This essay covers all fifteen episodes of the new season of Arrested Development. There are minor spoilers.
Why save our Bluths only to estrange them?
The new batch of fifteen Arrested Development episodes finds the family scattered across California, Mexico, even India, alienated from each other physically and figuratively. This diaspora was not a creative choice but a logistical necessity; creator Mitch Hurwitz couldn’t gather the whole cast for an extended period of time. (All those empty chairs at Lucille’s crab shack trial, part of which looks green-screened, feel like an express manifestation of this hurdle.) So Hurwitz reformatted one of the greatest ensemble comedies in television history: each new episode would catch up with one member of the family and what (s)he has been up to for the past five years.
Then, faced with formidable production constraints and an unfamiliar structure, Hurwitz resorted to on-the-fly rewrites. Will Arnett tells Vulture, “Mitch [Hurwitz] would constantly come in and drop new pages on us. He’d be like, ‘Listen, I rewrote your scene with Jason. It’s eight pages now, just you two back-and-forth.’ And then two seconds later you hear, ‘We’re rolling!’” Michael Cera, now writing as well as acting, adds, “Mitch would be about to shoot a scene and call up to the writers room and say, ‘I need you guys to stop what you’re doing and work on this other thing for half an hour and send it over.’” A wildly fun process, I imagine, but not necessarily a recipe for success.
Inevitably, problems arise. Vintage Arrested leans hard on the killer chemistry between its brilliant cast: George Michael (Cera) is funniest begging Tobias (David Cross) not to refer to himself as “Uncle T-bag,” or asking T to use the ladder on their shared bunk-bed instead of swinging his testicles in George Michael’s face… Or shrinking from his uncle Buster’s (Tony Hale’s) monstrous hook-hand, or uncomfortably flirting with his maybe-cousin Maeby (Alia Shawkat). George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) is at his cruel best putting down Buster (“You were just a turd out there”) and Gob (Arnett), pitting his sons against each other (Boy Fights), and/or teaching them lessons through trauma. Lucille (Jessica Walter) thrives mother(boy)ing Buster, butting heads with/winking at Michael, and poking holes in her daughter Lindsay’s (Portia de Rossi’s) self-esteem with barbs like, “You want your belt to buckle, not the chair.” All of them benefit hugely from playing off Michael, whom Jason Bateman has built into an immaculate counter-argument to the popular misconception that straight men aren’t funny.
Sorry for the Greatest Hits tour, but it’s worth noting that the new batch contains little of the above.
I don’t want Hurwitz to dole out the same jokes over and over (although that’s kind of his thing), but I do want this family in the same room together. Only two scenes in the new batch feature more than a few Bluths physically interacting. It’s like they rebooted Voltron but wouldn’t let the lions unite. In other, less nerdy words, Arrested now suffers from the opposite problem as Community, an ensemble whose wonderful cast remains intact but has been robbed of its puppet-master (Dan Harmon, who has a brief cameo in the new batch). Sadly, the result is the same: a wobbly, watered down version of a cult favorite; a show more arrested than arresting.
I love Maria Bamford—who plays Tobias’s drug-addled flame, DeBrie, in the new batch—but I’d much rather watch Tobias riff off Lindsay or Maeby or George Michael, anyone in the family, really. Same goes for Lindsay and her new face-blind boyfriend, Marky Bark (Chris Diamantopoulos—you, sir, are a mouthful), who is a one-trick ostrich, joke-wise. Isla Fisher is a blast as Ron Howard’s illegitimate daughter Rebel Alley, as are John Slattery as the loopy Dr. Norman and Tommy Tune as the towering, tap-dancing Argyle Austero, but all of these performances are rendered bittersweet by the absence of Bluths.
