“It’s not a trick, it’s an ILLUSION.”

“Now the story of a wealthy family and the one man who had no choice but to watch all of season 4 over the last week of May himself. This is trevorlibrarian’s Arrested Development.”

I am a big fan of “Arrested Development”. I watched seasons 1 and 2 when he was rebroadcast in syndication on the CBC. There was a time when I would not miss “Jeopardy”, and AD was shown just before it. I would sometimes catch the last few minutes of AD and thought it looked crazy. I didn’t know any of the characters, but I liked a lot of the physical comedy and I decided to start tuning in a half hour earlier and I was pretty much hooked right away. Luckily, the CBC showed them in order every night, and when the run ended, they just started right up again from the beginning, so I eventually caught the whole run. I was pretty much all caught up when Season 3 aired on Fox, and I tried to watch as many episodes as possible when they aired. This was no small feat, since this was a time before we had a PVR and our VCR only played tapes: it couldn’t record anything off the TV. I guess the “R” in the VCR was busted. Whatever episodes I missed originally I eventually saw when the good ol’ CBC reran them. The final scene of the third season finally shows the narrator, Ron Howard, in person and he suggests that maybe this would all make a good movie? It was a fun way to end the series and also raise the hopes of the fanbase that one day these characters would be seen again, this time on the big screen.

If you had told me then that in seven or eight years there would be this technology where you pay a monthly fee and you can stream over the internet a ton of older TV shows and movies (unlimited!), I would have been amazed. If you had then told me that one of your favourite shows, “Arrested Development”, would return with 15 new episodes and they wouldn’t be shown on regular TV but would rather be uploaded, all 15 at once, to this internet service and you could do whatever you wanted with them, I would have called you a liar.

But here we are, in the future! (2013) and there is a season 4 of “Arrested Development” out there for us all to enjoy. At least those of us with Netflix accounts or those of us who have a friend who may have happened to log into their Netflix account while they were over one day and didn’t seem to mind that those people have just not bothered to log out, I’m sure there are a few questionable people like that out there, not naming names. I know I am on borowed time.

It is a historic event, actually: to have an existing network TV show return after so many years, but return as an “internet series” as this most accurately should be called. It creates a conundrum for the fanbase, surely. Do you get together with friends and “bingewatch” the whole thing at once (or at least a good chunk of it?) or do you discipline yourself to watch one episode a week (or maybe more realistically one episode a day) until the series is complete? There is certainly something fun about getting together with a group of friends and experiencing it as an “event” like one might do for the Super Bowl or Oscar night, but there is also something to be said for taking it in smaller dosages and savouring them one by one.

Since I didn’t get any invites to any “get together” viewing parties, and since I was too much of a fan (and much too undisciplined) to watch just one a week in the traditional manner, I settled for splitting the difference and I watched about two or three episodes a night for a week. I did this pretty much on my own: my wife fell asleep in episode 2, and although I thought about stopping the show and waiting for her, I was just too damn curious to see what was in store for the Bluth family this time ’round, and I went ahead with another episode on my own. By that point, I could have gone back and rewatched it with her (and maybe still will, these shows beg to be seen multiple times) but for this first run through, I was watching solo. She did come home in the middle of episode 13 and watched episode 14 with me. I ended up pausing and trying to explain all the intricacies of the plot until it got absurd and she said, “just let it play, I’ll figure it out.” So in my wife’s case, the original plan of watching them out of sequence seems to be working for her.

To describe the show to someone who hasn’t seen it is difficult, because you could say, like it says at the top of every episode, that “this is the story of a wealthy family and one man…….etc, etc” but I think you actually just have to watch an episode to get the feel. I know there are a lot of people who don’t like this style of show, but for me I loved the in-jokes and the gags and the social commentary and the lightning delivery all wrapped up in a tight, tidy 22 minute package. And everything from “The Office” to “New Girl” have borrowed elements of AD and made it their own. Like so many great shows (Firefly, anyone? Anyone?), it received rave reviews but never really found its audience until people saw it in syndication and on DVD.

