 4, which by some theories means I shouldn’t be commenting on it at all. Mike Hale of the New York Times panned it after watching 8 of the 15 episodes, which seems like a reasonable investment of time. But some of his commenters argued that he shouldn’t judge it until he sees how it all comes together at the end of the season, given that the new format is built around layers of story and jokes that make more sense with every episode. I don’t think people actually have to watch the whole season to judge what they’ve seen; a good episode is a good episode, and a bad episode doesn’t become good if it pays off later. (If a novel has a really bad patch, but is good as a whole, we will not look back on those bad chapters fondly because they were necessary to set up the ending. It just meant that the author or editor couldn’t cut them out, because they were necessary to the plot. But they’re still weak parts, just as a great season of a TV series will always have some weak episodes in it.) Still, this is a new form – one born of budget and scheduling necessity, but a lot of new forms are – and I’ll admit that the rules for evaluating it may turn out to be different from what we’re used to.
I also feel I have to be careful in making up my mind about the new episodes, so this isn’t a review and probably wouldn’t be even if I had already seen the whole series; this is one of those things I’ve probably got to watch twice. Partly because I’ve been a bit openly skeptical of the project ever since this one-character-per-episode format was announced. Some say that going in with lowered expectations makes you more easily pleased, but don’t you believe it. Yes, lowered expectations mean that certain things did not surprise me – the moments of clunky editing, the characters acting a lot with the back of stand-ins’ heads, the slightly rushed tone of a lot of Ron Howard’s narration. But I think you need to be in a good mood to laugh a lot, and lowered expectations are just as unfair to a comedy as unreasonably high expectations. Moreover, the point of the lowered expectations is simply that this cannot be the original series. And that’s true, it can’t; this is just not the original series. The question is, is it good for what it is, as a reunion or revival or spinoff or whatever you want to call it?
The form of the show is basically that this is one big reunion episode, split into individual-character vignettes. If the cast had been available all at the same time, their stories would have been intertwined within episodes, and each episode would have advanced the story of a few characters. Since that wasn’t possible, the hope is to use callbacks where the original series would have used linear storytelling progression. By seeing how each episode is tied in with the ones we’ve seen before, we’re supposed to feel like we’ve watched one big story instead of a bunch of little ones. Whether that works is something I probably won’t know until episode 15.
What we can discuss, no matter how few or how many episodes we’ve seen (and as many people have noted, the problem with this Netflix season-at-once release format is that no one knows which episodes it’s safe to discuss without spoiler alerts), is that the family isn’t together, and that’s… well, that’s what defines the entire season. The actors were available when they were available, and that dictated the format. It also dictated the subtext of the episodes, which seems to be that the individual family members are searching for individual fulfilment, but can’t find it because they really belong together.
And it also probably contributes to the pervasive darkness of the season. The original show, even without the little moral lessons at the end of most episodes, was somewhat festive; it was, after all, a light comedy about dark things. The fact that the characters had each other, and were happier with each other than without, lent a certain joy to everything. Now the characters don’t have each other, and we tend to see them either alone or interacting with strangers. This would naturally make the show a less lighthearted experience. And, of course, the new show could never be as funny as the old, because the comedy came from character interactions, and there are fewer of those.
For all the complexity of the original, it was still a network sitcom, where the auteur was not only Mitch Hurwitz but the network. (The Fox network at the time practically had the patent on that aggressively quirky, cynical-sentimental style, and several creators, including Hurwitz and Linwood Boomer, did more unusual work for the network than they had done for any other. Arrested Development owes almost as much to the network of The Bernie Mac Show and Malcolm in the Middle as it does to Hurwitz’s personal style.) And the episodes had to follow certain rules of storytelling, interaction and resolution. The show is not better off for the lack of network constraints, but it couldn’t bring them back even if the writers wanted to. The fact that the show really belongs on Fox is another bit of subtext in some of the choices the Netflix version has made, like the use of white-outs at key moments, an admission that there really ought to be act breaks for commercials. So to say that it would be funnier if they went back to telling two or three stories per episode and having the characters hatch zany schemes together is true, then, but probably pointless. The other subtext of this season is that if we want to see the Arrested Development we remember, we’ll have to let them make that movie.
So the way to think about it is not as a continuation of the original, at least not directly. Maybe we could call it “15 short films about Arrested Development.” (Update: And then I see that Ryan McGee already made this joke on Twitter. Oh well.) Much of it seems devoted to examining all the dark stuff that was glossed over in the original: Michael’s pathetically needy side, for example. Maybe this is just another example of how shows sometimes turn subtext into text; some of these scenes take a long time to say what the original shows implied in their short, punchy scenes. But the original series exists, and isn’t going anywhere, so these new episodes are almost like an analysis of Arrested Development in filmed (or high-def video’d) form. The fact that they won’t make much sense if you haven’t seen the originals may also fit into that. They’re not new adventures you can jump into. They’re more like that DVD extra of My Name Is Earl that imagined what the show would have been like if Earl had turned evil instead of good. Now that DVD extras are mostly over, maybe streaming is where this kind of supplement is migrating: Arrested Development season 4 is a supplement to the 53 canonical Fox episodes, the biggest, longest, collection of bonus material ever produced.