The Death of the Hero and the Power of the Gaze

Arrested Development’s Fourth Season as Cautionary Tale

Arrested Development’s much-anticipated fourth season did away with the first three seasons’ (and, for that matter, most of mainstream television’s) linearly progressive episodes in favor of fifteen intertwined non-progressing episodes, each of which covered roughly the same amount of in-world time but focused on different characters. That is to say, the events of the first episode occurred over roughly the same span of time as those events in the fifteenth episode, but centered on different characters, different geographical locations, and different (although often very proximal) segments of time within the overall timespan. The result of this story-telling technique is that the viewer is left with subjective perspective(s), suggesting the death of both the unitary author and the compelling hero. “Fractured” is perhaps the first word that springs to mind when describing this technique, but the narrative is much more interestingly broken than that — it’s actually cautionary.

Since the end of Arrested Development’s third season, in 2006, audiences have become accustomed to the idea of taking multiple sides into account when consuming any narrative—from viewing multiple news pages describing an event to checking multiple profile pages on social media when learning about a person. One no longer simply oscillates between two or three mainstream news networks on TV, but checks the sources, Googles for original accounts, looks at reports from overseas, reads the comments, and double-checks with professional fact-checkers. One no longer listens to a friend complain of family drama, but sees it played out across status updates and comments from all the parties involved. Even in deciding whether or not to watch the new season, viewers eschewed seeking the pollical opinion of one or two critics and instead listened to the digital opinion of the masses, the amateurs, and the creators of and actors in the show itself.

It’s been argued, in fact, both that the success of the show itself depends on a viewer mentality that differs from that of most television viewers, and that the show helped normalize the sort of television that requires a high level of engagement before it can be comprehended. As Poniewozik points out, the first three seasons of the show were “doomed” to poor ratings thanks to a “layered comedy and blink-and-you’ll-miss-it dialogue” that required audiences to “lean in” when most viewers were accustomed to watching television to “veg out” (36). Over the course of its run, however, Arrested Development effectively fostered the creation of a television-watching subculture that was prepared to “binge-watch seasons — even entire series — at a run, engaging intensely and picking up details that casual weekly viewers might not.” This willingness to attack a show with scholarly intensity, Poniewozik writes, has only increased in the interval between Arrested Development’s third and fourth seasons, an interval that has seen the creation of other mockumentary shows like Parks and Recreation (2009-present) and Modern Family (2009-present), shows which feature a dense comedic style which can only be fully appreciated by someone willing to pause, rewind, and take notes. This sea change was due in no small part to both the resilience and evangelistic tendencies of the Arrested Development fanbase; as Snierson reports, Ted Sarandos, Netflix’s chief content officer, has characterized Arrested Development’s viewers as “a very engaged audience who was watching certain episodes over and over again. Television cult fan bases typically get smaller and more intense. The Arrested fan base has gotten bigger and more intense.”

This rise in popularity of dense comedy has resulted in writers willing to engage in “complexity, textures, [and] challenge” in a way that writers in previous decades were loath to do. Of course, in addition to changing viewer attitudes, it was the move from broadcast television to Netflix that allowed Hurwitz to “ratchet up the show’s labyrinthine complexity” (Poniewozik). Not that all critics appreciated the ratcheting; Bianco suggested that viewers would, upon watching the fourth season, “wonder when watching TV turned into a task,” while Lacob called the fourth season “grotesquely misshapen” and suggested that the online format allowed Hurwitz to “stuff in” content until the season felt “tired, overwrought, and indulgent.” Of course, one might do well to note that Bianco pronounced on the season the same day it was released, suggesting a truly marathon watching session, while Lacob, only slightly less industrious, crammed the episodes into three days — a feat whose consummation might make any number of things feel overwrought.

