If House of Cards was Netflix saying, “We’re here!” to the world of television, then the latest season of Arrested Development was them saying, “We’re here to stay!”.
Since being cancelled by Fox in 2006, there has always been talk of further adventures for the Bluth family, mostly in the form of a movie. However, in 2011 Netflix commissioned a new season of the show and it has been hotly anticipated since.
The first thing to note about the new season is that the show’s creator, Michael Hurwitz, decided that the new medium of on-line streaming needed a new format. The new season has fifteen episodes, each around 35 minutes. Unlike the previous seasons, each episode focuses on one particular character and shows you the events from part of the season from their point-of-view. The season opens with the repercussions of the events at the end of season 3, leading up to “Cinco de Cuatro” about five years later.
In the original series on of the joys of each episode was seeing how all the different character’s story lines would often culminate in a final frenetic scene that saw them causing chaos for Michael and the family’s company.
In some ways it seems natural to extend that idea over a season. So that, you take that general template and let it play out over the course of fifteen episodes culminating in a final frenetic scene on the docks during “Cinco de Cuatro” (a holiday invented by the George and Lucille so their Mexican workers wouldn’t take Cinco de Mayo off).
However, ultimately this brave change of format is a failure. Here’s why:
Like its previous seasons, the show rewards the observant viewer, with plenty of sight gags and references to previous episodes and events. However, the main problem this season is that these are often clever rather than simply funny.
For example there is a point at which an ostrich randomly appears someone’s apartment. This is funny the first time. However, as other characters come across the ostrich in subsequent episodes it ceases to be as funny, and we are left merely admiring the fact they managed to weave that reference into this character’s storyline. The season is littered with reference after reference like this to the point where it becomes predictable.
Likewise there are points in the show where you think you’re watching one thing and it turns out it is revealed in a later episode it was actually something else. Examples the real reason George Michaels called his anti-piracy software “Fakeblock”, or the true identity of a guru Lindsay consults in India. Again these are clever but the punchline lacks, for want of a better word, “punch”.
The original series was much like being on a roller coaster, where you were never sure whether you were going to be launched left, right or upside-down. This season, however, feels like having to go on the roller coaster again and again, each from a slightly different position in the carriage until you have seen it from every possible angle and viewpoint.
The joy of the original series was that anything could happen and the show’s writers were always good at seeing what seemed like a completely crazy one-note joke (e.g. Tobias as Mrs Featherbottom) and getting the maximum potential out of it with short sharp scenes across multiple episodes, then moving on.
The problem with this season then is this lack of forward momentum. Episodes often take too long to get started as we try and ‘catch up’ with that character’s arc before we get any genuinely new information. Meanwhile the element of surprise the show relied upon to produce its best moments is largely lost as we get stuck on the same journey of Boat –> Family Meeting –> Lucille’s Trial –> Award Ceremony –> Cinco de Cuatro.
Perhaps the best analogy is that the first three seasons were like a delicious stew made up on a variety of different ingredients (the characters). The stew tasted great because of the way all the different flavours worked together. However, when we are given one of these ingredients in isolation, it just doesn’t taste as good.
There are of course flashes of genius in this season that remind us of the show as it used to be. However, ultimately the format prevents these from happening on a consistent basis.
In some ways I admire Hurwitz for having the courage to try something new, it’s just a shame it had to be for a whole season. Perhaps four or five episodes like this would have worked as we catch up with each of the characters, but across fifteen episodes it makes this re-launch feel like a missed opportunity for a show so fondly remembered by so many.