Thursday, June 20, 2013

Arrested Development: Season Four

Hard to believe it was ten years ago when Arrested Development, Mitchell Hurwitz's labyrinthine serial of the ne'er do well Bluth family, first debuted to massive critical acclaim, rabid cult status, and terrible Nielsen numbers.  That Emmy-winning show nobody watched had it's fanbase build to supernova expectations in the seven years in between the shows cancellation and game-changing return to Netflix this past Memorial Day Weekend.  And since...well, it appears all that hype and binge watching has seeped into the ether rendering Season Four nearly irrelevant a month after arrival.  In truth, binge watching was probably never best for Arrested Development considering all its in joke and a layout that forgoes the typical ba da boom rhythms of sitcom punchlines.  The show was always a richly textured tapestry of absurdity as the revolving doors of the dysfunctional family members further dug themselves deeper and deeper down various holes, mazes and loops.  It took the "no hugging, no lessons" rule of Seinfeld and turned it on its head, entrenched ever further by layer upon layer of irony.

Binge-watching may be disastrous-- after all, like Seinfeld, the members of Bluth family are fairly loathsome individuals and the strewn about multiple narratives could easily fly through the roof in one eager sitting.  On the outset, the leading reason why Arrested Development never became an initial ratings winner a decade ago was because the weekly format that spilled each episode on to another was so inclusive and involving and expertly crafted, there was a hardly a way in unless you started from scratch at the beginning.  Regardless of the tastes or viewing habits of others, it is without question that Arrested Development is/was a benchmark for television.  Intricate, crafty, and more clever than can ever be fully analyzed or dissected; it will always be a diamond in the rough without equals.  That being said, in the seven year absence, I can't exactly say I've become such a devotee that I could recite lines of dialogue from heart or remember the slick structures of the three golden seasons the show had from the start.  On that regard, binge watching (at least of the first three years) may well do some well before venturing into Season Four.

I was initially a bit confused, albeit in a comforting sort of way as Ron Howard's bemused narration began and the harmonic discordance of the playful theme music starting humming away.  If it doesn't exactly hum through the first episode-- a trickily set up re-introduction of the characters and their new adventures-- it is guided with a masterful touch in the manner that it will, eventually.  Arrested Development was always a show more focused on the set-up than the punchline, so it's okay that at first it makes no sense at an ostrich would be living in Lucille penthouse apartment.  Each episode takes the unique approach of focusing on a particular character and parlaying the rich, nutty journeys that lead them from the last episode of the series seven years ago to today.  It's heady, daunting, at times confusing and other times, a bit dull.  But in the end, there's that same freshness, spark and soul that recaptures the reason why fans became so rabid in the first well as further reasoning as to why the series was never quite successful in the long run.  It's just so weird!  For instance, Season Four manages to thread immigration politics, pedophilia, incest, homosexual magicians, drug addiction, prostitution and the film industry all into its theater of the absurd.

The characters all become all so inverted throughout the fifteen episode run of the show, it's just as easy to shrug as it to be bawled over.  If the somewhat soft lift off in the first couple of episodes were a true indicator of the direction of the season, it would be easy to just throw it away completely.  However it builds gradually and with a such a twisty and delicate sleight of hand, it would be hard pressed to not call it a tremendous achievement-- albeit a messy one.  The character study per episode routine was the riskiest decision and it sometimes falters just because the power and skill of the show was always weighted by it's immeasurable ensemble cast and supporting world of crackpot characters.  The zoom in approach sometimes negates this and you might find yourself missing other characters from time to time, or worse yet, realizing that some of them are really only particularly fitting in small doses.  That being said, like Seinfeld and The Simpsons, the worst of episodes always warrant a throwaway line, gag or something that will it all worth it again.

In my book, the show started to pick up with Episode 5, the first Tobias-centered show called "A New Start." David Cross' delightfully bent and otherworldly naive doctor turned actor, never nude, wannabe Blue Man Group frontman had a wonderful showcase that not only managed to make earlier, and somewhat lamer Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) episode "Indian Takers" funnier in the process, but it was when it truly felt Arrested Development was rekindling its groove.  There was something genius in his relationship with the methodone-hooked Debrie (Maria Bamford, wonderful) and their pathetic attempts to kick start their acting career.  From then, the season seemed more fully focused as God (Will Arnett) had a killer episode heading with "Colony Collapse" when he joins a young Hollywood entourage, and newly imprisoned Lucille (an award worthy Jessica Walters) got the best episode of the season title with "Queen B."  As always the entire cast was able and strong throughout-- Jason Bateman, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat and Tony Hale all returned and all received individual moments to shine, even some of their leading episodes weren't the top the heaps.

As always, the Arrested Development team utilized guest appearances in the most clever fashion this side of 30 Rock, with standout performances from the likes of Ben Stiller, Isla Fisher, Henry Winkler, Andy Richter, Kristen Wiig, Liza Minnelli (brilliant-- favorite non-sequiter was a brittle reply between the dueling Lucilles where Walters refers to Liza as a "sterile cuckoo-bird," The Sterile Cuckoo was the film Minnelli received an Oscar nomination for), as well as wonderfully amusing real-life appearance from Ron Howard.  Meta and then some-- now get started on the movie!  A-  

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