Moreover, spend thirty minutes straight with a core character and it becomes apparent many if not most of them are funnier in small doses. The “parade of boners” that perpetually fall from Tobias’s mouth are like phallic exclamation points: dispensed in moderation, they pack an impact; but string a bunch together and they lose their oomph, irk even. Buster’s funniest scene in the new batch is his horrified reaction to his parents’ maybe-divorce—a moment that doesn’t even initially occur in his own episode. Maeby is endearingly dull/ambitious but has always been a minor player; her installment is strange (she keeps reenrolling in high school? Her?) and not very compelling or funny. George Sr.’s episodes might be weakest of all, though in his defense, Papa Bluth is hemorrhaging testosterone, a flaccid facsimile of himself. Which is another problem—the writers have stripped the old bear of his teeth and claws, effectively neutering him not just as a man but as a character.
It doesn’t help that, by Hurwitz’s own admission, these episodes form not a season of television but the first act of a potential movie. In other words, Hurwitz just dropped eight hours of exposition on us like an ACME anvil. (If you thought The Hobbit started slow, and/or you have trouble tracking what happened when on Game of Thrones, you might want to skip the new batch.) Although the first three seasons of Arrested had their share of convoluted plot points (the abbreviated final season, especially), the show has always been a character and dialogue-driven affair, and rightfully so. Hand these actors a wordplayful script, stick them in a room, and boom—magic. Vintage Arrested essentially turned audience members into a helpless horde of Howdy Doodats.
But the new batch strains and drags under the albatross of summarizing the past five years over and over. Fraught with plot and heavy with exposition, this non-season sails by about as swiftly as the moored Queen Mary. Hurwitz knows this: Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller) keeps saying that he’s “been recapping everything lately.” (For my money, Gob’s episodes are the strongest in the new batch, along with Michael’s second episode and George Michael’s first.) It’s enough to make one wonder (cue Tony popping out of a bean bag) why there had to be such a long gap in the Arrested world between the third and fourth seasons: why not a year or two instead? As the pedophiles at Sudden Valley gleefully point out, Michael Cera can still pass for sixteen, so eighteen or nineteen would be a breeze.
Frustratingly, because this is the first act of a film and not a season of TV, there is little if any resolution to the innumerable plot threads Hurwitz spends eight hours weaving. If you’re hoping to find out what happens with the border wall, or Michael’s frayed relationship with his son, or Lindsay’s new career path, or Buster’s legal trouble, etc. etc., you’ll have to wait for the maybe-movie (not to be confused with the movie within the show, for which Michael spends much of the new batch securing his family’s rights). Which, frankly, makes for an unsatisfying viewing experience in the meantime. I don’t watch this show for its plots, but if you’re going to shove them down my throat like a giant vial of Gob’s Forget-Me-Nows, the least you could do is resolve them.
If that sounds like a low blow, Loblaw, accept this caveat: my viewing experience was exactly what Hurwitz asked Arrested fans not to do. (I blame my editors.) I watched the first six episodes, broke for a few hours for Thai food, ice cream, and beer, then watched the final nine, not finishing till 1:30 am. My dear friend and most trusted consultant, Alyssa Vine, fell asleep (briefly — Ed. note) during Episode 12; I was dazed for the last two. By the end, my eyes had glazed over and crossed and my brain felt like a snake that had swallowed a moose. I suspect that on later viewings my take on the new batch will soften somewhat—no show builds on itself and grows on you like Arrested. For all we know, these episodes are mediocre the first time around and mind-blowingly funny the second or tenth. I don’t anticipate that kind of leap in quality, but I do expect a bump, which would raise my overall grade from a C+ to a B-.
This non-season of Arrested Development ends with George Michael punching his father Michael in the nose, which seems appropriate not because the new batch is a slap in the face to fans—Hurwitz and company did their best under impossible circumstances—but because it violently typifies the difference between the vintage episodes and the new ones. In the former the Bluths are stuck together for better or worse (usually worse), and Michael, for all his threats to flee to Phoenix, rarely fails to remind his son what’s most important, what always comes first.
“Breakfast?” George Michael asks in the pilot.
“Family,” Michael says.
Evan Allgood's work has appeared in McSweeney's, The Millions, LA Review of Books, The Toast, and The Billfold. He lives in Brooklyn and contributes regularly to Paste. Follow and maybe later unfollow him on Twitter @evoooooooooooo.