More important to note, however, is the fact that Bianco and Lacob weren’t waiting to the last minute when they planned their viewing schedule; no critics had been presented with the fourth season before the public was; when Netflix began streaming those long-anticipated fifteen episodes on May 26, 2013, it was the first time anyone off the set had seen them in their entirety (Poniewozik). If anything, this served to only further cement the role of the viewer as more-than-passive consumer; as Snierson put it, four weeks before the fourth season was released, “our hearts and minds and Twitter feeds will tell us whether the wait for this moment of Bluth was indeed worth it” (26). Just as the fourth season itself forced viewers to stop considering only a single viewpoint, the season’s release prevented them from heeding a single critical consensus by preventing that consensus from forming before the viewer’s own.

But to return to the content of the show itself—the fourth season of Arrested Development gives us the perspectives of Michael, George Sr., Lindsay, etc. in turn, in essence acknowledging that one perspective is no longer sufficient. In the first three seasons, characters shared camera time, but there was no doubt about who the hero was — our sympathies were clearly supposed to lie with Michael. In the new season, however, we see a very different version of this man, one who lies, connives, manipulates, and even attempts to steal his son’s girlfriend.

In the first three seasons, Bateman’s Michael was long-suffering to a degree that strained credulity, especially when considered in relation to his parents and siblings; Poniewozik calls him the “straight-arrow, white-sheep-of-the-family.” However, in the fourth season, taking place ten years after the start of the first, this sheep has been led by the camera’s gaze to the slaughter, and his family’s character has only gotten worse. As Hurwitz himself puts it, the characters “are 10 years older than when we met, so that means emotionally they’re, like, two years older than when we met them. Amazing things happen when one goes from being emotionally 12 years old to emotionally being 14 years old” (Snierson). The show’s actors back up their director’s verdict; Will Arnett, who plays Michael’s unprincipled older brother Gob, claims that “these people have become the worst versions of themselves” since the end of the third season (Poniewozik), while Tony Hale, who play’s Michael’s emotionally-stunted brother Buster, agrees, saying, “there’s no maturity. There’s regression. They’ve fallen off. Some people watch this show because it makes any family in the world look amazing” (Greene).

But Michael’s transformation is not, I propose to argue, purely a shift from white sheep to black, nor is it exclusively Michael that’s changed — it’s our view of him. Previously, on Arrested Development, Michael occupied a privileged position that caused us to see him as the long-suffering middle child, and nowhere is this position better summarized than in the episodes’ opening sequence. The voiceover explained: “Now the story of a wealthy family who lost everything, and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together. It’s Arrested Development.” Accompanying this voiceover were shots of the characters — first a posed family portrait, then a picture of Michael, then pictures of everyone else, captioned according to their relationship with Michael: “his TWIN SISTER,” “his OLDER BROTHER,” “his SON,” etc.

Contrastingly, in the fourth season, no single character is given pride of place. A posed family portrait still opens the sequence (although now, compellingly, it appears through an Instagram filter), and because the first episode focusses on Michael, the voiceover is roughly what viewers have grown to expect: “Now the story of a family whose future was abruptly cancelled, and the one son who had no choice but to keep himself together. It’s Michael’s Arrested Development.” However, subsequent episodes change this formula to “…and the one father” (describing George Sr.), “…and the one daughter” (describing Lindsay), “…and the one son-in-law” (describing Tobias), etc. The captions accompanying each character’s picture were altered as well, now describing each (non-episode-starring) character in terms of their relationship to that episode’s “star.” Interestingly, the new voiceover, while giving the characters, over the course of the season, a more evenly-distributed amount of emphasis, avoids providing any unifying viewpoint; while Michael, Gob, Buster, and Lindsay are described as sons and a daughter, suggesting that the voiceover speaks for George Sr., Lucille is described as “the one mother,” Maeby as “the one daughter,” and George Michael, like his father and uncles, as “the one son” — perspectives that do not align with any one character—Michael, George, or otherwise.

