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Seitz on Arrested Development: A Puzzle Show Perfectly Calibrated for the Internet Age

A few months back I wrote a piece about zombie shows and film franchises that are willed back from the dead by collective desire like that poor son in “The Monkey’s Paw,” only to reaffirm that we should be careful what we wish for, because it might be blue-green and smell like rot. At the time I was afraid that Arrested Development would turn out to be that sort of project — not because I didn’t believe in the talents of series creator Mitchell Hurwitz and his co-writers and actors, but because long-delayed follow-ups to beloved cult shows, however well-intentioned, often end up feeling forced and awkward and cosmically wrong.

Luckily, season four of Arrested Development isn’t that — not at all. In fact, I suspect it might be a classic that deserves a spot in the pantheon of great, long-delayed follow-ups, though I need to watch the whole thing again and live with it and then write about it again to be sure. That I’d want to rewatch the whole season immediately is, of course, another, possibly higher compliment.

Hurwitz has described this season’s structure as a “puzzle,” and it is that; at times it reminded me of late seasons of Lost, and of Back to the Future II, and Go, and the early films of Quentin Tarantino, all of which tantalized us with peeks at subplots that wouldn’t be fleshed out until later.  What’s up with the ostriches? How did so many of the men get their bruises? Why is George-Michael (Michael Cera) so much more poised, tough, and aloof than the skinny schlub we knew from the original series? These and other questions are eventually answered in time, by way of a storytelling strategy that suggests that Hurwitz studied the Internet’s reaction to the original series and incorporated Internet-era viewing habits into the scripts themselves.  The original Arrested Development played around with time via flashbacks and flash-forwards, too, but what’s going on in season four is on another level of confidence and sophistication.

Appropriately, this is not a fourth network season that happens to be playing on Netflix, but a season designed with Netflix in mind. That the episodes vary widely in length makes season four feel less like a network series that requires every episode and every act of every episode to be the same length, but a pre-nineties British show or mini-series franchise that you might catch up with on Netflix — one that let the individual stories be however long the creators thought then should be. The Apple-dock-style shuffling windows that get us from one character or location to another resemble (deliberately, I bet!) the shuttling function on Netflix. The way in which season four gives us narrative tidbits early on and then expands them later, like a sponge dinosaur dropped in water, is equally amazing — and equally indicative of the effect of Internet viewing on how stories are told. When we see the whole picture, or the whole subplot, explained and illuminated at long last, the effect is a bit like starting on a Google map, zoomed in tight, then pulling out to get a view of a whole city or country, or clicking on a link in one article that takes you to another article.*

When we see George-Michael at college at UC Irvine in an early episode, awkwardly sharing a dorm with his father, Michael (Jason Bateman), we don’t know the full story behind Fakeblock, much less that learning it will deepen our understanding of the relationship between George-Michael and his clueless cousin and crush object Maeby Funke (Alia Shawat), or that this subplot will turn into a brilliant, multi-episode parody of the Mark Zuckerberg biopic The Social Network, one that has fun with the fact that Michael Cera is often mistaken for The Social Network’s star Jesse Eisenberg and has half-jokingly said that he’s lost roles to him. We don’t know why Gob (Will Arnett) has a giant cross hanging out of his car, or that the bodega where Gob buys his “forget me now” pills (actually roofies) will turn out to be the same place that dispenses illegal pharmaceuticals to George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor). We don’t know that Tobias (David Cross) and Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) went to India at the same time, and were on the same flight, until a cut to a wide shot in Tobias’s episode reveals them seated in successive rows.

Like The Godfather, Part II — part of a series which might or might not have inspired Arrested Development in the first place, if this excellent video essay is to be believed  – season four of AD manages to be true to the spirit of the original while tinkering with its structure, rhythm, and themes. It’s very different from yet artistically equal to the show’s first three seasons — not in spite of all the production limitations placed on it by the actors’ scheduling commitments and paycheck requirements, but because Hurwitz & Co. embraced those very same limitations, and let form follow function. In his wonderful piece about season four, Time’s James Poniewozik writes that when Hurwitz worked for Fox, he “… made genius of necessity. Restrained by content standards, he wrote a kind of poetry of innuendo.” I think he’s making genius of necessity here, too, but it’s a different sort of necessity, and it has resulted in a different sort of poetry — not one of innuendo, but clever nonetheless, and possessed of much darker shadings than he could show us in the first few seasons.

