After a 2013 revival season more discussed than loved, Arrested Development is about to re-return.
Season 4 had a bold, not-entirely-successful structure, splitting the Bluths into their own separate journeys. This was partially a scheduling issue. The original series catapulted its cast towards various levels of comedy stardom, everyone Up All Night-ing and Horrible Boss-ing and voice-on-Archer-ing. (It was that magical period, part of history now, when Michael Cera seemed to be everywhere.) But the show’s cerebral creator, Mitch Hurwitz, was also crafting an ambitious new kind of 4-D binge-com, folding subplots over clashing timelines. It was occasionally nifty, mostly more architectural than funny, with too-long episodes that lacked the biting frenzy of the (brilliant, decade-defining) original run.
The cast is “back together” relatively early, which means the phrase “Whole Episode About George Senior” need never be uttered ever again. But the cure is worse than the disease. Some subplots take forever. People keep going to Mexico, then coming back from Mexico, then going back to Mexico again.
15 years into this show’s existence, some trademark callbacks just feel like bored repetition. Michael (Jason Bateman) keeps on announcing that he’s leaving his family before immediately returning to help them—an origin story that is now his one noteworthy character trait. And Gob (Will Arnett) is trying to prove his heterosexuality, just like Tobias (David Cross) never could back in the mid-2000s.
Meanwhile, some new directions go nowhere.
Tobias himself is trying to prove that he belongs in the Bluth family, which feels like a collective writers’ room shrug about a character who doesn’t quite belong here anymore even with pretzel logic. Lucille (Jessica Walter) is plotting, which is always fun. But a big part of her plot involves Lindsay (Portia De Rossi) running for political office on a platform of populist stupidity—a practically-necessary Trump riff that would be funnier if De Rossi didn’t feel beamed in from Distant Planet Greenscreen.
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The focal-character structure of season 4 has been replaced with, well, no structure at all. Oh, there’s an ongoing mystery surrounding Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli), requiring copious recap montages back toward half-remembered subplots from 2013. The Ron Howard-narrated recaps—one of the show’s many inventive foundational ideas—have never felt more like a crutch, reminding you why something should be funny. In the fourth episode, there is a fadeout for a nonexistent commercial break—Michael’s just discovered something surprising—and when we fade back in, and Ron Howard’s narrating what just happened, a midpoint “Previously On” for anyone who fell asleep, I guess.
Arrested‘s initial return felt like a modern TV miracle, a sign that television itself was evolving in an unexpected direction. Good news: We’re living in the result of that evolution! Confusing news: Turns out that the main TV-industry influence of the 2013 revival was this new world order where Arrested Development is just one reboot among many. What works in these revivals—and what doesn’t—can feel like the TV-nostalgia equivalent of a new record from a band you loved when you were a teenager.
This is not by any means a bad thing. (I’m the dope who’s still listening to Weezer’s Pacific Daydream.)
It’s a kick to see the cast members reunited—and a helplessly gossipy thrill to see who’s changed the most between seasons. Deadpan Bateman is still one of TV’s greatest straight men—[Ron Howard Voice] unlike Tobias. Alia Shawkat’s Maeby feels promoted to greater prominence, a onetime precocious child grown into a next-generation Bluth hustler. Arnett’s still giving Gob everything he’s got, even if the character feels pushed way beyond the cliffs of absurdity.
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That’s a common feeling in the new season, actually. Arrested was always a zany version of reality, but the cartoonishness feels hyperbolic now, unfocused. Howard himself appears again, as himself, in a vastly expanded role that accommodates some unexpected cameos from the Ron Howard Cinematic Universe. Maybe personal preference, but I’d say Howard is better seen than heard.
And his onscreen presence reflects a broader issue.
The show’s ditched season 4’s distinctive structure, but it’s doubled down on many of its central plot points. You want inside-Hollywood gags? “He’s already started paying off the Hollywood Foreign press,” someone says, the kind of joke that was funnier before the Golden Globes began making fun of the Golden Globes. While Maeby’s hustle takes her in some unexpected directions, George Michael remains enmeshed with Rebel Alley (Isla Fisher, still wasted in a limp love interest role). Cera also recreates the old lightsaber gag, which reminds you that it was easier to make Star Wars jokes before literally everyone was making Star Wars jokes all the time. (Ben Stiller’s Tony Wonder is still here, literally phoning in.)
You feel, in the end, like the concept-album strangeness of season 4 has been replaced by an attempt toward facsimile: The old show, recreated. Fun enough, I guess, if you forget that a central part of the thrill with Arrested Development was how completely it could reset the boundaries of TV comedy every week. There will always be money in this banana stand—but there used to be so much more.