Created by Mitchell Hurwitz
In the summer of 2005 I was between my sophomore and junior years of high school, a break I spent doing various high school kid things. Playing Warcraft III online, seeing movies, reading Crime and Punishment (for school, obviously). Yea, I never said I was a cool teenager.
My dad had to take a trip to Chicago for work, and for some reason I tagged along. Great city, lots of fun, been back several times since. But since my dad was working, and I was sixteen in a strange place, there was one night when I was left to myself in our hotel. When I got bored of reading- one can only take so much Punishment– I turned on the TV, and happened to see the start of a four-episode Arrested Development marathon. I’d heard of the show, but I wasn’t that into sitcoms at the time and never really had the desire to check it out.
If I recall correctly, they were showing four episodes from the beginning of season two. I started watching. Somehow the show just got better and better and by the end (“Climb that wall, homo!”) I was sold.
When I came back home, I got seasons one and two on DVD. I watched season three on Fox and hoped that its desperate attempts to stay alive would succeed. I tasted the sad when it ended.
Naturally, I was happy when I heard that the show was coming back, but as the release date approached I began to wonder about the best way to watch the new episodes. I remember that my introduction was an all-out Arrested blitz, which seems to be a common experience amongst fans of the show; often, people don’t really laugh at the first episode they see. It’s a comedy that takes continuity and callbacks and foreshadowing very seriously.
On the other hand, I was already a fan, so I didn’t feel the need to watch all of them in one day. Besides, I knew there was going to be a backlash against the new season, and a backlash against the backlash (back in April, NPR published a pretty prescient timeline of the internet’s reaction to the new season). I kind of wanted to distance myself from all of that, to give myself room to enjoy my favorite show of all time.
It didn’t exactly work- I finished the fifteen episodes in just a few days. But I’ve taken time to reflect before taking to the interweb. I watched a few episodes again, I talked to my friends about it, and I couldn’t help but read some of what the internet had to say: negative, positive, and meta. I think at this point, I’m ready to discuss my own thoughts.
I liked the first episode. It was a little bit slow, but it had its moments. The ‘pack-first, no-talking-after’ scenario was hilarious, and it was kind of awesome just seeing a new episode. The next couple, however, were kind of a drag. I didn’t care about the George Sr. storyline, with the border and the wall. China Garden and the dude from Mad Men seemed lame and pretty pointless. The second episode, and a few that followed, kind of made me realize that there were some characters who couldn’t really carry a whole show on their own. George was definitely one of those.
In retrospect, the original Arrested Development did an excellent job of getting all of the characters involved in almost every episode. George and Lucille usually provided the conflict, the family would provide the subplots, and Michael was the (largely) straight man trying to balance his crazy family, his job, and taking care of his son at the same time. There was a formula, but it was done so well that it was almost imperceptible until that structure was removed. Season four removed it. So episodes two, three, and four, focusing on George, Lindsay and Michael, respectively, were pretty underwhelming, and gave me the feeling that the whole season was going to be a letdown.
But, remembering that it took some time for most people to get into the show in the first place, I soldiered on. The fifth episode, centering on Tobias, was pretty funny (“Daddy needs to get his rocks off!”), and the seventh episode, featuring GOB, was everything we could’ve hoped for. Obviously the episodes focusing on the funnier characters were going to be funnier, but it wasn’t just that. Later episodes would put previous scenes in context, so that it felt like there was more character interaction in each episode, even if there wasn’t. Bad example: Lindsay’s trip to India, on first glance, didn’t really feature any other major characters, though later episodes revealed how much that act was, in fact, an ensemble. It’s kind of hard to explain how this works without giving things away, but believe me when I say that the second half of the season felt much more like the Arrested Development of old.
Of course, even with added context, the plot’s still nearly impossible to follow. There’s something about building a wall, and getting a Bluth movie made, and privacy software called Faceblock, and a black Republican called Herbert Love. There’s also some ostriches running around. I kept seeing these patterns but I felt unable to actually make them out. This made me feel dumb, and we only watch Arrested Development in the first place because it makes us feel smart, right? Maybe not, but it’s hard for me to watch a sitcom if I can’t even follow the story arc.
Well, things don’t get revealed quickly, but they do get revealed. My advice would be just to watch it without exerting too much brainpower trying to connect the dots. The show will eventually connect them, but if you’re constantly worried about picking up on minor details that may or may not be relevant, you’re not gonna have as much fun watching what’s supposed to be a comedy. Upon finishing the season I immediately watched its first episode again, and it made a lot more sense to me. I’ve seen each episode of the show’s first run a million times because not only are the same jokes still funny the millionth time, but there are jokes that I didn’t notice the first 999,999 times. Did we expect season four to be any different? They’ve taken it to an extreme, to be sure, risking a negative initial response, but I’d imagine that fans will like this season more and more, given time.
Which is basically what I’m saying: just give it time. I’m guessing that if you liked the original series, you will come to like this season. It’s like a swimming pool, freezing cold when you first jump in, but quickly getting warmer until it feels perfect. Let yourself warm up to it.
That’s not to say that this season is perfect: I do feel like there’s something missing. For one thing, it’s not the zany ten-characters-in-twenty-minutes show that it used to be. That was a disappointment to me at least, though I got used to the new format. But the bigger problem, I think, is that it seemed to be missing its heart. I found myself wondering whether the original run on Fox had as much heart as it did because of the ‘meddling’ TV executives; once unrestrained, did the creators revert to complete cynicism? Maybe I’m in the minority, but I thought the relationship between Michael and George Michael had kept the show out of ‘these people are so horrible that I can’t watch them’ territory (which is where I think It’s Always Sunny has ended up). I don’t know whether that’s a problem for most people. But it bothered me.
So long story short, I enjoyed the fourth season a lot, but I didn’t think it quite measured up to the high standard set by the first three. On the other hand, I vaguely remember thinking in 2006 that the third season didn’t measure up either, so it’s possible that time- and repeated viewings on repeated viewings- will change my mind.