And it’s even more aware of itself as a show than the original Fox series was, as if such a thing were possible. It’s a bit of a shock of seeing Arrested Development’s narrator, Ron Howard, onscreen playing a hard-case version of himself — a man who has illegitimate daughters, one of whom, Rebel Alley (Isla Fisher), gets mistaken for his mistress by the lovestruck Michael, and ends up orbiting the faux-Internet super-mogul George-Michael. But the scenes involving Howard and his Imagine partner Brian Grazer turning Michael into the producer of a movie about the Bluths (like the Arrested Development film that Hurwitz wants to make someday) is the best kind of self-referential fiction. It’s wise to the complicated, sometimes underhanded means by which stories get told. It’s also hip to the reams of critical commentary about Arrested Development as a satire of post-9/11 American cluelessness. (I love Howard telling Michael that he sees the Bluth story as a way into the market crash of 2008, and that his partner Grazer had been trying to make a film on that subject ever since he was tipped off to the crash three months before it happened.) Seeing Howard onscreen while hearing him narrate the show (so abundantly that some sequences feel like extended “next episode” montages) reminds us that we’re seeing a season that exists because of economic imperatives, not just artistic ones — that it’s here to make money as well as please the fans, and that the realities of production dictated a lot of the storytelling choices.

And yet season four never lets storytelling itself become the only story. The way it navigates between self-awareness and sentimentality is often dazzling. When a particular scene or joke doesn’t quite come off, it’s not fatal, because the fourth season’s ambition generates such a surplus of audience goodwill. It’s true to the tone and style of the earlier seasons, but it doesn’t slavishly try to replicate them, to the point where the whole thing becomes an exercise in cinematic taxidermy — like Gus van Sant’s 1998 shot-for-shot remake of “that Vince Vaughn movie” Psycho, referenced in the scene of Tony Hale’s whimpering, pirate-hooked Buster, glimpsed in the kitchen opposite a hideous patchwork mannequin version of his incarcerated mother, Lucille. It always makes sure that we still care about all of these weird, sad, deluded characters.

Season four’s masterstroke – the element that welds the show’s extreme self-consciousness and (yes!) cornball sincerity — is its decision to build our fears and anxieties about a resurrected Arrested Development right into the master narrative. Rather than pretend it could just pick up where it left off and dust off the characters like so many precious figurines, season four takes time and distance into account. It’s all about elapsed time and lost opportunities, and how families grow apart geographically and emotionally, and make peace with their personal limitations (and their families’), or continue to live in denial, or force some kind of confrontation, or stumble into one, and end up taking baby-duckling steps toward enlightenment. That’s why so many people have described it as sad, or dark, or depressing: It has a heart, but you can see how bruised it is.

As the revised opening narration admits, the Bluths have no future to save; they have to live in their own personal presents, and they’re marooned there, because the family is close to useless when it comes to supporting one another for support’s sake, without secretly hoping to get something out of being nice. The phrase “colony collapse disorder” applies to Bluths as well as bees. The family is in as much disarray as America itself. The pause that occurs when you finish one episode and load up another starts to feel like the narrative version of a wall, separating one Bluth family member’s story from another’s, rather like the fence that George Sr. mistakes for a George Bush monument but is actually a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico. Every hug in season four feels like, and often is, the ceremonial end of a contract negotiation, or another attempt to claim a piece of the fabled $700,000 — a number that floats through the entire fourth season like a ghost ship, changing its meaning and purpose with each new episode, yet always promising a happy ending that may never materialize, because this family is, to borrow Lucille’s description of Buster, a hot mess. They seek out or become gurus, and witness what feel like supernatural revelations (George and Oscar's macca vision; the hotel shaman telling Lindsay "your bag is as fake as you are"), then ignore, botch, or pervert any lessons they should have learned. They’re addicted to selfishness, addicted to illusion, addicted to stuff; no wonder so many of the subplots deal with abused substances and half-ass attempts at recovery. (How I wish I could see Tobias’s entire Fantastic Four musical.)

When the abrasive womanizing man-child Gob impulsively gets engaged, and suddenly finds himself swarmed by prospective in-laws who adore him simply because he’s joined their family, Arrested Development’s fourth season distills an incredible number of themes into one hilarious yet upsetting image. They love him because he’s family — hell, because at some point he might be family. That’s all they need to know about him. The selfless, all-encompassing love promised by that kitschy portrait of Jesus isn’t being mocked by this show, not at all. It’s an emblem of the sort of love that the Bluths, and by extension so many early-21st-century Americans, have forgotten how to give, because they’re so distracted by their stuff, their deals, their images, their apps. It’s comedy and it’s tragedy, this scene — and so is the whole fourth season.

“You know, your whole life is an escape act,” Michael tells Gob. “And this girl seems like she really likes you. Why don’t you try to work it out and just stop running?” He can’t even complete the sentence because Gob has already vanished; he’s hiding inside the boulder he’ll use to turn the story of Christ’s resurrection into a sub–David Blaine endurance test. Among many other things, Arrested Development is about the American propensity to turn the simplest and most profound values into commodities, fictionalized dramas, get-rich-quick schemes and stunts — into anything and everything but what they should be. Gob has a chance at experiencing unconditional love, the thing he and his entire family desperately need, but he can’t handle it. It freaks him out. It terrifies him. So he turns it into an excuse for one more magic trick that isn’t magic, and that doesn’t work.

* This review initially stated that season four had fewer episodes than season three. It actually has two more episodes.

Photo: Netflix