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12 Observations On What Worked & What Didn't In The New Netflix Season Of ‘Arrested Development’

Features
by Rodrigo Perez
May 28, 2013 2:03 PM
38 Comments
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Arrested Development, Netflix series

Binging is the new black. And thus the desire to not only gorge, but to insta-weigh-in on the new Netflix season of “Arrested Development,” which premiered over the Memorial Day Weekend, is in full effect. The cult of ‘AD’ has grown to a deafening roar over the years, and the anticipation and expectations at the prospect of the show’s triumphant return were at an all time high going into the weekend. “Arrested Development” was neglected and then canceled in 2006 by 20th Century Fox and somehow defied the odds to return seven years later with a new lease on life thanks to Netflix and their own expanding desire for (semi) original programming. But if you’re disappointed with this new season, it may be easy to understand why. Sometimes you have to be careful what you wish for.

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
1. The main formula is reversed and the core family ensemble dynamic is gone.
“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.

Arrested Development
3. The show is too long and the story painfully dragged out.
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). 

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38 Comments

  • Hans-o | October 29, 2013 4:27 PMReply

    Most great pieces of art aren't recognized until long after their release. This show is innovative and although the popular opinion of critics are against it because it doesn't fit the classical "hollywood" mode of TV series, it is extremely intelligent. So, all I have to say about this article is: please chill out, sit back, and laugh at the simpler jokes that you'll actually understand.

  • wes | June 19, 2013 6:05 PMReply

    I've been watching it again and again. It's so good.

  • Loukas M. | June 6, 2013 12:52 PMReply

    I hope you guys found the edited (chronologically linear) version online- it solves half of these issues stated above. It actually makes this season feel great - when before it was terrible. Amazing work. Watch the edited version. It is perfect.

  • RP | June 6, 2013 1:36 PM

    Yeah, unfortunately, that's now how it was conceived and meant to be watched by the creators of the project.

  • Gobias | June 4, 2013 4:33 PMReply

    Most of what I would say about the new season has already been said, either in this article or another, but another thing I'd like to mention is that the whole season felt like one big episode. I can certainly see what they were trying to do, essentially I think they wanted to bring viewers back up to speed with the Bluth family and therefore it became too focused on the plot, rather than the hilariously obscure injokes that we're used to. I do feel like the new season is being treated a little harshly however, it's just that the series is inherently hit and miss because each character gets at least 1 entire 30 minute episode, even the less interesting ones. A lot of it felt a little over explained, but it was still pretty good imo

  • Ron | June 4, 2013 8:28 AMReply

    The season wouldn't work on tv but it's perfect for Netflix. The series is designed to be gorged upon over a short period of time, as though it was just one enormous episode. I thought it was really good.

  • Andrew S | May 31, 2013 10:18 AMReply

    Agree with your assessment (although I do like Gob's first episode).

    After reading this I thought - what if they re-edited this? I wonder if some brilliant editor could actually fix this jumble? Just an interesting thought. I don't think they would ever do that, but it's possible that with the exact same footage they could assemble a much better 4th season. It wouldn't solve all the problems (like the family dynamic, and Michael being too dark) but it could certainly solve the problem of it being too dense, confusing and repetitious.

  • e | June 1, 2013 8:04 PM

    r/arresteddevelopment is working on a timeline and possibly editing the job, similar to "Chronologically Lost".

  • Yea Yea | May 31, 2013 5:33 AMReply

    I just browsed this article, but found myself mostly agreeing with the points.

    Yes, this season definitely had its moments. But it definitely was fundamentally flawed. Three reasons for that in my estimation:

    1. A lack of a linear progression. Instead of telling one long, twisting, exciting story and allowing for a series of exciting developments; they showed the same story from different points of view and after you've seen the same plot points told 14 or 15 times; you just want to scream! It's like watching a bad Saw movie that is made for stupid people instead of an advanced comedy for brilliant minds.

    2. A lack of character cohesion. The characters were largely on their own islands and frankly some of them (Maeby, Buster, Lucille 1, Tobias, Lindsay, George) cannot carry full episodes; not by AD standards anyhow.

