“Riding the Staircar to Heaven”- Arrested Development Season 4 Review
There are some spoilers in this review. Now you know that, so mind yourself accordingly.
They warned us. They warned us that Season 4 should be treated like the first act of a movie instead of a season of television, and we just didn’t listen.
Many of the negative reactions I’ve been reading against this Netflix dump of mystery and cutoffs are from people who took all the times that sentiment has been reiterated and tossed them out in the garbage like some kind of refuse or Debris.
The complaints about the lack of resolution seem silly, especially when there are way bigger things to be complaining about in terms of what we did get as opposed to what we didn’t.
Before I go any further, I suppose I have to justify my credentials to you before I’m allowed to evaluate this show of shows and not have the terrible hordes of rabid fans barrel down upon me from nooks and crannies I wasn’t even entirely sure a person could hide in.
I caught the show when it first aired and can say that I didn’t really get it, although considering I was ten I think I have a fairly valid excuse. I, like so many others, rediscovered the show when someone mentioned its name and I vaguely remembered hearing Fox advertisements tell me how good it was all those years back.
Favorite Characters (in order): Lucille, Gob, Tobias, Lindsay
Favorite Running Gag: Lucille’s reactions to Gene Parmesan continually revealing himself
Favorite Supporting Character: Carl Weathers as an incredibly stingy Carl Weathers
Favorite Guest Stars: All five Andy Richters, Ben Stiller as Tony Wonder
There. That should prove me worthy.
The main problem with this extra-special Season 4 was that its entire run was basically the scene in an Ocean’s sequel where we find out in one line of dialogue what the guys have been up to since last we met stretched out over 15 episodes and 8 total hours. Despite an unfathomably dense and nigh-on-impenetrable narrative being told, it’s basically telling us what went on between the time the time the show was unseasonably cancelled and the time it very ceremoniously rose from the ashes and threw its soot in our faces whether we liked it or not. There is not an Arrested Development fan on the planet that could resist the temptation of the return of the Bluth family and there are probably very few among them that weren’t a little disappointed by the frozen banana of show we were ultimately served.
[This coming from the guy who staged a party and whipped up a batch of frozen bananas for himself and eight of his friends in preparation for the big unveiling.]
Mitch Hurwitz and the writers stacked the season in such a way as to only very slowly reveal information as bits and pieces of plot slowly but surely fell into place. It made what was actually, if laid out end-to-end, a pretty standard if funny narrative into an intriguing puzzle that begged for dissection, baring more than one similarity to the structure of Memento, although the show chose to throw its references more in the direction of The Graduate and The Social Network.
The tower is constructed here to introduce little plot items that pay off big time by the end of the season in unexpected ways and reward subsequent rewatches that show seemingly innocuous and initially intentionally confusing bits to be great eggs laid early on, only to build to a possibly startling and thrilling climax that never happens and I suppose the only question that remains is… why?
Why put the audience through the wringer just to not tell us where the hell Lucille 2 went? Why leave innumerable plot items yet unraveled in favor of what are seemingly ten cliffhanger endings? Why involve the wall being built at the U.S.-Mexico border if you’re going to make it so I still don’t understand what the hell is going on down there?
The only answer I can come up with is… this isn’t supposed to be the end. That movie has been teased forever and I think the is only way I’m going to be truly satisfied with what was ultimately an incredibly ambitious if not entirely successful season of television. We need to wrap up all of these damn plot threads now.
One of my main reasons for being against the show coming back at all was that the ending we got was perfect. The Season 3 finale “Development Arrested” perfectly wrapped up all of the questions we had from the series while still hinting at the adventures that could be had in the future, as any proper series finale should do. Now that it is no longer the series finale and all of these new bits involving political campaigns and Invisible Women have been introduced into the universe, somebody had better pick this damn thing up for another season or something before I resort to writing fan fiction that explains all of this was some kind of dream George-Michael had after a tragic ancient boating accident.
I’ll give this to the writers. They could have given us fifteen episodes of nothing but straight fan service, redoing many of the show’s best moments so as to get Netflix that sweet, sweet subscriber money. Instead, they went where really no TV show has gone before, to mixed results. Imperfection caused by ambition will always be more admirable than mediocrity caused by attempted mediocrity.