This change in the show’s focus suggests a death of the hero — not only is no-one now the primary focus, but because we see the characters from each other’s perspectives, no-one comes away looking very good. While the audience’s love for the show may have gotten a new start, their sympathies for Michael were pretty well extinguished. I propose that this death of the hero is a reflection of an overall change in television in the interim years between Arrested Development’s third and fourth seasons (2006–2013), a period in which the antihero or deeply flawed, self-complicating protagonist rose to prominence. While antiheros were present on mainstream television before the debut of Arrested Development (Tony Soprano, appearing on The Sopranos from 1999–2007, comes to mind), the archetype has seen a revival in the years between Arrested Development’s third and fourth seasons, particularly in critically well-received shows, from the titular protagonist of Dexter (2006–2013), to Walter White in Breaking Bad (2008–2013), to the entire cast of Sons of Anarchy (2008-present), to Enoch “Nucky” Thompson in Boardwalk Empire (2010-present). As Poniewozik has put it, in an essay on Breaking Bad, written before Arrested Development’s fourth season aired, antiheroes — “brooding, scowling, self-destructive characters” — have “produced some of the decade’s best TV,” but have reiterated common themes to such an extent that “what was once a reaction to TV’s formulaic good guys and bad guys is in danger of becoming a formula itself.” This reiteration, Poniewozik claims, is culturally-driven, in that the years since Tony Soprano’s 1999 debut, “we’ve had a decade-plus of real-life news about betrayed trust: bad mortgages, sexual abuse in colleges and churches, prisoner torture, [and] business fraud.” While Poniewozik’s essay is about Breaking Bad and concerns itself with describing real-world news items (it mentions Jerry Sandusky by name, and its description further invokes late-decade events like the housing bubble, Guantanamo scandals, and Bernard Madoff) that bear reflection in light of that show, Arrested Development may provide an even better mirror for current society than Breaking Bad; its depictions of shady housing deals, prison corruption, and embezzlement, however tongue-in-cheek, are indicators of cultural anxieties that preclude the possibility of “formulaic good guys” to the point of making “brooding, scowling, self-destructive characters” the default.

Not that the antihero was absent from the cultural landscape of Arrested Development’s earlier seasons — Hibberd, in a wrap-up of 2006’s winter television shows, claims that “quirky, flawed antiheros populated the top 10 [most-watched shows],” but in order to make this claim, he includes in the category of “antihero” such characters as the “not-quite-gentleman” Earl of My Name Is Earl, the “caustic” Gregory House of House, and even the “neurotic pencil-pushers” from The Office. Clearly, if the worst that can be said of a character is that they are not quite a gentleman, that character’s claim to full antihero status is dubious; the antiheroes of 2006 pale in comparison to those that emerged in the 2006–2013 interval. (A progression that did not escape Hibberd’s notice; a few years later, in 2012, he dismissively referred to “cable’s nihilistic antihero thrillers” as a norm that needed to be broken.)

It seems fair, then, to suggest that television audiences have grown disillusioned — we have no more perfect heroes, no more ideal, unspotted protagonists. While we may still root for the central character, it is impossible to do so without an awareness of their inevitable and often sizable flaws. So while the first three seasons of Arrested Development shaped audience’s taste for dense comedy, the fourth season has in turn been shaped by that audience’s increasing disillusionment.

This disillusionment is carried further in the specific way the narratives of the individual episodes fit together. As mentioned above, while each episode covers roughly the same span of time, they avoid overlapping primarily by focusing on different characters and geographic locations. However, at times the show’s temporal fragments are shown to overlap, however slightly, and the viewer realizes in a later episode that the camera had cut away a moment too early in a previous episode, thereby withholding information vital to actually understanding the scene. It’s an old technique, much-loved by writers of romantic and screwball comedies, in which, say, an overheard conversation is later revealed to have been read in a certain ludicrous light only because a character had begun listening a moment too late or stopped listening a moment too early. In Arrested Development, though, it’s not the characters that leave and are deceived, but the viewer that is forced away and fooled as a result. We don’t see immediately see Michael’s conniving and lying because we’re taken to another location, another scene — but the family members are fully aware of Michael’s character, because they’re still in the first scene, acting it out for a later episode.