I had planned at some point to rewatch the first three seasons to prepare for season 4, but aside from the pilot episode from the first season, I never did get that chance. Too busy binge-watching Veronica Mars, I guess! I was a little worried that I might be lost, it having been such a long time since I watched the show. In fact, quite often someone will say something and I’ll say “What’s that from?” and they’ll say “Arrested Development” and I’ll not have a clue what they’re talking about. But no worries, the show does a great job of catching you up, maybe TOO good. Although you certainly should watch the first three seasons before you watch season 4 (that only makes sense, right?), I didn’t feel like I was the poorer for it for not rewatching recently.

Before I talk about the new season, we have to just really sit back and marvel at the huge creative and logistical achievement Mitch Hurwitz pulled off here. We, the fans, were hopeful for a 90 minute movie, and he delivered, on my estimation, over eight hours of new material. He was able to get the whole cast together, not just the main players, but many of the smaller side characters that add so much colour to the series. I will try to keep my review relatively free of spoilers for those who have yet to see it, but I’m sure I’ll let the odd thing slip, so if you’re worried at all, maybe stop reading here.

We knew going in that each episode would focus on a different member of the Bluth family, and there was talk at one point that you could watch any of the episodes (except the last one) in any order, and still have it make sense. It wasn’t going to be a linear TV show, but rather have a “choose your own adventure” construction, where you could dip into it at any point and pick up the thread of the story. As it turned out, they couldn’t quite make the “watch in any order” thing quite work in the editing room, so they announced that you really should watch them in the order they are listed, which is fine. Having said that, you could really see how it could have almost worked in any order. I thought the main story would have been a “let’s find out what everyone has been doing since the series ended” kind of thing, but for the most part season 4 focuses on a much narrower timeline. You get to see events from one character’s perspective, and then in a following episode, you get to see the same events from a different character’s perspective, each time the viewer gets a few more bits of information as to what is going on. You get the sense in the early episodes that you’re seeing little clues that will explain themselves later, and that is exactly what happens. Some of the twists were true surprises, and some of them were obviously telegraphed before the big reveal. There is quite a bit of repetition and it feels much more fragmented than the original series. Quite often, one family member’s story only overlaps with one or two other family members, and there are only a few scenes where the whole family is together. The original series always played around with timelines and flashbacks, but in season 4 is seems like the whole thing was filmed out-of-order depending on which cast members were available that day, and a little reading into the “behind the scenes” of the production reveals that was exactly how it happened.

Like I mentioned earlier, I didn’t have a hard time getting back into the world of “Arrested Development”. It was weird, because it mostly felt like the original series, but somehow it was lacking a bit of the fun of the original. Everything was so tightly scripted, it almost felt like one of those live episodes of network TV that they sometimes do, where everyone is almost robotically going through the motions, terrified that they won’t make their marks. It also is quite a bit darker than I remember the original run, with a couple of possible murders and disappearances that (SPOILER) don’t ever really get resolved. Maybe they’re saving the denouement for the upcoming movie?

It might because of the tight timeline that the whole season takes place in, like an ant colony on a grand scale, but it may also have to do with each episode’s length. Instead of being forced down to 22 minutes to make room for commercials, Season Four’s episodes averaged about 10 minutes longer. I found myself getting lost not in who was who, but is who was doing what to whom and why. Those extra 1o minutes per episode didn’t really help with the narrative, and I found myself checking the screen to see if I actually was only on Episode 3 (for example) because it felt like I should have been further along. Even though I liked the idea of showing us the same events from multiple perspectives, it did start to wear a little thin, having this spread out over 15 episodes. It was like we were stuck at Shelly Pomroy’s party on Groundhog Day. (obligatory Veronica Mars reference). Editing something down almost always makes it better, to which this bloated 2500+ word blog post can attest!

