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Netflix's Arrested Development Revival Was a Dream Come True — Until Fans Hit Play

And this is why you don't bring back a cult show that already achieved something close to perfection.
  • David Cross and Jason Bateman in Arrested Development (Photo: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)
    David Cross and Jason Bateman in Arrested Development (Photo: Everett Collection; Primetimer graphic)

    Buster Bluth could never carry a TV show. The hook-handed mama's boy, AWOL private, and Bluth sibling most arrested in his development was simply not main character material. He wasn't even the main character of his own life! How could he be, while caught in the shadow of at least one Lucille? It's difficult to imagine a sitcom built around this runt of the litter, played to maladjusted perfection by Tony Hale. Or it would be, were it not for "Off the Hook," a.ka. the Arrested Development episode that forced fans to imagine that very scenario — to sit through 36 very long minutes of almost nothing but Buster.

    To be fair, no member of the Bluth family really belongs at the center of the story. None except for, in the words of that opening Ron Howard narration, the one son forced to keep them all together. And yet for a bumpy, streamable stretch, Arrested Development gave each of the Bluths — Lindsay, Lucille, Gob, even Tobias — an episode or two of their own. This was the novelty and the divisive folly of the show's belated fourth season, the one that rescued one of TV's most beloved cult comedies from cancellation while also putting a big asterisk on its legacy.

    It was 10 years ago this summer that Netflix revived Mitchell Hurwitz's warmly reviewed, ratings-challenged family sitcom, bringing it back seven years after Fox gave it the ax. A lot had changed over those seven years. Suddenly, a comedy that had only really found its audience on DVD was serving as a cornerstone of a streaming service's fledgling foray into original content. For fans, it seemed like a dream come true. At least until they hit play, and for many, the disappointment began to set in.

    Netflix treats its viewing metrics like a Pentagon secret, probably to avoid paying the artists responsible for their hit shows what they're worth, but it would be very interesting to see the opening day numbers for Season 4 of Arrested Development. To a certain demographic, the simultaneous release of those 15 new episodes was a watercooler event; more than a few viewers who either watched the show in primetime or caught up with it later probably cued up the revival on May 26, 2013. But how many kept watching that same day? The second episode, an interminable half hour in the desert with George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), could cure even the most jonesing Development junkies of their itch to binge.

    Season 4 has its defenders, and not for nothing: It's certainly among the more structurally ambitious sitcom stories ever told. Hurwitz's decision to grant each member of the Bluth clan their own showcase was made out of necessity; he broke the show's format to account for how impossible it was to get that dream cast all together on set at the same time. Out of the scheduling conflicts grew an achronological patchwork plot that tracked the movements of each family member over the same period of time, finding points of intersection along the way. If nothing else, you had to admire its sheer spider-web intricacy.

    Arrested Development was always well-suited to binge-watching. Its sheer density of jokes, and especially of running jokes, made it among the most compulsively rewindable and rewatchable of TV comedies, while its habit of delivering a punchline several episodes later may help explain why it struggled to find an audience during its initial run. (Just imagine trying to jump into the show's serialized lunacy in the middle.) Season 4 doubled down on the convoluted narrative architecture, using the official move to streaming as license to play even more elaborate games of setup and payoff; for one example among countless others, look at how Hurwitz has multiple Bluth men check out a stranger in passing ("Gentlemen, start your engines"), only to later reveal that it's actually Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) in a wig.

    But the sheer sophistication of the joke delivery was only one aspect of Arrested Development's genius. Splitting up the characters clarified and emphasized that its appeal lay more crucially in the chemistry among its first-rate cast. At the height of its powers, the show was one of TV's most peerless ensemble comedies, bouncing its actors — and the incorrigible characters they played — off of each other. It took seeing the Bluths marooned on their own narrative islands to appreciate what a comedic archipelago Arrested Development was in its prime. Some of these standalone adventures are more inspired than others; Gob getting caught in a willful amnesia loop is a gag worthy of the original run. But all of them hurt for the volleying family-feud banter, the classic Bluth rapport, that characterized even a second-tier second season installment.