This cutting away of the camera at critical moments suggests, I argue, not an impossibility of knowing but an impossibility of trust. The truth is fully knowable, obvious even, but withheld from us by the camera, and not inadvertently or inevitably, but deliberately.

Arrested Development has from the start been shot in a documentary style, on-location, with shaky camera work, on videotape, without a laugh track or fixed visual frame of reference. As such, it has always diegestically suggested that its subject is “real,” objectively extant outside the film itself. As such, the viewer “knows” that there is no real ambiguity about what happens on-screen; there is no mystery, as there is in many mimetic films, because the purpose of a documentary is to explicate. However, while film can often be classified along binaries of fiction / nonfiction, or mimetic / diegestic, or story / documentary, television’s genres have tended to much more ambiguous, and more prone to evolution; as Siegel puts it, “television has its own internal history of changing styles of representation” (27). He claims that “scripted dramas” from television’s early era were in fact more “real” than today’s “reality television” because these scripted dramas, for all their planned plot, were broadcast live. Contrast this, he says, with current reality television — “heavily edited, musically scored, and constructed with overlapping time-frames that present a participant making voice-over analysis as he and the viewers watch him in a situation taped much earlier” (27). Older shows like Candid Camera, claims Siegel, are a better representation of reality because “the hidden camera roll[ed] without editing” and only later was the surveillance “revealed” to the subject (he refers to this early form of “reality television” as “actuality programming.”) The modern television watcher, on the other hand, sees on shows like Survivor a group of subjects who, before the cameras even start rolling, “have agreed to participate in a highly structured game” (27). In the course of the show’s creation, these subject actors “see the camerapeople running all around them, and they watch the heavily edited result later” (27). Arrested Development, of course, is scripted, but positions itself, with its moving, anchor-less camera work and narrator, as a show like Siegel’s Survivor, a show in which the characters have agreed beforehand to being filmed now and edited later — even to the point of having the “overlapping time frames” Siegel references, and which do in fact occur in the fourth season. The reality of Arrested Development’s world is in question, although even the term “reality” is ambiguous. This ambiguity, in fact, can result in an emphasis on or creation of the antihero in the same way that the cultural trends discussed by Poniewozik and Hibberd can give rise to that character. Siegel claims that realism and “reality” indicate different things, and as a result “reality” television (a genre that Arrested Development pretends to belong to) tends to focus on the negative; “reality,” Siegel defines as a modifier (in the usage of “reality television) and a signifier that “the thing being modified, in this case television, is being adapted to some generally accepted idea of what ‘reality’ means, not that it is being brought closer to reality” (28). As a result, writes Siegel, “reality television” must emphasize some “aspect of reality” agreed upon by the producers — and this aspect is not the “raw, uncut, unedited spontaneity of the original actuality programs,” nor is it the “banal, tedious texture of life that you find in cinéma vérité or Dogma 95,” nor is it “the subtle argument seeping up through the accumulation of suggestive quotidian particulars” that one gets from certain veristic documentaries. Instead, argues Siegel, what reality television emphasizes is the negative and sordid — “anything that is not physically perfect, not carefully presented, not stylistically flawless, not shiningly successful — anything that is not packaged in the form of an ideal” (28). Reality television, he goes on to say, “replaces the glowing, successful celebrity ideal with gross imperfection and incontrovertible unhappiness,” which “shames the illusion of meritocracy by making universal the experience of the underdog, the bumbler, the unlucky and unattractive person” (28). Siegel, mind you, is not addressing Arrested Development (his essay in fact predates by several months the first season’s premiere), but he traces this antihero-fixation through entertainment-driven television to its larger expression in television in general and from there to the culture at large. The desire to shame the idea of meritocracy is so strong in America, writes Siegel, that it influences even our national politics; he points to George W. Bush’s first presidential campaign, in which he “misspoke on camera, bumbled, stumbled, got his facts wrong, and generally projected the image of an inferior, inadequate candidate” — but acknowledged this inferiority with a “conspiratorial wink” to the audience that assured them that they, in their ability to see through to his inferiority, held “the secret to his self-preservation” (28). Because our conception of “reality” has become so closely aligned with our conception of the negative, an image of incompetency is less a liability than an image of celebrity polish; it was clear that there was no “hidden trickery,” as Siegel puts it, behind Bush’s television appearance. The “indictment by the camera” was proof against the potential claim that he was a “creation of the media,” essentially giving Bush an “antihero” quality, an air of “true imperfection” rather than “false perfection” — regardless, says Siegel, of the fact that Bush Jr. was “one of the luckiest people who ever lived” (28).

