Comedy Resurrection: Arrested Development

This is the first of a three-part series targeting television comedies that have risen from the dead for a chance at new laughs. I won’t say what the other two are but here’s a hint: they’re animated and both start with an “F”. As everyone knows, television is a tricky business. Creating a good show is no guarantee of success (just look at Firefly) whereas a crappy show with the right marketing can be a huge success (Here Comes Honey Boo Boo is an affront to be reality TV and humanity as a whole). So, sometimes good shows get cancelled. Arrested Development initially aired from 2003 t0 2006. During that time the show ran 53 episodes and garnered a loyal but small fan base. For that reason, the show was cancelled. It was a sad event but at the time, show creator Mitchell Hurwitz stated that he had “taken it as far as I felt I could as a series. I told the story I wanted to tell, and we were getting to a point where I think a lot of the actors were ready to move on.”

Fast forward seven years and I guess a lot changes. The explosion of Netflix for one. True, the company was founded in 1999 but it experienced huge growth in the first decade of the 21st century, taking it from a fledgling company to the frontier name is media streaming (funny story, Blockbuster refused to buy Netflix, remember Blockbuster? Proof of the importance of “adapt or die” in the media world). Through Netflix, many people who initially missed Arrested Development got a chance to experience it and the show developed a huge popularity. Popular enough to reunite the cast who had “moved on” and return a creator who felt he had already “told the story he wanted to tell”. So that’s enough of history, Arrested Development is back, the third series to air on Netflix (House of Cards and Hemlock Grove being the first two).  The question becomes now: how is it?

It's been 8 years but the Bluth family is back.
It’s been 7 years but the Bluth family is back.

Let me say a disclaimer up front: I am not finished with the fourth season yet. So far I have watched the first seven episodes (roughly halfway through the fifteen episode season). As such, I cannot give a complete season overview. However, I have seen enough to note the main story and style structure of the new season. And I am pretty disappointed in the turn it has taken. This new season is not terrible but it strays from the formula that made Arrested Development such a funny series.

Let me quickly recap how the first three seasons of Arrest Development were structured: Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) serves as the audience conduit (meaning he is the most relatable character) to the Bluths, a family of incredibly rich, out-of-touch-with-reality eccentrics who fritter about in nearly constant conflict with both each other and the outside world. They fluctuate constantly between loving and hating each other, making them very believable as a family with problems. More importantly than that, they are hilarious to watch with each other. The chemistry between the family created a ton of laughs and propelled the comedic engine that drove the series for the first three seasons. I say first three seasons because this structure no longer exists in the fourth season.

This style of advertising makes sense for the fourth season as each episode is driven by an individual rather than the family.
This style of advertising makes sense for the fourth season as each episode is driven by an individual rather than the family.

This is the largest disappointment. Each episode of the fourth season (so far) has focused on one family member. The episodes bridge the gap, giving the audience insight into what everyone has been up to in the seven years between Arrested Development‘s cancellation and revival. This has been done to explain the obvious age change (most noticeable with Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat). Does it make sense: sure. Was it needed: no.

There is a thing about television dramas, you watch them to see the evolution of a character, their growths and pitfalls. Their changes, it is a big part of every drama series and one of the key ways to measure success: does the audience get emotionally invested in the characters and how good is the payoff? This is not exactly true with comedies. Yes, the best comedies need relatable characters to make the jokes work, however, emotional investment is not needed to same extent. Arrested Development appears to have forgotten this.

I like watching the Bluths, I do. I think they are a very funny family. Haha – yes, relatable – no. To be blunt: I don’t care about Lindsey’s search for identity over the past seven years. I don’t care how Tobias has struggled to remain ignorant. Truth is, most of these characters are not very likeable with closer inspection. More than that, this new style of single focus draws attention to how one-note some of the humor is.

Tobias' unawareness is great once or twice an episode but when it is the focus of twenty minutes, it runs a little thin.
Tobias’ unawareness is great once or twice an episode but when it is the focus of twenty minutes, it runs a little thin.

This glaring problem has become more and more apparent as the season has progressed. I have yet to see an episode with the Bluth family. The focus is so strong on each character that the episode usually only features 1-2 members of the family with all other appearances feeling like cameos. And speaking of cameos: get ready to see every popular comic out there in the fourth season. Seth Rogen, Conan O’Brien, and Kristen Wiig are among the more notable appearances. Again, great to have more funny people on the show but not at the expense of screen time with the Bluth family. In addition, get ready to see everyone from the original run again.

Barry Zuckerkorn was a good side character who was naturally phased out in the initial run of Arrested Development. He is abruptly back in the new season.
Barry Zuckerkorn was a good side character who was naturally phased out in the initial run of Arrested Development. He is abruptly back in the new season.

There is a warning sign when a series relies too much on old characters for old laughs. It foretells a lack of direction or new ideas. This is another problem with the fourth season of Arrested Development. So far many of the comedic moments have been in the nature of “remember how funny this was?” A joke is never as funny the second time you hear it. Rather than continuing its identity, Arrested Development has clung to its old one (while at the same time missing what worked so well).

There is one final problem I would like to highlight in this new season, although to be fair it started in season three. Michael Bluth is no longer a relatable audience conduit. He has lost all of his believability as an everyman living with a crazy family, now he is simply a member of the crazy family. This occurred the moment of the Charlize Theron subplot in season three. For those unaware – Michael gets in a serious relationship with someone who is mentally challenged. How this is not immediately noticeable on say, the first serious conversation, is beyond me (yes the script navigates it but I have to believe they talked outside of the scenes shown).

So Michael is no longer someone to identify with. If his death as an everyman needed one more nail, it comes in the first episode of the new season. For twenty minutes, the audience gets to cringe at the awkwardness between Michael and his son. The plot is obvious and should take only seconds to resolve but instead the audience is treated to awkward moment after awkward moment (this is not my style of humor, I was never a huge fan of The Office). Michael looks like an idiot, a clueless idiot. He is no longer the suffering member enduring his family but has evolved into part of the problem. Is this character growth: maybe but not in the wisest direction (we already had plenty of socially clueless characters in this series).

Simple misunderstandings do not make for good season long plot points (at least in comedies).
Simple misunderstandings do not make for good season long gags.

In short, I am very worried for the future of Arrested Development. It has shown comparisons with another resurrected comedy show that did not turn out well (Family Guy – I’ll address this more later). I haven’t seen the whole season, but I shouldn’t have to for a comedy. I keep feeling like the show is planning some kind of pay off but, weren’t the jokes enough? Arrested Development is not a drama and it does not have strong enough characters to become one. So far it feels like creator, Mitchell Hurwitz’ comments were true back in 2006. The story has been told. Now they’re just doing it for some more dollars (while initially this was supposed to be one season and a movie to conclude the series, Netflix has recently backtracked for plans for more episodes).

So it’s okay. There are funny jokes to be sure. But I can’t help but feel like the outrageously funny period of Arrested Development has passed and these are the last few snickers before everyone leaves the room.

I cannot comment on whether or not the Bluths are still funny because I have yet to see the Bluths.
I cannot comment on whether or not the Bluths are still funny because I have yet to see the Bluths.

Thoughts? Comments? Am I full of it or onto something? Let me know now in the feedback section of this article.

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