After ingesting almost nine straight hours of the newly revived Arrested Development series, I've come to two conclusions: 1) The cast and creators of AD still got it, and 2) This show was made for hermetic losers like me. The "story of a wealthy family who lost everything" was nothing but a mild critical success when it aired on Fox from 2003-'06, but became a cultural institution once it was released on DVD, allowing compulsive series addicts to watch episode after episode. Which makes the new Netflix format for this fourth season such a hand-in-glove success: The kind of people who engage in such solitary pop-masturbation love Arrested Development -- because these misanthropic characters are, if we're honest, just like us.
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About two weeks ago I got the words "MARRY ME" tattooed across my chest. My intention was for this to be an insider nod to The Smiths 1984 Top of the Pops appearance, where Morrissey had the same message scrawled across his lanky breast -- but afterward, whenever I showed off my new body art, the only response I would get from people was, "Oh, you must be a huge Arrested Development fan!"
This was, of course, the line that Hollywood wunderkind Maeby Fünke would repeatedly charm people with -- one of many iconic phrases that cycled through each episode of Arrested Development. Super-fans of the Bluth family saga would trade these lines like Pokemon cards, excitedly shouting "no touching!" or "did somebody say 'wonder'?!" into each others faces, annoying the hell out of anyone unfamiliar with the show.
When something inspires this level of devotion, then goes away for seven years, it almost doesn't matter how good the revival is, so long as it's not god-awful. When bands like The Pixies or The Police reunited, no one expected them to raise the bar on their original material, only that they sustain what we originally loved about them. So the creators of AD could've gotten away with a sub-par delivery and it still would've been a reasonable success.
Thankfully, the new round of Arrested Development episodes are not a disappointment. Taking a new approach by centering each episode on a single character, while weaving the action around a Rashomon-style plot that gives us alternate glances around the same profoundly weird event, the show maintains its machine-gun wit while (surprisingly) taking liberties with the tone and structure of the original model.
When I logged on to Netflix at 3 a.m. Sunday morning, I was honestly expecting a decaffeinated version of the first three seasons, playing off the same jokes and concepts but with a little less marrow in the bone. But these fifteen new episodes stay true to their progenitors, while contributing a fresh story-line that is as complex as string-theory, yet reasonably accessible. It actually makes me wish that The Simpsons would take a seven-year break and then return with this kind of renewed energy.
Season 4 would not work as well if it were doled out in single installments week after week on TV. (At the same time, it weirdly bleeps out curse words and maintains a structure for commercial breaks, with Ron Howard's narrations explaining what we just witnessed seconds earlier.) The narrative is so complicated -- with dozens of micro-jokes and plot-points delivered in early episodes that only come full circle several chapters later -- that it can really only be fully appreciated through binge-watching.
For hardcore fans of the show, this will not be a problem. Arrested Development got its resurrection primarily because of the overwhelming demand from its cultish devotees -- many of whom, I'd wager, got hooked after purchasing each season on DVD and then soaked in disc after disc after disc, ignoring dirty dishes and frustrated girlfriends while repeatedly telling themselves "just one more episode and then I have to get off this couch." They (or should I say we?) most likely did the same thing when such series asThe Wire, LOST and Breaking Bad came to DVD, leading Netflix to the brilliant decision of hurling the buffet of House of Cards and now AD onto our lap in one large down payment.
For the right kind of person, a gift like this can help maintain your sanity during a weekend in bed with the flu, or through the first week of a nasty breakup. Similar to serialized books like Harry Potter or The Hunger Games, it's a seemingly unending escape from reality, allowing you to push the world out of your mind for just a little while longer.
And if there's one unifying theme to the characters of Arrested Development, it is shutting out reality. Without frustrating you with any spoilers, I'll only say that the apex of Season 4's story involves each of member of the Bluth family slowly becoming unable to deny their shortcomings and coming closer to self-discovery than they ever have before. Thankfully, the writers avoided drowning them in sentimental bonding like that criminally awful final episode of The Office.
If you were the therapist to any of these neurotics, you'd have mixed feelings about the catharsis they achieve. But they do make significant leaps in transcending their self-made fantasies by the final episode. Meanwhile, the rest of us are forced kicking and screaming back into the real world once we've soaked up all of the new Netflix episodes, leaving us only with our own ignored realities to tend to. Unsatisfied with this prospect, it's now time to resume pestering the show's creators about Arrested Development the movie.
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For more comedy commentary, follow me on Twitter at @JosiahMHesse.