Siegel in fact explicitly connects reality television to the rise of the antihero, claiming that, as “actuality programming” was a reaction to an increase in “issue-oriented sitcoms” (he cites Lou Grant and All in the Family as examples), modern reality television was a reaction to “hard programs such as Oz and The Shield and The Sopranos,” shows which depict psychological verities with the candor which earlier sitcoms used in discussing contemporary social issues. Reality television, to Siegel, is “a retort to this grimy, roiling psychic reality, a great respite from it” (30). Is it any wonder, then, that Arrested Development, in its emulation of reality television’s tropes and idioms, grapples with the idea of inevitably-corrupted protagonists? While Arrested Development may not be reality television, its imitation of that genre’s modes has necessarily resulted in a focus on the grim and the real — Michael as soiled hero, rather than shining example. Not that Michael’s transformation occurred solely in the interval between the third and fourth seasons; Stein claims that while Michael was “the good son coming back to save the family business” in the first season, “by season two he was a dick, calling his mom a slut and refusing to acknowledge his son’s girlfriend” (119). Still, though — refusing to acknowledge one’s son’s girlfriend is a far cry from trying to steal one’s son’s girlfriend, and if Michael is a “dick” in the second season, he’s far worse by the fourth.

Writing two years after the end of Arrested Development’s third season, Alston claimed that television was caught in the midst of “Antihero Overload” (citing The Sopranos, Dexter, The Shield, Damages, The Beast, Leverage, 24, Weeds, and even Mad Men). According to Alston, the antihero archetype, still shocking at the end of The Sopranos, had pervaded the culture until it was even “trickl[ing] down” to comedies, and he questioned whether, “in the quest to avoid the old black-and-white archetypes,” television had become too fixated on “morally ambiguous characters,” resulting in a television culture in which “what once seemed daring now feels predictable” (58). Like Siegel, Alston positions the real-world political climate as inextricably tied to television trends, although unlike Siegel, who saw George Bush’s campaign as the beneficiary of a television world fixated on the underdog, Alston claims the “antihero worship” he observed in 2008 was the result of audiences having been “primed” by the political climate of the previous eight years. Alston cites the second Gulf War, “a war started on faulty intelligence,” and one in which “suspected terrorists [were] sent to black sites” and which saw the creation of a “domestic eavesdropping program,” as a motivation for television audiences to “delve deeply into the true motives underlying the actions of powerful people” (58).

Over and above the corruption of Michael, however, is the corruption of the very format in which the show’s events are presented. The fourth season operates as a caution against implicitly trusting television, and specifically the reality-television/documentary format, suggesting that reality, while ultimately knowable, is easily distorted. Ron-Howard-as-narrator may assist the viewer in understanding this depicted reality, but even in the fourth season, while he never misleads the viewer, he is still bound by the movement of the camera; the show is visually-driven, overriding exposition to make way for gaze. Even though the show no longer has a single character determining its perspective, it still has a single viewing perspective; we see only what the camera wants us to see, and only when it wants us to see it.