    And I'm guessing that the script was written the way it was due to scheduling issues; but the lack of serious character interaction seriously hurt the story; particularly as it relates to Michael Bluth being a satellite character for everybody else.

    3. The humor was more coerced. Rather than search new episodes; the humor was clearly risk averse and reliant upon past formulas to a fault.

  • James | May 31, 2013 5:22 AMReply

    Testing Testing

  • Zinjo | May 30, 2013 8:03 PMReply

    Yeah, I mean yeah. I felt the same way and it is nice to see another articulate my observations.
    Netflix has the wonderful benefit of having the inspired original series available for viewing before the new one. I have little doubt most of us watched the original or re-watched before committing to watch the new season. Good thing too!
    If it were to return to regular TV I am sorry to say the new season would have bombed. Non-fans would not have the patience to sit through the complexities of the episodes and the relentlessly repeated plot points.
    I'd suggest they go back, run a new season with the original creative limitations that made the original show so appealing to get their groove back. I too found myself wondering where the show I loved had gone.

  • c'mon | May 30, 2013 3:13 PMReply

    BTW, I think that Steve Holt's 'aging' was a part of the joke. Gob didn't recognize him because he started losing his hair (like Gob). I'm sure that the actor doesn't look that old in real life, it was mostly make-up.

  • Knox B | May 30, 2013 11:31 AMReply

    Oh Come On! You've made a huge mistake.
    This season is a perfect evolution of the show that broke barriers. You've obviously missed SO many nuances that makes this show great. The airport mural, all the references to wee-Britain, the subtle indications that another family member is present. The characters motivations have changes, that's why the show seems different. People grow, some regress, but this is about moving on.
    You seriously need to watch the episodes again.

  • Justin | May 30, 2013 3:13 AMReply

    So I usually maintain a level of positivity in the comments section, but for an article titled about the positive and the negatives, or what worked and what didn't, it seems every point is about something that didn't work, rather than what actually did this season. Why is that rodrigo?

  • F@ckYou.com | May 29, 2013 12:49 PMReply

    COME ON. This season was stranger than the first 3, but its still the best show not on tv

  • Kyle | May 29, 2013 7:47 AMReply

    I don't understand why you are being so negative with these observations

  • jeeem | May 29, 2013 12:04 AMReply

    Correction: The opening credits narration begins with: "Now the story of a family whose future was abruptly cancelled… " It's a wee meta-joke.

  • jeeem | May 29, 2013 12:06 AM

    Hey, I'm very, very sorry about aaaaalllll those redundant postings! I'd erase 'em if I could. I clicked on the SUBMIT button and the site didn't respond. Only later did I find out that all these comments had been posted!

  • jeeem | May 29, 2013 12:03 AMReply

    Correction: The opening credits narration begins with: "Now the story of a family whose future was abruptly cancelled… " It's a wee meta-joke.

  • jeeem | May 29, 2013 12:03 AMReply

    Correction: The opening credits narration begins with: "Now the story of a family whose future was abruptly cancelled… " It's a wee meta-joke.

  • gobbler | May 29, 2013 12:44 PM

    stfu already. COME ON

  • what | May 28, 2013 11:10 PMReply

    If you were confused I suggest watching a show more your pace.

  • John | May 28, 2013 10:30 PMReply

    and people thought the plot for UPSTREAM COLOR was hard to follow.
    should have never been made if the cast's schedules didn't gel. so disappointing!

  • Robotboy | May 28, 2013 9:57 PMReply

    UHHHH. How can you say little Fonzy playing Young Zuckerkorn did not work? That was th most brilliant part of the entire series, besides regular Barry.

  • Rodrigo | May 28, 2013 9:34 PMReply

    Duh. I had this written down in my doc, but somehow... Don't write and have a newborn, thanks.

