Arrested Development, one of the cleverest sitcoms of all time, returned to life over the weekend, as Netflix launched an entire season of 15 new episodes for instant and, if one so chooses, marathon streaming.
This is a cause for celebration: reviving a cult network classic as digital, 24/7 programming is something like cloning a fresh mastodon from genetic material tweezered off a frozen carcass.
There is no guarantee, however, that the genetic material may not have mutated or deteriorated with time.
That is the case with Arrested Development, which lasted a mere three seasons on Fox despite ecstatic praise and is now regarded as such a classic that this revival has been wildly anticipated (and hyped).
This new, fourth season isn't bad – otherwise I wouldn't have gotten through it in a day – but it's a very different beast from the original, and it's not nearly as funny. That's even with the tremendous advantage of the original cast (including Jason Bateman, Will Arnett and Michael Cera) reuniting to play the Bluth family, an unhappy, sometimes ruthless but fundamentally tinpot business dynasty foundering on stupid decisions and underhanded desperation.
The mistake appears to be so simple but so decisive it results in a show that is recognizably Arrested Development but really isn't at all.
Why It WorkedThe episodes of the original series, like its brilliant sitcom predecessor Seinfeld laid down incredibly intricate storylines filled with lunatic twists, bizarre coincidences and recurring jokes – but, unlike Seinfeld, Development was always racing forward. This wasn't a show in which nothing happened. It was a show in which everything happened – in three seasons (2003-2006), it covered about as much plot as ER did in 15.
But what made it work was its perfect cast, ripping through a mere 20-odd minutes of material each week with an energy, precision and sheer pleasure that gave the show a farcical lucidity and a kind of demented joy. They were gleaming sardines happily wriggling against each other in a tight little tin.
My favorite joke (of seemingly millions) involved mama's boy Buster (Tony Hale), who lost his hand to a seal while swimming in the ocean – partly because he misinterpreted the warning "loose seal" to refer to his poisonously mean mother, Lucille (Jessica Walter).
For this season 4, however, each episode is organized around a principal character – possibly for the novelty value, but also to accommodate the fact that, seven years later, much of the cast is busy with other roles and projects.
And that's the mistake: There is not much point getting a great ensemble back together if they aren't going to function that way.
Missing the EnsembleThere are two episodes, for example, centered on nice guy Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), essentially the designated straight man of the show – and so by definition at his best when in the middle of whatever fresh hell has been generated by his felonious parents, Lucille and George (Jeffrey Tambor, who also plays George's identical twin, Oscar). The very first episode includes an awful bit about Michael, typically down on his luck, trying to rig a vote so he can stay on as a rent-free roommate to his son, George-Michael (Michael Cera). The segment is endless.
Will Arnett, as Michael's brother, a sleazy magician nicknamed Gob (pronounced Job), also gets to dominate a few episodes – and it's great to welcome back Arnett's performance, which is both sinister and feckless.
In this season, Job continues to fail spectacularly: first, attempting a Jesus-themed illusion at his wedding into a family of devout Christians; second, joining a young pop star's entourage (one of his mistakes is keeping a hive of bees in the limo); and, third, trying to destroy rival magician Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller, reprising a guest role).
But it takes almost half the season before Gob gets much action. That's a terribly long stretch to be deprived on of one of the show's best characters.
And Jessica Walter's Lucille, a woman whose vitriolic putdowns and monstrous camp posturing stamp every scene she's in, gets only one episode of her own – toward the end.
The same goes for Tony Hale's petulant man-boy Buster. His is the next-to-the-last episode – it involves a new prosthetic hand, military drones and an extramarital affair – and it's here you realize just how flat the Netflix Arrested Development has been: It's crazy and bristling, one of the funniest half-hours I've seen in a long time, and nothing else in the new season comes close. One might argue that a viewer deserves that sort of payoff before the seventh hour.
Netflix's Format Draws ComparisonsIn some ways, Netflix's Arrested Development doesn't function much differently from the Netflix drama House of Cards.
The narrative rhythm builds, very ingeniously, across enormous trajectories. While the broader story threads involve such nonsense as hiring a (literal) Mongolian horde to build a wall along the American-Mexican border, many gags, both enigmatic and casual, are dropped in and then not fully realized until much later. Chief among them is an aggressive ostrich. There's also some wonderfully tricky business involving a man who suffers from facial-recognition deficit.
But, as much as you may admire the structural engineering, little inward nods of recognition when yet another puzzle piece falls into place aren't the same as comedy.
Still Plenty of LaughsYes, yes, yes – of course there are many laughs throughout.
David Cross is back as the Bluths' son-in-law, the pompous therapist-actor Tobias Fünke, staging a Fantastic Four musical in rehab. And, even though the family (and world) assumes that Tobias is a closeted homosexual, he's given a new, sort-of romantic interest: DeBrie Bardeaux, a former porn actress/drug addict who looks like a forlorn piece of driftwood topped with a blonde wig. They meet in a methadone clinic that Tobias thinks is an acting class.
DeBrie is played by Maria Bamford, probably best known as the slightly hysterical suburban woman from Target holiday ads and as one of Louis C.K.'s odd girlfriends on Louie. She all but steals this new season. Collapsing into a pile of trash, panicking from a nose bleed or ramming globs of butter into her mouth, she's pathetically sad yet sharply funny.
The show ends with an unresolved storyline – a mystery – that could be taken up in a new season. Let's hope, then, that it all develops along a different route.
At the very least, from now on Arrested Development must include Maria Bamford.