They Didn’t Make A Huge Mistake: In Defense of Arrested Development Season 4

It was overstuffed, scattershot, and occasionally quite tedious — but also kinda brilliant? It’s Arrested Development Season 4.

What forms a popular consensus? In the modern age of social media, internet comment boards, and Rotten Tomatoes, I honestly don’t know. It seems like one moment, popular consensus could ascribe a verdict of high quality to something (like, say, La La Land), but then come to a completely opposite conclusion just a few weeks later (didn’t you hear? La La Land is bad now.) This probably points to the inherent fool’s errand that derives from the concept of a “consensus,” but still — even with differing opinions being a thing, it’s pretty easy to see that the internet is quick to place a lasting judgment on pieces of pop culture. Not everyone loves Mad Max: Fury Road…but it is beloved. Not everyone hates Suicide Squad…but it is universally hated. Contradictory statements, maybe, but that’s how the consensus goes. And once it sets in, the general sentiment is hard to escape. Which is exactly what happened with Arrested Development Season 4, Netflix’s much-hyped revival of the cult comedy classic.

Expectations were of course high for the show’s return back in May of 2013 (exactly five years ago, for those of you keeping track at home), which has never once led to crushing disappointment. Nope, not a once! [Narrator: They had. More than once, in fact.] It didn’t take long after the show’s initial release for the excitement to change into apprehension: at first, people weren’t quite sure what to make of the thing. Netflix’s “binge-release” model was still quite new for most people, and the concept of a TV revival was still rare. It was odd all around to see the Bluth’s come back seven years after we last saw them, and it didn’t help matters that their return season was very different from what came before it.

In any case, it didn’t take long before this apprehension turned into full-on disappointment for a majority of viewers. I was reviewing the show when it happened, so I have some strong memories of just how it went down: first things seemed positive, then mixed, then outright negative. Soon the most disappointed started speaking above the rest (as is often the case on these here interwebs), and the entire conversation around the show turned away from “how good is it? to “huh…is this good?”

The years went on, and the season’s stock just plummeted further and further. Consensus went from the season being a mixed bag, to it being an outright failure. It joined the modern-day pantheon of disappointing sequels to beloved things, up there with Spider-Man 3, The Dark Knight Rises, etc. Hell, creator Mitch Hurwitz even felt the drive to re-edit the entire season as a sort of mea culpa, and released it earlier this month in the form of Arrested Development Season 4 Remix: Fateful Consequences (you, title, are a mouth full!)

The release of said remix really made people’s venom for the season spill out: pretty much all I read about it was that it still didn’t “fix” the season, insinuating that something had to be fixed to begin with. You know: the consensus. Arrested Development Season 4 was a failure, a disappointment, a disaster, etc. And here’s the thing: not long ago, I would have agreed with the assessment! I too was disappointed with what the show did in its fourth season: how it split up the cast, how it paced its runtimes, how it told its stories. I found laughs, sure, but I found an equal number of things to complain about. I finished my initial watch of the season more perplexed than anything, unsure how the people behind the series could delivery such a bloated, awkward affair. But it’s been five years since then, and I’ve had a lot of time to reflect and review the season since then. And you know what? I’m starting to think I was wrong. We all were.

Arrested Development Season 4 is actually pretty damn great. And taken as its own thing, one of the most unique and rewarding pieces of comedy television ever crafted.

But even with that glowing, somewhat hyperbolic statement being said: I get it. I understand why fans were so upset with how the season turned out, and why it didn’t gel with many who watched it: Arrested Development Season 4 is a weird season of television, even by AD’s quirky standards. While the character-centric format of the season was originally conceived to handle the busy schedule of its main cast, it seemed to take a life of its own in the writer’s room, leading to a narrative jam-packed with time-skips, mysteries, delayed pay-offs, etc. Often times, the show resembled more of a puzzle-box genre piece like Lost or Westworld than a family-based, wacky sitcom. Hell, just putting together what the hell was happening and when it was happening could be a frustrating experience, as it proved to be for many people.

