Seven years after the fact, “Arrested Development” is a little damned if they do and damned if they don’t. If the show and its producers dared to follow the same comfy formula from the Fox years, many would likely cry rehash. And if you dare attempt something new you instantly take viewers who came to love that very formula out of their comfort zone and risk alienating them. It’s a precarious equation to find that perfect harmony and the latest season of the Bluth family misadventures definitely pushes the structure of the show into a new direction while keeping the familiar characters and dynamics. And perhaps it pushes things too far.
Series creator Mitch Hurwitz and his writers have, without question, mounted an incredibly ambitious show, but ambition alone cannot carry a piece of art if the texture doesn’t add up emotionally and comically. And what happens when ambition flies with overly-charted navigation? Complex, intricate and dense, what happens when a show is clinically over-plot-plotted to death? While this isn’t exactly what ails “Arrested Development” some of these issues are part of the new series' fundamental problem.
Like you, many of us hoovered up “Arrested Development” this weekend and so this writer thought he would try and examine this season, what we learned, what worked, what didn’t work and how it succeeded, failed and why. Be forewarned you probably shouldn’t read this before you’ve seen the show, but that the same time we’ll be discussing the show in broad terms so there’ll be few spoilers.
“Arrested Development” used to feature relatively simple plots with blink-and-you’ll-miss-them jokes that flew by at lightning speed. The Netflix series does the opposite: employing rapid-fire plot points that go by so fast, some audience members can’t keep up with the jokes that are all too often plot-based. It’s a disorienting effect, and it’s difficult to settle in and enjoy the show when you can’t tell what the actual central plot is. More importantly, that plot is constantly evolving and by the time it the show concludes, one’s not really sure what the main plot exactly was.
The original show had a pretty simple concept: it was the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together. In other words, it had a main protagonist -- Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) -- and his central goal was to begrudgingly look past his family's dysfunction and madness and act as a leader to guide them through troubled times. The main storyline detailed the Bluth Corporation's investigation by the feds, with the CEO and patriarch George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), being arrested under allegations of defrauding investors, and it showed how Michael would try and keep the company and family afloat amidst all the scrutiny.
“Arrested Development” the Netflix series, loses that vital ensemble dynamic with more of an “everyone fend for themselves” mentality. The family has indeed fallen apart, and the once tirelessly patient Michael has finally abandoned them all. Without that glue, the family, Michael, and arguably the show are in a form of disarray. In fact, each episode begins with “...and now the story of a wealthy family whose future was abruptly canceled, and the one [insert family member noun] who had no choice but to keep [family member pronoun] together. It’s [insert character’s name]’s ‘Arrested Development.’” And while this singular character approach is different and unique, it doesn’t always work.
2. Like the flaw of many spin-off shows or movies, many of these characters work better in an ensemble and can’t really sustain an episode on their own.
Yes, instead of a family ensemble, “Arrested Development” the Netflix series tracks each of the nine family members individually with some characters getting two episodes a piece out of the fifteen. Surprisingly, some of the most popular family members, Tobias (David Cross) and Gob (Will Arnett) have some of the least essential episodes to their name (granted, Tobias’ second solo ep #9 “Smashed” is pretty good). Some like Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and Lucille (Jessica Walter) can barely sustain their own outings. And strangely enough, characters who don’t seem like they could sustain an entire episode, Maeby (Alia Shawkat) in ep #12 “Señoritis,” and George Michael (Michael Cera) in eps #13 "It Gets Better" and #15 “Blockheads” have some of the best ones.
It’s like the middle-eight song bridge concept: The bridge in a song works so well because it only arrives once in a song and unlike the chorus or verse, it’s never repeated. It leaves you wanting more. But “Arrested Development” flies in the face of that concept, letting the individual parts, and not the sum, take center stage. Sometimes the concept does buck the conventional wisdom. Buster's (Tony Hale) episode #14 “Off The Hook” is particularly good and arguably one of the best (and Buster is conspicuously absent from the show and one can speculate Hale's “Veep” scheduling conflicts affected his character’s presence the most). In this sense, there are simply too few essential episodes and a lot of it acts as half-heartedly funny filler.
The original “Arrested Development” is exactly 22 minutes per episode. In contrast, the shortest episode of the new season is 28 minutes and the average length is around 30-31 minutes, with several episodes clocking in at 35 minutes. What’s an extra 10 minutes or so? Everything. In 22 minutes, “Arrested Development” whizzes by and is brilliantly economical and tight. It leaves you wanting more (see above). In contrast, many of these episodes feel tired. In fact, the entire story of this new season seems overly stretched thin. The original concept was 10 episodes and that expanded to 15 and we wonder if the show would have been better served by an overall tighter season in both episode length and number of episodes.
4. Too much time is spent tracing where the characters have been in the last seven years.
Each character episode has a three act formula to it: the aftermath of the 2006 finale (Lucille trying to flee on the Queen Mary with the Feds hot on her trail and Michael and his father sailing off to Cabo San Lucas), what happened in the intervening years and where the family members are in their current situation. The problem is, not everyone’s intervening years are funny and interesting and the aftermath is seen nine different times from nine different perspectives and after the first few, the rest are kind of inessential and pointless. It’s the “where they are now” that’s interesting, but two-thirds of each episode is eaten up by where they’ve been and what they’ve done (it’s telling that in the case of the younger characters, George Michael and Maeby’s intervening years are the funniest episodes).
5. The guest stars: some work, some don’t
Perhaps the biggest fundamental shift of this new season was employing actors to play the younger versions of George Sr. & Lucille, whereas in the past, the actors would play themselves in different hair and makeup. But it’s curious why the producers would change this paradigm. Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig play George and Lucille respectively in the new season, and while Wiig is rather great, Rogen doesn’t make for any kind of believable George Sr. which essentially throws the conceit out the window every time it’s attempted.
Past guest stars return: Carl Weathers as himself, Henry Winkler as the Bluth family’s inept lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn, Ben Stiller as the rival Gob magician Tony Wonder, Mae Whitman as George Michael’s ex-girlfriend Ann Veal, Scott Baio as attorney Bob Loblaw, Judy Greer as George Sr.'s faithful ex-secretary Kitty Sanchez, Liza Minnelli as the penthouse neighbor and rival Lucille Austero and Justin Grant Wade as Steve Holt, Gob’s unwelcome and unwanted son (who it should be said looks like he aged unfortunately twice as fast as the rest of the cast besides the wax museum that is Minnelli, inexplicably even more artificial looking than when we last saw her).
While new characters are played by Garcelle Beauvais, Chris Diamantopoulos, Maria Bamford, John Slattery, Max Winkler, John Krasinski and Mary Lynn Rajskub to name a few, it’s only Terry Crews (as the right-winged politically-incorrect politician Herbert Love), Isla Fisher (as Rebel Alley, Ron Howard’s daughter and Michael’s new object of affection) that are truly necessary, funny and effective characters (though Maria Bamford as DeBrie Bardeaux, Tobias’ new flame is pretty good too).