OK, warning: some spoilers. But also...who cares?
When it was cancelled in 2006, during its third season, Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz offered the following to Entertainment Weekly: "In truth, I had taken it as far as I felt I could as a series. I told the story I wanted to tell, and we were getting to a point where I think a lot of the actors were ready to move on. My instinct was that it was over when Fox pulled the plug."
That should have been the last word.
Never doubt the tenacity of fans. Fans who - as evinced by the revival of shows like Family Guy and Futurama and the fan-subsidized kickstarting of Veronica Mars and Zach Braff movies - have an ability to muster themselves out of couch potato atrophy as active stakeholders in things they like. It's not enough to enjoy a thing. A true fan must feel entitled to more of it.
From the get-go, a large part of Arrested Development's abundant charm was how defiantly it bucked such entitlements. It felt obligated not only to no particular viewer (though its loyal champions would slowly emerge), but to its producing network. An ensemble cast of largely unpleasant characters, layered jokes that repay (if not require) attentive viewing, subplots about cousin-on-cousin incest...these are not the things successful, long-running network sitcoms are made of. From S01E01, Arrested Development seemed fated to be a cult item, championed by critics and fans but fundamentally misunderstood by the larger viewing public - people who watch Two And A Half Men or the news or whatever. It was a contract anyone who watched the show from the beginning (or the near the beginning) bought into, whether they knew it or not.
The announcement that the show was being renewed on Netflix elicited a certain, cautious excitement. Even if it only promised more of the same - more of Tobias' clueless homoerotic malapropping, more of Lindsay's bratty vanity, more George Sr./Oscar switcheroos, more of Gob's "Come on!"s and self-roofie-ing, more of Lucille's casual racism - that more-ness was presumed to be a good thing, even if it came at the expense of the existent episodes (more-or-less) watertight excellence. I'm reminded of one of my favourite Simpsons quotes, courtesy of Mr. Burns: "I'd trade it all for a little more."
This seems to be the disproportionate non-bargain everyone involved in Arrested Development season four has engaged in: the cast, the producers, Netflix, and the only ones not financially profiting from the arrangement, the fans. Unsurprisingly, it wound up being less of an upgrade than a compromise: perfection (or something close to it) distending into excess.
Arrested Development's fourth season isn't only not very good - laboured, unfunny, loosey-goosey with its plotting, super eager to please - it works to inversely reveal flaws in the original run of the series. Season four's character-based episodes (the result of the cast being too busy to be properly assembled to film together) betray the spirit of Arrested Development. Before, characters would circle in and out of the frame with careful precision, like electrons orbiting the nucleus of an episode's plot. They'd collide, overlap, finish each other's
sandwiches sentences, and generally work in the function of something larger than themselves. As funny as the characters, and the actors, were, Arrested Development's writing, its meticulous patterning of set-ups and pay-offs, felt like the star of the show.
As season four progresses, some of this Grand Design emerges, as incidents established in one episode reoccur in another. But instead of feeling like a finely tuned engine purring, it feels like someone has cracked open the chassis to offer a look at the show's workings, like one of those bisected models of a ship's hull or a human brain. Instead of jokes paying off instantly, the return on even the careful viewer's investment comes later. Sometimes much later. Often way too late. And with alarming frequency, they're not even jokes as just vacuous resolutions in place, it seems, to give the season a sense of symmetry and purpose. (Lindsay was sitting in front of Tobias on that plane? Hilarious!)
The character-based formatting also reveals a certain deficiency in the development of these characters, which has been, ugh...stemmed from the very beginning. With the potential exceptions of the show's primary male bloodline (George Sr., Michael, George Michael) the key cast is pretty one-dimensional: the alcoholic, the wannabe lady-killer, the faux-radical, the closeted homosexual archetype, each beholden to their own delusions and self-deceptions. It's easy to not be bothered by this when all these one-note jokes commingled together in something a comic symphony - a sitcomphony? No... - but left alone, they ring a little hollow.
The exception here, and probably the best thing (or only good thing) about season four is its elaboration of the relationship between Jason Bateman's Michael and his son, Michael Cera's George Michael. The original series always carefully hinted at the idea that the smothering, feel-good attention Michael piled on his terminally awkward son was its own form of parental pressure, if not mild child abuse, no real different from the more deliberate competitive stress George Sr. inflicted on his own children.
Season four plays this stuff up to pronounced effect, with George Michael replacing his father as the show's levelheaded emotional centre. It suggests a changing of the guard that seems natural to the progress of families, as sons grow up to replace their fathers. Even if they're only forwardly advancing - in the same way a Charmander evolves into a Chameleon and then...I've said too much - these characters reveal some sense of ripening that's otherwise absent in the new season, which plays for the most part like a cross between and overlong curtain call and deleted scenes stitch-up. The season's fantastic final image - in which, exasperated by his father's selfishness, George Michael casually punches him in the nose, framed in a perfectly disaffected two-shot - is the only thing about Arrested Development's fourth season that feels like the culmination of its characters' established arcs. Unfortunately, it takes like eight hours to get there.
The middling, mostly tone-deaf mediocrity of Arrested Development's last bow should serve as a cautionary lesson for fans clamouring (and, now, subsidizing via crowd-funding) for more of something they like. But considering the hints and intimations of double encore for Arrested Development, in the form of a feature length film, it seems like everyone's already ready and willing to trade it all for even more - if only just to have it.