And in no way am I am trying to put myself above those who felt this way: I will once again re-iterate my initial impression of the sixteen-episode story was similar. It just seemed like too many things taking away from the comedic experience, smothering the entire show with layers upon layers of confusion and, frankly, tediousness. But remember above when I explained what ultimately changed my opinion on the season: review and reflection? Well, I truly believe the former is key here. Because, believe it or not, I have now watched Season 4 in its entirety four times. And each time, it more and more dawned on me just what creator Mitch Hurwitz and co. were doing here, and how ultimately successful they were at doing it.

And I just want to point out that my rewatches of the series weren’t a purposeful act to try and like the season more: in fact, it was entirely coincidental. I have shared this show with many different family and friend groups over the years, and thus ended up going through Season 4 with all of them at different points in the last half-decade. And the first few times, I wasn’t chomping at the bit to do so, if we’re being honest: I remembered my initial viewing, and slightly dreaded going through the sixteen episode slog once more. But, hey, I”m a good friend/family member, and have nothing better to do than watch TV show’s multiple times, so here we are.

Anyways, at first I was wondering if my slow appreciation for the show through the various rewatches was just my brain trying to make me enjoy something that I felt obligated to do: a form of television Stockholm Syndrome, if you would. But by the time I was through my third rewatch, I realized that was not the answer — no, I was generally starting to enjoy and love more about what the season was doing and, most importantly, how it was doing it. Watching the season multiple times cracked open new layers of the experience for me: new plot points and references and jokes that I missed the first few times going through it. Honestly, I started to become slightly in-awe at just how much the season contained: how Mitch Hurwitz and the writers stuffed the thing to the seams with things people would NEVER understand unless they watched the thing multiple times (or watched it edited in chronological order, I guess, which is probably a far easier option now.) The season is densely packed and plot-heavy, but my initial disdain for that grew into appreciation, once I got more used to its new, different structure. It’s really quite a marvel to behold when you lay it all out, and I simply can’t fathom how the writers could keep track of all the madness. I can’t think of any other piece of television put together quite like Arrested Development Season 4, and once you really connect to its wave-length, it becomes much easier to appreciate such a different, complex form…especially when you realize such a form was essential to the overall story that the season was trying to tell.

Because, make no mistake: this is indeed one of those Netflix shows that probably works better as a whole, and is telling one of those gigantic overarching narratives rather than a bunch of episodic mini-arcs. Back in 2013, that was new and weird. Now, this “like a [blank] hour movie!” form of television writing is predominant in the industry, for better or for worse. What’s great about the initial format of Arrested Development Season 4, though (before the remix came and presented an alternate, more conventional take) was how the season served as a bridge between the concept of a season-long, serialized narrative and episodic, more “focused” stories. They did that by focusing every episode on a different member of the Bluth clan, showing what transpired in their lives in the six-year gap since we last saw them. These installments tell individual stories about the characters that just so happen to criss-cross with the other members of the cast…sometimes in ways that aren’t even obvious until further down the season (or even until the end of it.)

This character focus helped ground the narrative a little, sure, and were certainly helpful when it came to production (the aforementioned difficulty of getting the cast certainly played a hand in the decision, yes), but it also established upfront just what the new, revived season of Arrested Development would be: a character study. And a dark as hell one at that.

Because, as I realized by the end of my third rewatch, Arrested Development Season 4 had a very specific goal in mind. As put pretty bluntly by my friend after the (fantastic) final shot of the season “wow, things really went bad for everyone, didn’t they?” Yes, unnamed friend: they really, truly did. Which was entirely the point. The original three seasons set up the Bluths as the world’s most dysfunctional family, the kind that brought each other down by just being in the same orbit. At the center of this orbit was one Michael Bluth, who at every turned tried to escape the company of his relatives (which in and of itself became something of a running gag), only to be pulled back into their bullshit once more. By the time Season 4 picks up, all of them are rather tired of each other and, for various reasons (scheduling or otherwise), they all go their separate ways. Maybe not under the same prism, the Bluths could be better?

Nope. As the story unfolded, it became quite clear that, even as bad as they are, they are far worst apart than separate. Without each other in their lives, the Bluths become the absolute worst versions of themselves.

