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Arrested Development: Taking Risks in Experimentation

Arrested Development is one of my all-time favorite TV shows (although parts of it have aged…badly since the W administration). If’s a polarizing show: even people who love its comedic progeny (30 Rock, Community, etc.) find that its fast-paced mix of puns, cringe humor, absurdist mythology, meta in-jokes, obscure callbacks and high concepts teetering on the edge of offensiveness don’t work for them. That’s OK; there are plenty of beloved things that I don’t like, and this is America. But for the people who love it, the first three seasons are solid gold.

And then you get to Season 4.

*Note: This is based on the original version of Season 4, not the re-edited “Fateful Consequences” cut. You can find the original cut on Netflix buried under some trailers/special features menu*

Previously, on Arrested Development S3, the show was finally seeing the curtain fall. After a couple of years of Fox all but yanking the power cord out, the show finally wrapped itself up with a delightful and bittersweet episode that paralleled the pilot nicely, then finished with a little amusing grace note. We clamored for another season, another movie, comic book tie-ins, anything, but it wasn’t until Netflix intervened that we finally got our wish.

It would have been easy for Mitch Hurwitz and crew to devote themselves to fanservice: repeating the characters, gags, and themes that people most loved from the first three seasons, using the tried-and-true arcs that had already been proven successful, and taking the same satire of the Bush administration and updating it for the latest president.

Instead, the AD writers decided to try something different, and experimental. Without getting into spoilers, the humor in S4 revolves mainly around the surprises discovered while piecing together the show’s nonlinear narrative. Because the episodes each follow a specific character, instead of being in chronological order, the story for each individual episode seems incoherent. It is only after having seen all of the episodes that the viewer can understand the whole story- and discovers, for example, that a tossed-off piece of dialogue in one episode is a punchline for a joke set up in another episode further down the viewing order (whew! That’s a long way to describe it…don’t do nonlinear narratives, kids).

Hurwitz originally stated that AD S4 could be watched in any order at all, and while he backed off that claim shortly before the episodes were released, it’s not hard to see why. The whole season is designed to be binge-watched and then digested in a dreamlike percolation of bubbling anti-jokes spread across episodes and steganographically hidden side plots that hit you days later. The AD team later re-edited S4 into a more conventional sitcom format called “Fateful Consequences”, which is…underwhelming. Watching “Fateful Consequences”, it’s easy to see how crucial the non-linearity is to the humor of the show- in chronological order, much of the runtime is simply recapping the same scenes over and over again from different angles, giving the whole production a very Bachelor-like feel where 60% of the show is simply finding out either what just happened or what is about to happen.

It’s an interesting idea, well-executed and very clever, a throwback to Seinfeldian “show about nothing” postmodernism. But for all that, it is simply not as funny as the original series. The jokes feel mechanical, the background gags too obscure, and the characters too selfish to laugh with or laugh at. It’s frustrating, but that’s OK- I applaud the writers for taking some risks rather than going down a safe path (and working around the restrictions of not having all of the actors available at the same times). Sometimes, you just have to take a swing, even if you miss.