This controlling “gaze,” and the misinformation is perpetuates, recalls Mulvey’s ideas about the inherently “masculine” nature of cinema, in that the male-directed camera binds a “female” subject via a “symbolic order in which man can live out his fantasies and obsessions through linguistic command by imposing on them the silent image of woman still tied to her place as bearer, not maker, of meaning” (433). Mulvey concerned herself primarily with literal depictions of the female body on-screen, but her insights ring eerily true in light of Arrested Development’s attitude toward meaning-making and representation. For Mulvey, the female subject (and the female is always subjugated and treated as subjective) belongs to the realm of the imaginary, while the masculine belongs to “the word, the name of the father and the law” — that is, the objective, the rational, the externally-verifiable. Arrested Development, diegestically considered as a documentary, should belong to the word and law — but the fourth season suggests that the words of the narrator are unruly and helpless against the camera’s vicissitudes. Ron Howard’s narration attempts to clarify, but can only go so far, and at times self-censures in deference to the camera’s movement, to the arbitrary (that is, arbitrary at best, and deliberately misleading at worst) sequencing of the season’s segments. While I don’t argue that Arrested Development and/or its creators deliberately engage with these concepts, the show’s subject matter, as well as its themes, repeatedly does: while Mulvey is often cited in discussions of cinematic scopophilia (“there are circumstances in which looking itself is a source of pleasure, just as, in the reverse formation, there is pleasure in being looked at,” 434), Arrested Development addresses scopophilia directly in the character of the “never-nude” Tobias Fünke. By the end of Arrested Development’s contiguous run, the references to Tobais’ gymnophobia had declined; in Season 3, his signature cutoff jeans are seen in only one episode (“Mr. F”), and then only briefly. In Season 4, however, his condition sees a resurgence, and the audience is reminded in no fewer than three episodes (“A New Start,” “Smashed,” “Queen B”) and arguably in four (including “Indian Takers”). This increase in visual reference again reiterates the power of the gaze in the fourth season; Tobias fears being seen, because, in the sinister camera work of Season 4, to be seen is to be misrepresented. Nor can “the name of the father and the law” Mulvey discusses bring any order or reason to the depiction of the events; the name of the father is hopelessly complicated by the incessant confusion (of the characters and of the viewers) over whether they are at any given moment looking at George Sr. or his brother Oscar, and the law in the world of Arrested Development is similarly deconstructed in the characters of Barry Zuckerkorn and later Bob Loblaw, the Bluth family’s lawyers, the first of whom is incompetent and the second unethical. (Like Tobais’s “never nudism,” Barry Zuckerkorn’s presence had faded to a single appearance in Season 3, but in Season 4 he appeared in eleven of the fifteen episodes — again, a resurgence of emphasis on the anxieties that motivated the show’s action from the beginning.) Even Bob Loblaw’s name, pronounced “blah-blah-blah,” serves to mock the idea of rational discourse and of lawful order. There is none of Mulvey’s “linguistic command” to be had here, by characters or narrator; everything is controlled by, and consequently distorted by, the camera’s gaze. What is seen is not to be trusted—while the family’s relationships and interactions may be complex, they are not incomprehensibly so; the fourth season implies that the understanding of the viewer is bound not by the complexity of the content but by the medium in which that content is presented, and these fifteen episodes, stylistically divergent from the preceding fifty-three, warn us that to uncritically accept the fourth season’s content, and, by extension, the previous seasons’, would be a huge mistake.

Works Cited

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Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” 1975. Feminisms Redux: An Anthology of Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Robyn Warhol-Down & Diane Price Herndl. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP. 2009. 432–442. Print.

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Poniewozik, James. “It’s Not TV. It’s Arrested Development.” Time 20 May 2013: 36. Print.

Siegel, Lee. “Reality in America.” The New Republic. 23 June 2003: 26–29. Print.

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Stein, Joel. “Do I Amuse You?” Best Life. 5.5 (2008): 112–26. Print.