Arrested Development might be the first show that actually reflects how superfans watch television today. It’s hard to imagine now, but when the show first premiered back in 2003, far fewer consumers had a DVD player, much less a DVR, so there was really only one way to watch: By turning on your television exactly when the show started, watching in real time, then training your wooly mammoth to push the ”off” button with its horns. Considering the sheer number of regular joke-jokes, hidden-in-the-background action jokes, blink-and-you’ll-miss-them visual jokes, and call-backs to previous jokes on the first three seasons, it’s kind of amazing that regular people could appreciate the full brilliance of the first three seasons of the highly dysfunctional Bluth family without making use of their pause and rewind buttons. But they did — and, boy, did they. There’s a reason why there’s a market out there today for ”Buster’s unfortunate incident” earrings and cornballer infomercial paper dolls. Sadly, that market is exactly the same group of people who’ve already turned against the 15 new episodes.
Netflix premiered the show’s fourth season early on Sunday, and by mid-afternoon, the reviews were already rolling in, sometimes before critics had even gotten the chance to watch the full season. The word ”disappointed” came up often. The New York Times found it ”hard to imagine being anything but disappointed with this new rendition.” A Buzzfeed contributor was”left disappointed.” If you look up #arresteddevelopment and #disappointed on Twitter, a whole lot of posts will pop up. And that feels slightly unfair. In the seven years since the show was cancelled, Arrested Development‘s reputation has been transformed from a very funny, underappreciated comedy to a fierce cult favorite that everyone professes to love more than her Shémale-t-shirt-wearing, frozen-banana-eating friends. Some of these people feel responsible for bringing the show back from the dead, and they seem to think it owes them. Such is the very personal nature of the Kickstarter-funding, Save-Our-Show-petitioning age of TV fandom: No one just dislikes the new episodes — they feel ”let down” or even ”betrayed.” All of which begs the question: Just how brain-explodingly awesome would the show have to be to pay them back?
Having binge-watched the whole thing — and then rewatched my favorite scenes all over again — I’m a little surprised by how quickly fans have turned against the show. The new season is actually pretty good, and it gets better with each episode. This is the problem with binge-watching: It often leads to binge-judging, with some viewers fiercely overrating or underrating what they’ve seen before they’ve really gotten the chance to think about it. And that’s particularly difficult when you’re watching a show like Arrested Development, which gives you new things to dissect every time you watch, and offers a growing sense of satisfaction as time goes on and loose narrative threads get tied up.
This isn’t just another season of the show — it’s a heartfelt tribute to seasons past. Each episode focuses on an individual character and follows what happened to him or her within the five years following the end of season 3. There are also flashbacks — the hilariously spot-on Kristen Wiig plays a young Lucille and Seth Rogen takes on young George — and occasional cuts to footage from previous episodes. (A ”Showstealer Pro” watermark appears on those scenes, riffing on the idea that Netflix might’ve failed to purchase the rights from Fox, which originally aired the show.) Slowly, the characters’ stories begin to overlap, as the action moves from a Hollywood moviemaker’s office to a college dorm room to a desert getaway to the Bluth compound of model homes. So if you see Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) get run over by an ostrich at the end of the fourth season’s premiere, and it feels kind of random, don’t worry: A few episodes later, you’ll find out how that ostrich got into his family’s apartment. (Hint: It has something to do with his sister Lindsay’s newfound activism.) This Rashomon approach serves a practical purpose: Due to busy schedules, the actors weren’t all available to work together in every episode. But this everything’s-happening-at-once structure also feels tailor-made for our YouTube-obsessed, instant-nostalgia generation. Past and present coexist on this timeline. While the show drums up old memories of long-lost episodes, it’s forcing you to create new memories that you’ll flash back to very soon.
So, that ostrich that knocks Michael over? It’s a nod to season 1, when Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) first decided to get political. (Lindsay: ”I care deeply for nature.” Michael: ”You’re wearing ostrich-skin boots.” Lindsay: ”Well, I don’t care about ostriches.”) There are so many great hidden references here, it’s hard to imagine a time when people watched Arrested Development without a laptop in their laps. The mural that appears behind Michael when he walks through the Phoenix airport? It contains scenes from the previous three seasons, including a shot of ”Wee Britain” and the seal that mauled Buster (Tony Hale). The ”Feeling Blue?” sign that’s hanging on the wall behind Tobias (David Cross) in the Methadone Clinic? It’s a reference to the old Blue Man Group episodes. You’ll want to pause any scene that shows a newspaper, magazine, or hand-written sign — the printed punchlines are priceless. And there are callbacks to the cornballer, Dangerous Cousins, and ”I’ve made a huge mistake,” along with new catchphrases — ”roofie circle,” ”anustart,” ”straightbait” — that are just waiting to be printed on an ironic Etsy tote bag.
Some references are so insidery, you need IMDB to catch them: If you notice that many characters are randomly snacking on parmesan with mustard, maybe it’s a nod to Martin Mull, who takes on the role of Gene Parmesan here and also played Colonel Mustard in Clue. You can tell that Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz is a great pop culture lover, and he seems to be paying tribute to his own cult favorites here, with a guest star list that includes John Slattery from Mad Men, the casts of Workaholics and Outsourced, and friendly send-ups of Ugly Betty and Entourage. One scene finds Wiig spoofing How the Grinch Stole Christmas, which Arrested Development‘s executive producer Ron Howard directed as a live-action movie. Other references take longer to figure out. There are so many redheads on screen — Conan O’Brien, Isla Fisher, and Workaholics‘ Blake Anderson all make appearances, and many characters wear red wigs — you might wonder if Howard suggested that they cast more gingers like him. Then again, maybe the show’s just messing with you: There is, after all, an episode called ”Red Hairing.”
Some have criticized the new season for not being funny enough. But no one has given it much credit for how fantastically strange and melancholy it has gotten. Tobias and Lindsay don’t seem to care much about each other anymore, which somehow just makes their desperation funnier. The darkly funny comedienne Maria Bamford is fantastic as DeBrie Bardeaux, a drug addict so lovable and pathetic, she literally made me turn away while I laughed. (It might’ve had something to do with the fact that butter was smeared all over her face at the time.) The best theme here — and it’s a sad one — has to do with the passing of time. The season’s first episode begins with a voiceover from Howard, who has to clear his throat before talking — a nod to just how long it has been since the show last aired. Some characters have obviously gotten older. (Steve Holt, I hardly recognized ye!) Others, not so much. (There’s a running joke that Michael — or maybe Bateman himself — never ages.) Either way, it’s clear that the show just isn’t the same as it used to be, which might be why the reaction isn’t the same either. But that’s also why I’m still hopeful that people will appreciate it once this massive, premiere-driven opinion-off is over. When you binge-watch all at once, that just leaves more time to wish there were more episodes left. Maybe that’s exactly when fans will finally realize that they actually kind of liked the new season: when it’s gone. B+