Like any good mystery, the pieces really start together about half-way through the roll and the plot really picks up, ultimately making the back half of the season a truly exciting piece of television to intake. Conversely, that means the first half is arduously slow. The beginning sections (even the oft-raved about first Tobias episode), move along at such a sluggish place, belabored with having to lay out the thick of the narrative while necessarily sacrificing being funny to do so. The unfortunately price to pay for a good mystery is that your first act is usually pretty non-descript, with even the worst mysteries building to something at least mildly interesting by the end, if only because we finally find out whodunit.
The major misstep of Season 4 was making each episode focused on one character. So much of what made the original run work (and kept the characters from becoming tiresome) was cutting back and forth between three or four stories involving many of the characters. I get that for budgetary and scheduling reasons they couldn’t get all of the cast together in one place at one time, but that doesn’t make what was produced any better. Excluding a few bits later in the season where we would cut away to whatever the hell it is Michael’s up to, we stick with just the one character for thirty minutes at a time (versus the usual twenty-two minutes that would be divided up between three different stories). The editing choices that had to be made there made the show feel noticeably more bloated and slow, although that may also have something to do with far too many gags or scenes going on for way longer than was necessary or interesting. The sheer squeal of joy that erupted from my apartment the moment Tobias came on screen was indicative of how hungry we were for the ensemble to be back together, or at least have more of the characters interact again.
What I really want to see (and what something like Reddit could very easily give me) is a fan-made cuttogether version of this season where we jump back and forth between perspectives and get that repartee and jumping wit we’re used to getting from Arrested Development at a blistering pace.
When all is said and done, you just really miss the model home. You miss the place that all of these beautiful people could get together and be funny together and go on wacky misadventures. My girlfriend once described to me how ingraining a show around a certain location and then yanking that location away almost always leads to ruin and cited Battlestar Galactica as an example, and that is both why I’m crazy about her and how I thought of an end for this paragraph.
I’m going to close out here by evaluating the show character by character and finally wrapping things up with a solid letter grade for the whole season.
Michael suffers from having to lay down the brunt of the work, like George-Michael’s dorm room situation and the wonderful Cinco de Quatro, with the least amount of payoff. Jason Bateman is an unbelievably good straight-man, but only really works when paired with a silly character and saddling him with George-Michael and Maeby was definitely the wrong call. His second episode benefits greatly from placing him in the wacky world of Ron Howard (the production company jokes are some of the absolutely best on display) and giving him people like Carl Weathers and Andy Richter to cope with. I also surprisingly liked his relationship with Rebel, which was not something I was expecting, and I’m glad that if the show comes back, Isla Fischer’s Rebel will be back as well and not instantly forgotten like poor, poor Marta. Luckily (and predictably) the “For British Eyes Only” section has been mostly forgotten about except for two solid jokes. Michael, always inconvenienced by his own family, was really inconvenienced here by story structure.
George, Sr.– C-
Oh, Jesus, God, no.
If the early-goings of the season were slow, the George, Sr. sections felt like actual work, deserving of the letter grade they are given above. Partly weakened because I had real trouble discerning whether we were looking at George or Oscar, and mostly weakened by the fact that George was always the worst at driving the plot and worked best when confined to a weird location and talking to Michael, these are the true weak-points of the season. Weakpoints even a great guest-turn by Mad Men’s John Slatterly couldn’t fix. George had to do a bunch of stuff with a wall and a bunch of stuff in a desert, two places that when described don’t spell out cutting farcical joy. I also have always had real trouble believing that George, Sr. could ever run a company. I get that Lucille is supposed to be the one really pulling the strings, but the man is just too much of a boob to do anything for me.
Too long. Too damn long.
Lindsay’s episodes were the first where I noticed how much I missed the other characters, as our beloved Lindsay was stuck with a poorly-used Terry Crews and a lot of India. The mysteries surrounding her were also the easiest to solve because of course it was Tobias with her in India, admittedly for reasons I didn’t predict. The only lasting thing was the utterly mind-shattering Shaman revelation. And her relationship with a face-blind, ostrich-farming mama’s boy was only okay, but I found his penchant for bomb-making to make for some damn fine tension-building.
One’s enjoyment of the Tobias episodes is entirely dependent upon how funny you find the idea of a Fantastic 4 musical to be. If you think that concept sounds funny, then you probably really enjoyed this. The Tobias sections were really the ones that felt the most like old Arrested Development. Lots of reversals and repeated gags and I’m for some reason only just now realizing that super-serious lawyer Wayne Jarvis wasn’t in this season and that makes me sad. I was strangely drawn into the Tobias-Debris romance and I’m still rooting for these crazy kids in their Method One acting clinics with surprise appearances by Tommy Tune.
