Did ‘Arrested Development’ lose its soul?

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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In reading the reviews for season four of Arrested Development, the shorthand for describing Bluth family is to call them, “dysfunctional.” Sometimes, the word “codependent” is added. We love them for all their quirks, just as they (grudgingly) love one another. But based on early reviews (and having caught a few episodes of season four this weekend), the new Netflix-only episodes have dispatched much of the old formula to their detriment.

The most obvious mistake was in basing each episode on a different character, rather than blending them together as they did for the first three seasons.

Imagine a Seinfeld episode that is solely about Elaine and David Puddy. Without interweaving story lines featuring Jerry, George and Kramer, such an episode would surely feel like a bad spin-off. Now imagine an episode revolving around Newman, and that’s kinda how some of the worst episodes of season four feel.

What is more, after several years off, any attempt at visual continuity was quickly scuttled by virtue of the fact that Portia de Rossi (the actress who plays Lindsay Bluth) looks almost like a completely different person. It’s one thing for child actors to grow up, we expect that. I’s another thing for adults to dramatically change their appearance.

In any event, aside from the format changes — and the evolving physical appearance of some characters — there’s also the fact that the show seems even more nihilistic.

There is, of course, nothing new about dysfunctional families. (Don’t believe me? Look no further than the book of Genesis, where Abraham effectively pimped out his wife Sarah — and then look to Jacob, who — with the help of his mother — stole his brother’s birthright, and then fled to his uncle, who deceived him into sleeping with the wrong daughter. That would make the George Michael/Maeby flirtation seem mild by comparison.)

My point is that dysfunctional families are ubiquitous, and we tend to believe they can even do good, despite their failings. And what gives us hope is that someone in the family will step up and break the cycle. The most obvious candidate for that has always been Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman). He was the straight, if naive, family member, who seemed competent and genuinely decent. But the fourth season begins with Michael having fallen from grace. To the degree there was a protagonist in this ensemble, it was always Michael. And by opening with Michael down and out on, it seemed to set a more pessimistic tone for the season.

It strikes me that comedies which have flawed characters must at least lead the viewer to believe the characters, deep down, care for one another. Even The Simpsons are a dysfunctional family that loves one another. And we always wanted to believe that about the Bluths, too.

Consider this from a BuzzFeed community contributor:

A prime example of this is Tobias and Lindsay. Though they were far from the perfect couple, they did love one another (albeit in their own unique way). This was proved over and over again in Seasons 1-3. Even with their repeated attempts of separation from one another and even new people, they never succeeded. In their own weird way, it was always Tobias and Lindsay. That was one of the great things about them. In this new season, they threw all of that away by having Lindsay and Tobias finally cheating on one another.

So the fatal flaw may be that, in an attempt to be funny and even more outrageous than ever, the show also lost its soul.

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A note about my critique.

Netflix has decided to release their original series’ all-at-once. This encourages binge watching, which I enjoy. But it also serves to undercut the buzz they might otherwise garner as viewers anticipate the release of new episodes each week. As a consequence, their original shows debut to much fanfare, but then fail to sustain the type of ongoing commentary that, say, HBO’s Girls, elicits each week.

Had Netflix release the episodes on a weekly basis, reviewers and cultural critics might have held out hope for the show to fix its problems. In this case, that’s not an option. The verdict seems to be that the only reason to see this is for the sake of nostalgia.

The new model also creates some challenges for anyone who wants to write about a show. Aside from the problem of spoiling episodes, it’s hard to write about any given episodes if you haven’t watched all of the episodes (because someone will always point out a plot twist two episodes later that seems to undercut your point). Having not yet watched the entirety of season four, I am entering in dangerous territory with this critique. So if you disagree, let me know (I know you will.)

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UPDATE: Some colleagues made some good points around the water cooler.

First, lacking commercials, the episodes are longer. This is a mistake. The pacing is slower, and bad jokes that might otherwise be quickly forgotten, linger.

There’s also the problem of location. I’m told that scheduling of actors created obstacles. In any event, it occurs to me that some shows require a familiar physical setting. Andy Griffith was almost always funnier in the courthouse than at home. Cheers almost always revolved around the bar. But the new season of Arrested finds its characters disconnected — not just from one another — but also from their milieu.

Matt K. Lewis