Was it six years of anticipation for a fourth season of Arrested Development or was it desire? If it was the former, we saw possibilities beyond the show’s ending. If it was the latter, we simply didn’t want the show to end, and we would accept it any form. “Maybe a movie,” Ron Howard suggests at the close of the third season when Maeby (Alia Shawkat) pitches her family’s story as a TV series. Now the show has returned for a fourth season that is radically different from anything we’ve seen on television (perhaps the closest cousin being the time-travel season on Lost). What begins as a brilliant new approach to storytelling on television becomes a season that demands a chart to follow the crisscrossing plotlines that begin to get in the way of enjoying the show’s humor. Thankfully, despite the heavy weight of the show’s ambition, Arrested Development is as funny and clever as past seasons. But this time, it may be too clever for its own good.
The fourth season of Arrested Development basically functions as one mammoth episode told from the perspective of each character. Michael (Jason Bateman), George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), Tobias (David Cross), George Michael (Michael Cera), and GOB (Will Arnett) each get two episodes, while Lucille (Jessica Walter), Maeby, and Buster (Tony Hale) each get one. There’s a little bit of prologue involving a young George Sr. (Seth Rogen) and young Lucille (Kristen Wiig), and a little bit of post-script, but the fourth season pretty much picks up right after season three and ends at “Cinco de Quatro”, an event created by young George and Lucille to deplete the party supplies from Cinco de Mayo, and thus retaliate against the Hispanic community (i.e. their servants). In between, we have to cover seven years of history for each character to the point where it’s very easy to lose them in the chronology beyond how they relate to other characters.
Matters are made even more complex by how convoluted some of the plotlines are. Some are relatively simple such as Michael trying to track down signatures of his family so that Ron Howard can make a movie out their lives. But there’s also a plotline of Lucille and George trying to build a wall along the U.S./Mexican border in order to swindle the U.S. government that is a total mess, not only because of mix-ups involving the placement of the wall, but the confusion created by Tambor pulling double-duty as George Sr. and his twin brother Oscar, and those two characters swapping personalities. It’s not surprising that George Sr.’s two episodes are the least funny of the season.
This conflict between plot and humor is the struggle of the fourth season. Arrested Development has always been a comedy of errors, but season four is a seven-and-a-half comedy of errors. In order to keep the fire going, the show can’t run on only its main characters, so it has to rely heavily on both old faces, such as (no pun intended) Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli), and new faces such as the drug-addicted DeBrie (Maria Bamford), the liberal and face-blind activist Marky Bark (Chris Diamantopoulos), Ron Howard’s fictional daughter Rebel Alley (Isla Fisher), and the philandering and corrupt Republican politician Herbert Love (Terry Crews) whose last name leads to puns and “merry mix-ups” galore.
With an expanded cast and expanded runtimes (most of the episodes are over 30 minutes as opposed to the 22 minutes of episodes from the first three seasons), these “merry mix-ups” can lose their merriness and become a drag. It’s understandable why creator Mitch Hurwitz said earlier in the production that these episodes could be watched in any order, and then reversed his stance to say that they had to be watched in the order presented. He also cautioned that the episodes shouldn’t be binge-watched because humor loses its appeal in that format. I tried to follow his instructions and take breaks between watching episodes. But if I attempted to watch AD: Season 4 like the first three seasons—one episode per week—I would be even more lost. There’s simply too much to remember.
It eventually reached the point where I just gave up on certain aspects. I stopped caring about George and Lucille’s plot about the wall. I didn’t try to figure out where GOB’s marriage fell in the timeline. I simply had to give myself over to the larger plot points and the strength of the humor. For all of the plot’s problems, it’s still impressive when you see how certain moments are repurposed depending on the point-of-view. The show starts out with set-ups moving to pay-offs but as we near the end of the season, we see how pay-offs came from unseen set-ups. If nothing else, the ambition of the season is overpowering, but perhaps better suited to a mystery series rather than a comedy.
The only way to keep it organized is to go by character. While it keeps the paths straighter than a plot-centric narrative, it also serves to make each character slightly more unlikable by giving more attention to their duplicity and selfishness. It also gives the actors less freedom to play off each other. The character-based episodes aren’t just a matter of the writers trying to be clever, but a production necessity when it came to working around the actors’ schedules. You can tell in many scenes how body-doubles were used, and it removes the fun of letting the actors play off their co-stars reactions. But for those who desired a fourth season, these are some of the costs.
Because each episode focuses on one character, our devotion to the individual characters becomes crystallized. It’s like watching a series of spinoffs, and figuring out which one should become a series. The clear winners are Tobias and GOB. Tobias’ malapropisms and poor word choice coupled with bad luck can sustain at least two episodes. When we reach the first GOB episode, we’re shown something beyond Arrested Development‘s new format. We see an episode that they possibly couldn’t have gotten on Fox due to a series of jokes that deliver a severe uppercut towards religion. Granted, there are plenty of jokes scattered throughout the season that are jaw-dropping in their offensiveness (but also painfully hilarious), but GOB’s first episode is something that would have been deemed “controversial” had it played on Fox during the show’s regular run.
Arrested Development‘s humor is what saves the season. For all of the problems the show’s plotting presents, it also provides some ingenious jokes along with all of the other comedy we came to expect from the first three seasons. Everything I expected to see in the fourth season is present. At its heart, this is still the same Arrested Development that made us hurt from laughing so hard. If it seems like I’ve been overly harsh on the plot, it’s partially because I’m trying to avoid mentioning specific jokes. I have to praise everyone I follow on Twitter for showing restraint when it came to quoting and referencing certain moments in the new season because there’s plenty to quote and plenty to reference. Arrested Development: Season 4 isn’t just making up for lost time when it comes to explaining each character’s back-story. It’s also unrelenting in how many jokes it tries to squeeze in to every moment. The season isn’t just exhausting from trying to follow the plot. It’s exhausting from laughing so hard.
As funny as the show can be, the fourth season ends on a sour note. My biggest concern about bringing Arrested Development back was that it could ruin the perfectly good send-off from the Season 3 finale. And that ending is ruined because season four isn’t really a season. It’s what Hurwitz said back when the project was first announced: it’s a gigantic first act to a planned movie. Hurwitz felt that it would take too long to explain what every character has been up to, so the series would provide the lead-in to the plot of a film that is still only hypothetical. Nevertheless, season four leaves multiple plotlines dangling, and the final scene feels like a punch in the face rather than comfortably sailing off into the sunset. Fans demanded a fourth season and now the fourth season demands a movie; a movie that isn’t even close to a guarantee. Fan support resurrected Arrested Development, and now the fans are being held hostage by an incomplete story. And that’s no laughing matter.