Some of the references felt a little dated already, like the “Entourage” and the “Real Housewives of…” parodies, and I missed the George Michael/Maeby tension and the Michael/GOB rivalry that made so much of the original series dynamic. We got some of it towards the end, but just not enough to my liking. I guess I am going into spoiler territory, so SPOILER everybody. (sorry).

This review sounds like I didn’t enjoy it, but that’s not true. I DID enjoy it, it just wasn’t a “laugh a minute” like the original series was for me. There were a few great moments and lines sprinkled throughout the whole season, and it seems weird to complain after being given over eight hours of new material that there isn’t enough of it, but I think maybe less is more in this case. I wonder what a 10 episode season (one for every character plus one to wrap it all up) at 22 minutes would have looked like?

There were a number of new characters introduced in season 4 (at least I THINK they were new). My favourite of them all was Argyle Austero, Lucille 2’s brother, who was a musical theatre enthusiast who also ran a rehab centre. One of the wonderful things about AR is its meticulous attention to detail, and I’m sure I will revisit these episodes again before long (maybe with my wife) and I will notice little details that I missed the first time. One of the little touches I liked was that Argyle was pretty much wearing Argyle sweaters the whole time, and that he had posters of Bob Fosse and Betty Ford on his office wall. He reminded me of an older Jeff Goldblum, and friends of the blog will know how much I admire Mr. Goldblum and his style.

I think I enjoyed the Tobias story line the best. I think it’s because I always liked Tobias and could relate to the way that he would often say things that came out wrong. Sure, I’m also intentionally saying stuff that’s a bit questionable too, but many times in my life I’ve meant to say something innocent and my turn of phrase leaves much to be desired. This is how slow I am: it took me the third time the “anus tart” joke was made before I even got the joke. I think the first two times they panned out to the street, I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. Was it the car? Is the car new? It wasn’t until one of the characters said something about his license plate that I had a little chuckle. Tobias and Argyle seemed to be two of the more sympathetic characters in season 4. They have a dream and gosh darn it they make it happen. And even though things seems to go a bit pear-shaped at Cinco de Quatro, there is a possibility that their dream of taking the show to Broadway is still alive. We’re not sure what happened to Lucille 2 at the end of Season 4, but if she somehow gets that $700,000 back from the Bluth family and passes it on to Argyle, we’re all set! I’d love to see a spin-off featuring Argyle and Tobias. I know it sounds a little “Glee”ish or “Smash”y, but in the hands of Mitch Hurwitz, it could be brilliant. Even if it was done as a series of web short, “Funny or Die” style, I’d love to see that.

Another nice surprise was Ben Stiller’s “Tony Wonder”. I think he may have appeared in the original series, but I don’t remember him. I’m not usually a big Ben Stiller fan, but I quite enjoyed him in this. And his poster, “I’m here, I’m queer, and now I’m over here.” got one of the biggest laughs out of me all season. Who knew?

After finishing the 15th episode tonight, I still have a number of questions, but I don’t think it is the fault of the show, I think it has more to do with the fact that I’m kinda dumb and need stuff explained to me. I feel like I need one of those flow charts diagrams that follows one character’s story all the way through. That would be great. Good thing this exists!

If all this is really leading to a feature film, after season four’s experiment, a 90 minute film will feel like a junior mint in comparison. Mitch Hurwitz and company will have to switch gears once again and go from TV series to Internet Series to Movie format. If anyone can do it, this gang can. A tip of the hat, good sir, for pulling off what seemed like an impossibility. I really hope this isn’t the last we see of the Bluth family.

Whether it was a merely a trick or an elaborate illusion, looking back on it, season four was a brilliant and audacious undertaking, and there was a lot to admire in this intricate piece of work, although I’m not sure how I feel about the whole “Netflix” model of “internet series” distribution. I think I’d prefer seeing them spread out one by one, like a morphine drip, giving me time to think about and discuss each episode with friends (like the old days!) but I have a feeling that the unbelievable success of this model will lead to other series being dumped on us all at one time in the future.* It’s the future, and I’ll tag along. I don’t want to feel left out.

*Like Firefly. Please.

Joss, you readin’ this?

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