God bless you, Gob. You funny, beautiful, roofie-laden man with your Entourage references and Tony Wonder. Gob won this season, everyone, and I don’t know really a way that that can be challenged. His episodes marked the beginning of the huge upswing Season 4 took in its back half and were also easily the funniest, showing the returns of beloved characters like Bland and the Veals and Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller, making a triumphant return to being funny), and brought in Mark Cherry and the latest in the show’s long lexicon of really catchy songs. Everything about his episodes were funny and joyous, beginning as wonderfully executed bits of farce and both times descending into weird, twisted little logic puzzles involving roofies (and one time involving masks). His episodes taught us that alopecia is hereditary, in the jaw-dropping reveal that Tony Wonder and Sally Sitwell are in bed together played by real life husband and wife Ben Stiller and Christine Taylor, and also gifted us the two best sightgags of the season, with the giant “Her?” and Tony Wonder’s “I’m here, I’m queer, Now I’m over here” magazine spread. And the “and Jeremy Piven” club title. I love everything about these, up to and including the best use of Simon and Garfunkle music since the movie it continually parodied. And anything that welcomes Alan Tudyk into my living room is just fine with me.
“Now everybody’s gay!”
If you told me when I started this episode that Lucille would turn out to be the heart of the season, I would have had Buster bring me another drink and then laughed in your face. But by the end of “Queen B.” I was nearly in tears and certainly felt for our villain, the Lucia Von Bardas if you will. The trial and subsequence abandonment of Lucille Bluth in silly maritime law turned out to be the saddest and most heartfelt moments of the whole season. And it was also hilarious because the fabulous Jessica Walter was in play in full Lucille mode, awakening in me strange sexual fantasies I didn’t know I could feel for someone who birthed children who are twice my age. My collage of things about her is coming along nicely…
Long my least-favorite character on the show, Maeby really pulled out a winner here. In one elegantly-constructed dark comedy, we watched our favorite rebel not named Rebel find out that constant rebellion often leaves you in high school for an extra five years still being taught by Andy Richter, whose guest appearances were truly the best. What I’ve always liked about shows like Arrested Development is that even the supporting characters have arcs, as evidenced by Jeff Garlin’s Mort Meyers’ descent into obscurity. She also brought us back into the Model Home that I missed so much and had the best reaction to that damn ostrich.
As of right now, this show ends with an episode that shows George-Michael surrounded by pedophiles. Think about that for a second.
That being said, they really douched this kid up, huh? It may have something to do with Michael Cera seemingly trying to revamp his public persona in things like his self-parodying turn in This is the End, but he really turned the jerk dial up to eleven on this one. That being said, the George-Michael as George Maharris/ Mark Zuckerberg was maybe the best George-Michael has ever been, with his episodes pulling the rug right out from under everything we’d known thus far. My jaw was on the floor at each of his reveals as his pieces proved the most narratively interesting of the whole endeavor.
Buster was very funny. The poor guy was absent almost the whole time, so getting him back was pretty great on its own, but his episode was also a wonderful watch and featured a man with the mind of a child holding a kitten in his robotic hand, as if he were the star of a John Steinbeck novel. Buster benefited greatly from just telling a very straight-forward tale of Buster’s journey and not jumping too much between timelines and simply focusing on telling a story. His was certainly the most streamlined out of all of them.
Now to wrap things up. Before we go, I’m sure we all want there to be more to this show. We can’t end on a cliffhanger, with George Maharris punching his father right in the face as Buster is dragged off to jail for the still-unexplained disappearance of Lucille 2. An ending should have a certain amount of open-endedness to it, but obviously not to this degree. This is the first act of a movie we may never get, the first third of what will hopefully be a great opus that will be appreciated with time. Season 4 was not a perfect endeavor and was absolutely nothing like I expected, but it was admirable in enough ways to deserve its grade.
B+, for adult situations and multiple appearances of “Feral Jesus.”
Chekhov’s Gunman is a film and television blog moderated by Kevin Lanigan, a future writer of awesome movies and TV and past writer of little-read Communist Manifestos. Be sure to subscribe or follow above for every update and comment below if you think I’m a poopyhead. Check back for more coverage of the best in TV, movies, and Game of Thrones, a weekly Mexican Standoff, and the Good Stuff.
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And that was Arrested Development. *Ukulele outro*
Also, my friend Paige just started a very funny blog that is so, so worth your time.