Tuesday, October 29, 2013

Arrested Development - season four [television review]

All 15 episodes from season four released in May on Netflix

The resurrection of Arrested Development for a fourth season easily ranks as the most disappointing television viewing experience this reviewer has ever had. The fast-paced and edgy comedy, which I had considered the funniest TV show I'd ever seen next to Seinfeld, premiered on Fox in 2003 and received huge critical acclaim, but garnered anemic ratings and was cancelled after three seasons. Fox's mismanagement of the show didn't help matters - they infamously burned off the final four episodes of it opposite the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics. A loyal post-cancellation following cultivated by DVD sales and streaming services gave show creator Mitchell Hurwitz the traction to bring back all of the original cast members for 15 new episodes, which were released simultaneously in May on Netflix. Sadly, season four falls astonishingly short of the admittedly ridiculously high bar that was established during Arrested Development's initial run.

Freed up from network TV constraints, Hurwitz and his writers take the unconventional approach of structuring each episode around one principal character, with each episode running longer than the traditional 22 minute format at anywhere from 28 to 37 minutes (commercial free, of course). I'm the first to bemoan the dumbing down of TV these days, but the ambitious and unorthodox story structure utilized here, while an intriguing idea, simply fails to work. And those extended running times just make the whole thing not work for that much longer. Arrested Development's previous biggest strength was the interplay and chemistry between its outstanding large ensemble cast (which is second-to-none in TV comedy history, in my opinion) and although everyone may be back, that crucial element is drastically cut back during season four. Main characters Michael Bluth (played by Jason Bateman), his son George Michael (played by Michael Cera), his mother Lucille (played by Jessica Walter), his father George Sr. (played by Jeffrey Tambor), his brothers Buster (played by Tony Hale) and Gob (played by Will Arnett), his sister Lindsay (played by Portia de Rossi), Lindsay's husband Tobias (played by David Cross), and their daughter Maeby (played by Alia Shawkat) don't get nearly enough interaction with each other. Long stretches pass with distracting absences from some of the main actors, with the storylines relying far too much instead on contributions from lame new characters like Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen as a younger George Sr. and Lucille, comedian Maria Bamford as an addict, Isla Fisher as the object of Michael's affection, and Chris Diamantopoulos as a character with a facial recognition disorder. There's also an overreliance on a number of returning supporting players, including characters played by Liza Minnelli, Christine Taylor, Ben Stiller, James Lipton, Carl Weathers, and Henry Winkler. Ron Howard, one of the show's executive producers and its narrator, is also overused in appearances playing himself as a producer on a film about the Bluth family, one of the many storylines that never achieve liftoff. Other main plots involving a shady land deal orchestrated by George Sr., the marital strife between Lucille and George Sr., the mounting of a Fantastic Four musical, and an app designed by George Michael are even more labyrinthian and complex than the elaborate storylines used during seasons 1-3, but it all just feels far too convoluted and doesn't deliver a satisfying payoff when the plotlines eventually intersect and provide some much-needed clarity. 

Fresh off a repeat marathon viewing of all 53 episodes from Arrested Development's brilliant first three seasons on DVD prior to watching season four, it was probably inevitable that a letdown with the revived show was to follow. Even with lowered expectations, though, I was completely unprepared for just how much of its mojo the show would lose. At one point during season four, I was conscious that I had laughed maybe twice over the entirety of three episodes, and I'd be hard-pressed to find a single episode from seasons 1-3 that didn't have me laughing at least a half dozen times. By the midway point of the latest season, as it became clearer and clearer that the comedy was not going to right itself from its protracted stumble, I resigned myself to the fact that the show's sterling legacy had been tainted. I continued watching right through the 15th episode, but more out of sheer fanboy obligation than anything else. Frankly, I couldn't wait for the last car in this trainwreck to finally come to a merciful stop. 

Rating: D    

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