Posts for Tag: television

The Decline of Arrested Development

  • Reading time: seven minutes
  • Word count: 1222
  • Published: 30 aug 2013
  • Author: Matador the First
  • Copyright: Matador the First, 2013

After watching the classic seasons of Arrested Development on Netflix this spring, I bought the series on DVD so I could watch it without internet access. One of the first things I did was watch the pilot episode again; after that I watched the unaired pilot, which is basically a director’s cut of the pilot that airs on TV and Netflix. A strange thing happened: I laughed less at the longer, twenty-eight-minute director’s cut than I did at the twenty-one-minute version that’s in re-runs. Sure, it was funny hearing uncensored profanity—for some reason, hearing the word “fuck” on Arrested Development amused me immensely—but other than that, the episode was sort of a chore to watch. I laughed at all the same jokes in the extended and TV versions but enjoyed them less in the extended cut.

What does this have to do with Season 4? Imagine that instead of having episodes averaging twenty-one or twenty-two minutes in length, there were a full season of Arrested Development whose episodes averaged thirty-two-and-a-half minutes in runtime. This is Season 4. Only three episodes come in under half an hour—two at twenty-eight minutes, one at twenty-nine—while the rest sit between thirty-one and thirty-seven minutes. But are longer episodes actually a problem? Doesn’t having longer episodes just mean we get more Arrested Development? Isn’t it kind of like they got more than fifteen episodes out of fifteen episodes? The short answer to the second and third questions is yes. The right answer is no.

Arrested Development is a show that was built on energy and speed. Classic episodes, once they get going, take off and never slow down. They’re stuffed with so much good dialog, so many plotlines, so many jokes and running gags, that watching each episode is like a fast mental jog. Almost every second matters because something happens almost every second. Probably the perfect example of a classic episode—and my favorite in the series—is “Meat the Veals,” which has many things going on at once: George-Michael’s planning to propose to Ann, Michael’s trying to ruin George-Michael’s chances with Ann, the anniversary party, George Sr.’s planning to renew his vows and enlisting Gob to help him do it, Gob’s puppet Franklin, Tobias’s posing as Ms. Featherbottom. The episode cuts between and interweaves these threads until they finally collide in a memorable and hilarious climax involving a multi-car chase and two fights in a church.

Not only does Season 4 not have anything remotely as memorable as that, or really as any other joke or scenario in the classic episodes—though George-Michael’s unexpected success with his business is a pleasure to watch unfold—but it also simply can’t do anything like that, because whereas the classic episodes are dense, layered, and fast, Season 4’s episodes are thin, fairly slight, and slow. Part of this is because, despite Hurwitz’s revisiting several moments many times, the narrative structure is fairly linear, or at least straightforward. There is little, if any, jumping around within episodes; they are focused on their own selves. Hurwitz seems to have been heavily influenced by the cast’s limited availability; what he didn’t seem to grasp was that though the actors couldn’t film for too long, he could have written and edited the show to make it feel like they had had as much time as they’d wanted.

What I thought would be the season’s strong point is its biggest weakness: Revisiting the same moments over and over becomes tiresome pretty quickly, especially since it’s fairly easy to guess where the joke is going to go in the inevitable upcoming reveal1, especially because the show makes no effort to mislead you, to violate your expectations. Knowing everything that’s going to happen is easy when (A) you’ve already seen half of what you’re watching right now, but from a different perspective, and (B) the narrator talks too much and knows and explains everything. This is another big flaw in Season 4: Hurwitz and the writers don’t trust the audience to understand what’s happening.2

The narrator not only tells us what’s happening but also makes sure to explain to us that something else is happening at the same time and reminds us that these two things are contradicting each other. It’s like he’s constantly asking the audience, “Have you got it yet?” and ignoring that everyone is shouting “Yes!” This is not at all how the narrator works in classic episodes: commenting when needed, or contradicting a character, or making a point. In the classic episodes the narrator’s kind of like punctuation, used for clarity and for flavor, but in Season 4 he’s more like the spaces between words: he’s everywhere. The joke from “Exit Strategy” about Tobias’s wearing Maeby’s suit, with the narrator’s contradicting Tobias’s lines, simply could not happen in Season 4—because the narrator would make sure to explain, before Tobias spoke, that Tobias had accidentally put on Maeby’s suit.

A few other problems I have with Season 4: (1) Its spirit seems meaner, mainly regarding foreign cultures: When Lindsay’s on a bus in India, for example, the bus hits a pedestrian, and Lindsay is the only one who cares; the other passengers (wearing semi-stereotypical Indian garb) are at best indifferent to the pedestrian’s being hit. (2) Ron Howard as a character doesn’t pay off. He spends most of his screen time being aloof and avoiding as many people and trying to talk as little as possible, not because he hates anyone, but because he doesn’t want to be there. For someone doing a lot of avoiding and aloof-ing, he gets way too much screen time. (3) Kristen Wiig’s portrayal of a young Lucille Bluth, though entertaining, is far too derivative of Jessica Walter as Lucille Bluth.

Having said all the above, let me say that I actually did enjoy Season 4. There were enough good jokes, funny moments, and strong dialog that kept me going along through the season, and it finally really picked up toward the end when it focused on Maeby and George-Michael. And it was a treat seeing the same characters acting out in new ways and scenarios. If you’re a fan of the show, the season—despite its many frustrations—is worth watching. Just beware that Arrested Development has traded speed, density, and trust of the audience for slow, linear, over-explanatory handholding, and that the show’s remaining good features—strong, quirky, well-defined characters; sharp, layered dialog; hilarious and ridiculous situations—rather than making a great show even better, merely keep pretty good episodes from sinking.

In other words, don’t expect greatness.

And that’s something I never thought I’d say about Arrested Development.

1 The main reason it’s easy to know what will happen is that we know the characters very well from Seasons 1–3. In light of Season 4’s weaknesses, what should be one of its strengths—that the characters are very much the same now as they were seven years ago—instead becomes, in effect, another weakness, one that restructuring and good editing could remedy. Ironically, because Michael has changed the most, he is the most interesting to watch: we’ve never seen him this way, and so we’re not quite sure what he’ll do next.

2 And even if the audience doesn’t get everything, isn’t misunderstanding part of the fun in comedy?

  • Series: Arrested Development
  • Season: four
  • Count: fifteen
  • Released: 26 may 2013
  • Directed by:
    • Mitch Hurwitz
    • Troy Miller
  • Written by:
    • Mitch Hurwitz
    • Jim Vallely
    • Richard Rosenstock
    • Caroline Williams
    • Dean Lorey
    • Jim Brandon
    • Brian Singleton
  • Distributed by: Netflix
  • Starring:
    • Jason Bateman
    • Portia de Rossi
    • Will Arnett
    • Michael Cera
    • Alia Shawkat
    • Tony Hale
    • David Cross
    • Jeffery Tambor
    • Jessica Walter
    • Ron Howard

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