  • Wes | May 28, 2013 9:29 PMReply

    I agree with some of these things, but overall I found it to be enjoyable, and it is better with reviewings (I've already started!). My biggest issue though is with how cheap it looks sometimes. Having said that, I have no issue with most of the things you point out like the length (really?). I also though that Lindsay, George Sr., and Lucille episodes were not as fun. However, I suspect most of your criticisms will seem petty to the hardcore Arrested Development fan.

  • jeeem | May 28, 2013 8:11 PMReply

    Correction: The opening credits narration begins with: "Now the story of a family whose future was abruptly cancelled… " It's a wee meta-joke.

  • shackett | May 28, 2013 6:28 PMReply

    All of these characters are on an inner Odyssey. GOB no longer has the "i just want to prove to my brother that I'm not a failure" vibe. Tobias is no longer desperately trying to prove to the family that he wants his marriage to work. Lindsey finds a man that will sleep with her. Maebe's all but given up on her attempts to startle her parents. When you take out the character motivations that we love.... then you hurt the show. Without Michael... they can no longer be kept together.

  • yer | May 28, 2013 3:46 PMReply

    The new season was awful. Too many "look at the cameo!", too much time spent referencing the past 3 seasons and too much change in the characters. Since when was Michael such an oddball clueless idiot?

  • B | June 2, 2013 3:14 AM

    Dated a mentally handicapped woman..

  • Ghuh | May 30, 2013 1:42 PM

    And he has always been a bad father.

  • Rick | May 29, 2013 10:11 AM

    Michael has had plenty of oddball clueless idiot moments in the old series. The whole "hermano" thing. Didn't notice the lawyer was blind (she wasn't really, but she was laying it on thick for him). Thought his father's on-call hooker was his long lost sister. Didn't know what "Afternoon Delight" meant.

  • Alex | May 28, 2013 3:28 PMReply

    Not only was I confused and bored, but I couldn't get over how ugly and strange the show looked. The green-screen and CGI was atrocious (Sometimes the shots looked so surreal for no reason other than the actor's difficult work schedules)., the new HD-photography looked dull and flat (It even resorted to artificial snap-zooms), and the lethargic "cinematic" style felt incongruous with the reality-TV-parody nature of the original show. Did Netflix blow their entire budget for programs on "House of Cards" because this looked cheap as hell, almost like a 12-hour-long funny-or-die sketch. What a disappointment.

    Also, the cheesy new background music (which seemed oddly, genuinely bad for a show this self-aware) was mixed way too high and was flat-out incessant (to mask audio problems or just boredom?).

  • Nick | May 29, 2013 2:54 PM

    I totally agree about the background music! That was totally distracting I thought

  • tristan eldritch | May 28, 2013 3:01 PMReply

    Always felt the show was over-written and artificial to begin with; it used to make me long for an episode of Cheers. But that just me, obviously.

  • KG | May 28, 2013 2:33 PMReply

    Yeah I have to disagree with this. I'm only on episode 12, but I've pretty much loved or highly enjoyed every episode except the Lucille one. I think what it's trying to attempt is extremely clever and ambitious and I applaud the show for having the balls to come back and go all out on its ambitions. I think it's been a very rewarding experience. I agree that a lot of the episodes are too long, but everything else has been pretty much a non-issue for me. I also think it'll be very re-watchable.

  • Andrew | May 28, 2013 2:29 PMReply

    While I agree that some of the character's episode are uninteresting (George Sr. and Lindsay) I don't know how you can say Gob's are, particularly his first episode which for me may be the best of the season. Spot on with George Michael though, because his two episode run is probably the best overall. That last four episode run of Maeby, George Michael, Buster, and George Michael really is fantastic.

    And yeah, I kinda loved the season. It certainly has its ups and down, but I admire it so much for taking chances and not just resting on what may the show work before. I expected nothing less from Mitch Hurwitz. Looking forward to the movie if it happens!

  • Rodrigo | May 28, 2013 3:08 PM

    " That last four episode run of Maeby, George Michael, Buster, and George Michael really is fantastic. " Absolutely. I wish it was that great throughout and those last 4 eps really save it.

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