May 26, 2013

THE SKED NETFLIX REVIEW: “Arrested Development” (Episodes 1-3)


After an absence of more than 7 years, in many ways the early episodes of the new, Netflix-produced 4th season of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT feel like the show never left.  (In fact, it would be unwise to tackle Season 4 without at least a working knowledge of what preceded it.)  The familiar stylistic quirks are back (Ron Howard’s wry narration, the “Next on Arrested Development” tag at the end of each episode), and the Bluths have returned in all their lunatic narcissism, mendacity and stupidity:  George Sr and Lucille (Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter), Michael and George-Michael (Jason Bateman and Michael Cera), GOB (Will Arnett), Buster (Tony Hale), and Lindsay, Tobias and Maeby (Portia de Rossi, David Cross and Alia Shawkat).  Although auteur Mitchell Hurwitz has taken advantage of Netflix’s leniency to expand the running times to as much as 37 minutes per episode, each one still builds to what would be commercial act-breaks if there were any commercials, and profanity is still bleeped.

The new season, however, is structured differently than the old ones.  Partly because of the logistical (and financial) challenges in reuniting so many busy cast members, each episode is built around one or two of the regulars (others make smaller guest appearances), and the structure resembles an Alan Ayckbourn play like The Norman Conquests:  the episodes all take place within the same general time period (picking up where Season 3 left off, and running–it appears–about a year after that), with the action of each intricately interlocked with the others.  So, for example, if Michael Bluth flings open the door of his parents’ apartment in Episode 1 to yell something in at them, we stay with Michael as he slams the door shut and walks away, but then in Episode 2, we see what was happening in the apartment before and after Michael’s outburst.  The idea is that as the season goes on, we’ll gradually learn more about how the separate family stories combine.  (Presumably we’ll also find out why motifs like airline flight magazines and ostriches are recurring.)

Episode 1 (written by Hurwitz, and directed, as are all the episodes so far, by Hurwitz and Troy Miller) is largely concerned with Michael, and although it makes brief stops at sequences that we’ll see again (Lucille’s trial–at a fish restaurant, under maritime law–for having stolen the Queen Mary at the end of Season 3, a “Cinco de Quatro” party in Newport Beach), its main story is about how Michael came to live in his son George-Michael’s college dorm room, and his son’s passive-aggressive desire to get him out.  Episode 2 (written by Executive Producer Jim Vallely and Co-Executive Producer Richard Rosenstock) is about George Sr. and his plan, using identical twin Oscar, to shake down corporate executives with a Mexico-border sweat lodge while scheming to build a government-funded wall on the border.  Episode 3 (written by Supervising Producer Caroline Williams and Co-Executive Producer Dean Lorey) centers on Lindsay, who journeys to India in search of spiritual enlightenment and bargain handbags.

The design of the season makes sense–in practical terms, it probably couldn’t have been done any other way–and it may all pay off once the pieces come together, but the combination of greater length, relatively undiluted focus on a single character and storyline, and the repetition of key sequences does make for a pace that feels slower than the original version of the show.  Nevertheless, there’s still more than enough of the eccentric humor that made Arrested Development a cult classic.  In Episode 3 alone, Lindsay accompanies her hapless husband Tobias to what he thinks is an acting class in a shady neighborhood that’s called “Methad-One” (he confuses the addicts’ mental wanderings with improv exercises).  Then they go to a barter restaurant described, among other things, as a “soup kitchen meets gastropub,” where hotel soaps are no longer accepted as currency.

The cast, of course, is supremely good at playing these characters, and the show continues to have a bevy of top-drawer guest stars, who in the first episodes include Kristin Wiig and Seth Rogen (as the young Lucille and George Sr), Busy Phillips, Ed Helms, John Slattery, and old hands Liza Minnelli, Ed Begley, Jr and Henry Winkler.

Arrested Development, if anything, looks more comfortable on TV now than it did 7 years ago–although its ratings made even 3 years on the air something of a miracle, its absurdist complications and refusal to court likability picked up from Seinfeld and helped clear the way for shows like Community (Dan Harmon has a cameo here, possibly as a homage) and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  It’s exactly the kind of show that the new multi-platform world of content is supposed to welcome, its idiosyncracies intact.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."