It is disconcerting to return to the world of the Bluths in 2018. That experience may feel different for the show’s upcoming fifth season, which has the advantage of being written more recently. But it’s plenty strange to look back at the show’s troubled fourth season, and that strangeness is not ameliorated by the show’s recent “remix.” The Bluths are trying to build a wall between the U.S. and Mexico, a plot point meant to be absurd. George Michael is making an app that protects your privacy on Facebook, a plot point also meant to be absurd. It’s not helped much by the reedited version of the original season four, which slims down each episode to about 22 minutes, turns a 15-episode season into 22 episodes, and reorders events to be closer to chronological.
You can see how the season’s original structure could look interesting on paper: each episode tells a specific character’s story, and we follow them each through different segments of the timeline, skipping back and forth to tell the same month or year again from a different perspective. It sounds complicated and fun, and if any show could pull it off, it’d be the cannily self-referential Arrested Development. Like many a Bluth strategy, though, it didn’t work as planned. The season was widely panned. It was uncharacteristically slow. It siloed each character into their own story, which too often insulated the characters from each other’s actions. Turns out, a roomful of narcissistic idiots can be funny, and it’s less funny if you’re stuck with just one.
So you can understand the thought process in recutting the season, especially with the cloud of season four hanging over the release of the new fifth season. The remix brings it closer in line with the original three seasons. Each episode is shorter and punchier, it includes more of all the Bluths, and it’s meant to allow the stories to all hang out in the same space rather than being purposely isolated from one another.
Some of that happens, and some of it is successful. As was the case with the original cut of season four, things pick up closer to the end, when more characters’ stories directly impact one another. For too much of the season, though, the reedit does little to address the problems of the original. The delights of the original three seasons so often relied on the Bluths feeling inextricably entangled with each other. The remixed season no longer touts their separation as a design choice, but as a result, the show feels even more obviously like a pale ghost of its former self. If anything, it becomes even more apparent that the stories rarely overlap: by recutting the episodes so they’re now interwoven with one another, you can watch chunks of plot that seem to glide past one another with an eerie lack of friction. Ron Howard’s narratorial voice does a lot of heavy lifting, sketching out the web of the Bluths’ actions so we can see them as related to one another. But it’s not enough.
The simple presence of this remixed season also raises some existential questions about Arrested Development as a whole, and about a possibility posed by streaming services I hadn’t ever thought about before. In a TV system ruled by actual programming schedules, the idea of overwriting one unsuccessful edit of a show with a newer, hopefully improved version would be mostly academic. You could do it, of course, but it’s not like a channel would ever run an entire redone season of a show every Thursday at 9 p.m. The battle over the correct edit of a television show has generally been limited to questions of aspect ratio or terribly censored edits of shows like Sex and the City to run on regular cable, and has never encountered something as fundamentally different as an entirely reworked chronology.
But on Netflix, or any of the other streaming services, there’s no audience-facing barrier to re-uploading a new edit of a show — if you had the time, and Netflix agreed, you could quietly replace all of Jessica Jones with a version where every episode was tightened to 45 minutes. Given infinite resources, you could go full All the Money in the World and edit Kevin Spacey out of House of Cards, and the original version could be locked away in some basement to languish forever. You could comb through 13 Reasons Why and reedit the ending after deciding it was too dangerous for kids. (You could also go in and do some simple exposure brightening on half the scenes in Ozark, and I’m going to be honest: Someone should maybe do that.)
That’s not exactly what has happened on Arrested Development.
You can still watch the original cut of season four (which is buried deep inside the “trailers and more” section of the main show page on Netflix). This is not a TV-specific question, either. Movies have long had to deal with the occasional crisis of an unstable text, and aside from a few infamous examples, it’s never been an especially widespread issue. There are many examples of competing versions of novels, and poems, and Shakespeare plays. This is just TV having access to the same potential instability as everything else.
But that still feels like a big deal! Cultural works have always shifted relative to the world around them, and the instability in how we interpret them is usually because we change, not because the work changes. It’s disorienting to suddenly realize the works could change as well, that anything you’re watching could be considered a first draft. It’s particularly unnerving given that the Arrested Development edit seems like it’s in direct response to the widespread reception of the original fourth season. If fans and critics decry, say, the TV show Rise, do I want Jason Katims to reedit the season so that there’s much less Mr. Mazzu when the first season is all on Hulu? (… Maybe, but not so much that I’d actually want to rewatch Rise.) Do I want someone to go back and cut out the “they’re just like us” joke from Roseanne? It feels like a perfect encapsulation of what that show is, so
even though I hate the joke, probably not!
And yet, the biggest surprise of the Arrested Development remix is how little it seems to matter. I truly expected to go into the new version and feel impressed by how much a reedit can change things, how different a story can feel when it’s told in a new way. Instead, I came away mostly amazed at how much it felt the same. I can’t go back and erase the original version from my head, but my suspicion is that someone coming to the fourth-season remix with fresh eyes would have largely the same impression I did: It’s really hard to go back to something that’s been gone a long time and make it feel fresh and original. Arrested Development season four doesn’t pull it off, in any iteration.