It’s a clarifying experience to watch a bad season of great TV. Arrested Development was — for a couple years, forever ago — the most exciting sitcom on television, seeming to create whole new subgenres of cult humor every episode. The show went off the air in 2006. When it returned in 2013, “the air” was very different: a new world of streaming, the sudden (now eternal) possibility that no TV show would ever end again.
The fourth season of Arrested Development was strange, ambitious in its architecture, somehow never-ending without ever beginning. You could admire the sheer density of its storytelling, but the main impressive thing about the Netflix reboot was its willingness to transform the story of the Bluths into an unrelenting bummer. In hindsight, some essential appeal of the original Arrested Development was always its breezy escapism, sunny afternoons at the banana stand, a prison wacky-safe enough for Bring Your Daughter to Work Day. The Bluths had no money, but they had the proud attitude of rich people who hate poor people — an American habit that the show rendered sharply, but not unlovingly. They were desperate, but SoCal desperate, not too far removed from their geographic network-mates on The O.C. GOB (Will Arnett) was an unemployed adult without a proper home — but he was squatting on a boat, man!
Season 4 wanted to push the family past its breaking point. It was a bold idea, and it kind of broke the show, but it was very trendy circa 2013 to imagine all the horrible rich people were getting their comeuppance. The bigger issue with the season, famously, was how it sent every character in different directions, splitting a crazy-family sitcom into focal-character episodes. “The story of a family whose future was abruptly canceled,” was how narrator Ron Howard introduced every episode, “and the one [family member] who had no choice but to keep [himself/herself] together.”
The season had a complex timeline when you lined everything up in a binge. But the focal-character episodes felt weirdly opposite — actually too linear, following just Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) as she went here and here and then there, and ultimately back to here.
Certain characters were well-served by the attention. David Cross’ Tobias found hilarious new sub-basements of debasement; GOB became the subject of a freakishly catchy half-song. And it was unexpectly hilarious to watch Alia Shawkat’s Maeby spiral downward into young adulthood. In the original series, she’d been precocious — and, past a certain point, rather sidelined. So her spotlight episode felt unsparingly bleak: repeating high school, sponging off her relatives, arrested after a double-reverse statutory-rape con gone way wrong. (Shawkat’s desperate performance was an early prelude of her demolishing performance on Search Party.)
But then there was a whole episode about George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) and his sweat lodge, and Lindsay went to India, and Jason Bateman’s Michael went to Hollywood, insert producer joke here. There were some telltale signs of sitcom bloat, a natural affliction for any long-running comedy, which Arrested Development hadn’t been but suddenly was. There were broad jokes about the film business that felt like what happens when a writers’ room starts joking about Variety news alerts. Beloved guest stars like Henry Winkler, Ben Stiller, and Liza Minnelli were suddenly always around, sometimes stapled into the set via green screen.
It was most impressive as an athletic endeavor — marvel at how scene 45B from episode 14 relates to scene 17 from episode 3! Now, as a final unexpected feat of strength, creator Mitchell Hurwitz has returned to re-edit the entire season. Last Friday, Netflix released Arrested Development Season 4 Remix: Fateful Consequences, a run-on phrase that sounds mostly like the title of some long-anticipated Final Fantasy DLC. Season 4’s 15 long episodes have been remixed into 22 shorter episodes, somewhat chronological and somewhat more immediately split among the main cast of characters.
I rewatched every episode of the original series at least twice. But I never rewatched season 4, so I can’t fully encapsulate the scope of Hurwitz’s revisionism here. The season still begins with a flash-forward and ends with a cliffhanger, and there are many in-episode recaps and turnbacks, so calling this season “chronological” is only a loose definition. The sheer amount of effort that went into crafting this remix is impressive, though it feels like the essential idea here was stapling several different subplots together with new Ron Howard narration.
Whenever I try to figure out the audience for this Remix, the whole thing starts to feel cosmically pointless. If you liked Arrested Development, you’ve already seen season 4, and if you don’t like Arrested Development, go [loud broadcast-network bleeping sound] yourself. Hurwitz joked in his explanatory letter that the whole remix was just a syndication play, which could just be honesty. Maybe you could just set Fateful Consequences on the table next to cash-grab curios like basic-cable Sex and the City, or Fox’s fondly unremembered Ally, which “remixed” hourlong hit Ally McBeal into a half-hour sitcom.
There’s a curious erasure happening here, though, worth noting. On Netflix right now, the Remix is the only obvious version of season 4. You have to really dig for what is now retroactively called Arrested Development Season 4 Original Cut, buried in a “Trailers and More” tag that I’ve literally never clicked on before.
And the opening narration has changed. Now, Howard introduces every episode with this piece:
Now the story of what happened when the one man who was holding his family together finally let go, and the separate journeys that eventually gave them no choice but to come back together.
The different words offer a different promise. It feels, retroactively, like the whole gigantic 15-to-22-episode sweep of season 4 is being pitched as a prequel. “No choice but to come back together“: There’s the concept for season 5, presumably. It’s just some opening-credits narration, I know. But it feels deflating, somehow, like an attempt to explain away the whole fascinating, failed ambition of season 4 as one long stall toward the next reboot. C+