  • Michael became the one thing he dreaded the most: a full-on Bluth. He became just as conniving and deceitful as the rest of them, in a move that, well frustrating to some fans, I would argue was the inevitable place for the character to end up (and Jason Bateman makes such a meal out of it, doesn’t he?)
  • Lindsay becomes a literal and figurative whore, selling herself out to a conservative candidate she should, in theory, hate.
  • GOB becomes a confused mess of a man, drugging himself out in an endless circle of roofies just to forget the constant shame he endures on a daily basis.
  • Buster, separated from his mother and on his own, becomes a literal monster under Army’s trickery (and a likely murder suspect too, if the final sequence is any indication.)
  • George Sr. loses his confidence and swagger, becoming a weak shell of his former self (and the spitting image of his pathetic brother to boot!)
  • Lucille loses the power structure and influence she always craved, the family matriarch without a family to lord over.
  • Maeby suffers the worst Arrested Development (hey, that’s the name of the show!) of them all, going from the girl who always acted above her age to the one literally still living as a child, stuck in place and unsure how to grow…oh and also accidentally committing statutory rape, which is pretty fucking dark.
  • Tobias is a registered sex offender, which is pretty dark but also quite funny, let’s be real here.
  • And George Michael, the “good one,” fully commits to his families influence, staging a multi-million dollar lie just to impress his cousin, having sex with the same woman as his father, and ending the season punching him in the face, pretty much shattering the relationship.

Yeah, this all seems pretty bad, and truly takes the Bluth to their lowest level…which is kind of great, if the show is trying to form something of a series-long narrative here. In a way, Arrested Development Season 4 is the Empire Strikes Back of this wacky comedy series. And, like Empire Strikes Back (or, for all you young-uns out there, The Last Jedi), the story required its main set of characters to go their own separate ways in order to grow and change. That’s exactly what happened over the course of season 4, and I really appreciate how far Hurwitz and his writers were willing to take things to get to the next stage of their character’s evolution.

Which, of course, is an interesting thing for a show like Arrested Development. Being a sitcom, it has no reason to change, or develop. It could have just kept doing the same thing, and crafted a Season 4 that simply tried to ape the success of its past with funny, extremely well-written episodes about the wacky Bluth family. But, instead, the writers tried something new, and unique, and rather bold. It was bound to not work for some people, and the growing pains in the new approach were evident. But at the end of the day, I truly feel like Arrested Development Season 4 accomplished what it set out to do, and did it in a way that was extremely well-written, impressive in scope, and not lacking in ambition. It also led to some big mistakes here and there, ones that stood out more astutely the first couple of times through.

But though other’s opinions of the season might have dimmed in the years since, I’ve only become more and more fond of the Bluth’s families senior year of episodes. It really does grow on you the more familiar you get with it, and I highly recommend those who were initially disappointed with the stretch of episodes to give it another look, because there’s a lot to love in this crazy, messy, delightful story.

…Such as the fact that it’s often times REALLY funny. I went thousands of words without really giving the show’s humor (you know, the reason you ostensibly watch a comedy TV series) the time of day, but I also believe the season is A LOT funnier than history gives it credit for. The season is jam-packed with amazing gags and lines that can go toe-to-toe with any of the jokes from the first three seasons, if you ask me. Hot mess, “Sounds of Silence,” the conversation about tipping black people, George Sr.’s amazing hat monologue, the pre-Trump wall gags, the amazing Fake-Block storyline, all the Hollywood in-jokes, “Have you ever even been on a plane you piece of shit,” “Daddy needs to get his rocks off!,ANUS TART, The Cute Test, The Pack First, No Talking After Scenario, all the Ann jokes…I’m going to stop now, but I think I’ve made my point. Arrested Development Season 4 is damn funny.

But the fact it also has a lot more going for it too really makes it something special. Maybe not as special as the first three season (although, hot take, I actually think I like it better than the third season), but special nonetheless. Although I’m in the minority, I would be very happy if Arrested Develoment Season 5 manages to match it in quality, and serve as something of a narrative follow-up to just what transpired here. That’s what seemed to be the narrative intent of Season 4 (showing the family slowly coming apart, before being put back together again), but who knows how Hurwitz plans to present the next chapter of this story. We shall find out when the new season hits Netflix tomorrow. Until then…


Originally published at Freshly Popped Culture.

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