    Are the Bluths better together than apart? Certainly from the audience's perspective they are. Compartmentalizing their stories underscored one of the central questions of the series, which is whether Michael (Jason Bateman) would be better off doing what he's always threatened to do and cutting off all ties with his toxic, ungrateful relatives. You could call the parallel and perpendicular storytelling of Season 4 a payoff of that joke. Michael, we see, will never escape the Bluths. He's always drawn back into their lives, even unknowingly, through twists of fate.

    That's clever, but does it justify arranging half-hour spotlights for characters who always functioned best as foils for the show's beleaguered, put-upon, straight-man protagonist? It's no coincidence that the best episodes of Arrested Development's fourth season are the ones that put Michael at center again. One of the through lines of the original series was his desperate attempts to be a better father to George Michael (Michael Cera) than his own domineering dad was to him. In a show generally resistant to sentimentalism on principle, there was both reliable humor and real pathos in Michael's failures.

    It was when Season 4 revived that father-son conflict that it approached some of the hilarity of the show's heyday. The promising first episode gets great mileage out of Michael's selfish commandeering of his son's college experience; the roommate vote is a highlight of the whole series, thanks in large part to Bateman's tragicomic dejection. Meanwhile, the punch that ends the season could have easily served as punctuation on the show, given how dramatically it pays off more than 60 episodes worth of parental missteps. Whether these bookending installments were worth trudging through the supporting-character foibles wedged between them is another matter. Just how much Tobias are we expected to stomach in one sitting?

    Hurwitz, of course, must have realized that the unique format of his fourth season neutralized much of what made Arrested Development so special in the first place. That, plus potential syndication opportunities, helps explain his critically drubbed recut. Subtitled Fatal Consequences, the new edit diced his carefully constructed mosaic into 22 chronologically linear, standard-sitcom-length episodes. Far from an improvement, this cut jettisoned everything narratively bold about Season 4 without really restoring the collision of personalities it lacked. You're still watching a string of solo misadventures; they're now just presented in smaller chunks and haphazardly crosscut, with little rationale for when one episode ends and another begins.

    Nor did the eventual fifth season of Arrested Development deliver a return to form, despite being constructed around ensemble interactions again, with all the cast finally available at the same time. It's technically closer in spirit to Hurwitz's original vision (and was slightly better received as a result), but the inspiration had run completely dry by this point. Nothing lands in that final run of episodes, which sweatily labor to deliver that old Arrested Development feel with only a fraction of the wit. The best that could probably be said for Season 5 is that it underscores what does work about Season 4.

    Arrested Development's standing in the TV hall of fame was secure by the time the show made its unlikely return in 2013. Its relative brevity, combined with its status as an underappreciated casualty of network shortsightedness, was integral to its reputation as a one-of-a-kind miracle. Season 4 couldn't take away the magic of those first three seasons any more than the last 25 or so seasons of The Simpsons can diminish the unparalleled pleasures of that show's first act. And there is something to be said for the attempt to do something different with Arrested Development, even if that attempt denied the audience the essential ensemble mojo of the show at its peak.

    Still, there's no denying that the Netflix episodes are a caveat. On the original series, they affix a closing parenthetical, which is how Rolling Stone addressed them when it named Arrested Development the 15th best sitcom of all time a couple years ago. Today, they look like a harbinger of our content-hungry streaming age, when every cancellation can become a hiatus in retrospect. And creatively, at least, there's a lesson in them worthy of J. Walter Weatherman: And this is why you don't revive a cult show that already achieved something close to perfection.

    A.A. Dowd is a writer and editor who lives in Chicago.

    TOPICS: Arrested Development, FOX, Netflix, Jason Bateman, Jessica Walter, Mitch Hurwitz, Portia de Rossi, Ron Howard, Tony Hale, Will Arnett