When Arrested Development first aired 10 years ago, it was met with resounding critical acclaim but no amount of acclaim could affect the poor numbers the show received. If you were to jump into a random episode unprepared you would likely find a few laughs, but otherwise an impenetrable story with a cast of characters who weren't easily defined by archetypes. What's more, you would be missing most of the funny since Arrested Development creator Mitchell Hurwitz created a densely structured comedy juggernaut, one that only becomes apparent when you watch frequently, and actually doesn't fully reveal its awesomeness until you've watched from start to finish and looped back for a second (or third) cycle of its three seasons. Hurwitz seeds jokes in early in the first season that don't fully pay off until the third season, and beyond that he's able to build upon existing jokes with such ingenuity, one can't really tell what was planned and what wasn't. Ultimately this meant that Arrested Development did not find its true fan base until the show was already cancelled, when fans of the show could loan their friends the three seasons and share the true experience of the Bluth Family.
All of this needs to be kept in mind when approaching the resurrected series' fourth season on Netflix, all of this and more. For starters, the format of the show is no longer meant for network television, which means that all 15 episodes of the series launched at once, and that the episode length is not set in stone at 22 minutes with commercial breaks. This changes both the way the show is paced as well as how we view it.
It may have been seven years since the last original AD episode, but the rumour mill of an AD movie has been churning since the end of the show, and the fourth season became a part of the cultural conversation for much of the past two years. AD may have ended but it never truly left, the excitement and anticipation for more (with countless message boards and comments sections devolving into little but AD meme fests) creating a fevered and likely unrealistic expectation of what a fourth season of the show should be.
Five minutes into the first episode, I could tell that, as with the first three seasons, it was almost essential to come back to the beginning once you've reached the end. The heavy task of the first episode, a Michael Bluth centered one (naturally a Jason Bateman-focussed one, since he was the de facto lead of the original series), requires it to jump between different time frames as it must set up this season's moving-forward arc, while also establishing a filling-in-the-past-seven-years arc, while also reintroducing all the characters. In it Hurwitz seeds a lot of jokes to pay off later, builds upon past jokes (sometimes they're barely more than callbacks, but unlike, say Season 4 of Community or Season 9/10 of the Simpsons, he's not relying upon the comedy of the past to still make it funny) and delivers some in-the-now funny stuff that is both the expected sharp wordplay the show is revered for, and character-based.
It would please me nothing more than to say that season 4 is a flawless continuation of the show its fans loved, but it's not the case. The show's key problem is the liberty Netflix provides it. Where the average episode of the original run was 22 typically tight minutes, the Netflix episodes run between 28 and 37 minutes. For a situation comedy that's pretty long, and at times the episodes do chug along, particularly early on. On DVD Arrested Development episodes featured sometimes 10 minutes of deleted scenes, many of which were very funny, but ultimately unnecessary. With Netflix Hurwitz doesn't have to edit anything out, and it does hinder the rapid-fire-comedy pacing expected of the show. But by the latter third of the season, the final 5-or-6 episodes, now familiar with the stories in play, and more comfortable with the spans of time the story arcs are covering, the long episodes feel less of a chore, and in particular the George Michael, Maeby, Buster and Gob episodes are all engrossing and feel little, if any of the slough of the early episodes (in part it's because we don't see much of these characters earlier on, and in part because of the grander reveals they present).
In terms of the stories at play, they don't have quite the same tight focus as season 1 through 3, primarily because of the one-character-focus per episode nature, as well as the time-jumping structure, but once they come into focus in the latter half, they become more and more entertaining. The advantage the fourth season is afforded over the first three seasons, is the ability to give each character their own distinct arc. The huge cast in the original run meant that character arcs were often trivial or sidelined for a while in service of the bigger picture, but the entire family here gets their own journey, and if anything unites them, it's not the various convergences they experience, but rather the ongoing revelation of how much alike they are. Michael's parenting of George Michael begins to resemble, more and more, Lucille's parenting of Buster, but starts to degrade more into the same antagonistic relationship he shares with his own father. George Michael, the innocent one, meanwhile, starts to adopt the family traits of skilled duplicity. Buster has Lucille's drinking problem, only with juice. Gob finally starts to have an awareness of himself which seems to parallel George's awareness of self, while Lindsay, Tobias, Lucille and Buster all struggle with their own sense of independence and identity. Contrary to the title, this season is all about the character development and at least a perceived sense of growth.
Where the show suffers the most is with Michael's story, which has it's good moments (whenever he's dealing with his family) and it's not so good moments (the whole Ron Howard/Imagine Entertainment arc was a bit of a series low, with episode 5 being the roughest to get through). It's unfortunate that Michael, who was the voice of reason for the audience to connect with, has started to adopt more and more of his family's traits, but in the show's defense, it was in distancing himself from them he's lost the constant reminder of how not to behave. As well, Michael's story is often injected, for minutes at a time, in other character's episodes, thus failing somewhat at the show's structural conceit.
But does any of the story or character development really matter if the show is not funny? It is after all the comedy for which we come to Arrested Development. It's hard to really say with one viewing of season 4 just how funny it is... just as it would be hard to say with watching only season 1 just how funny the series is. Our perspective of Arrested Development is shaped by the rather monumental achievement of its original 50-ish episodes, taken as a whole, as a comedy ouroboros. It was a show that launched a hundred or more memes, and even on fourth or fifth viewing still reveals new comedy nuggets. Season 4 hasn't had the time or perspective to truly judge this, we can only go by what we've seen, and it's an impressive but flawed run. The comedy is there, but it's not as overt as I'm sure fans would have hoped. But memes don't build overnight, and any disappointment that may be felt initially could quite possibly dissipate over repeated viewings.
It should be noted that this isn't a self contained season. While talk was of a fourth season followed by a movie, given all the loose threads, I could easily see a fifth season in the offing. So even with repeated watchings of season 4, the picture still isn't complete. It's not necessary to run through seasons 1-4 as a whole, this season is a new beginning. While the initial critical reaction was mixed (and this mixed critical response notably caused a dip in Netflix's share price), I feel it was an inauthentic reaction to the season as a whole. (I don`t think anyone can fairly assess something after consuming all 8 hours in less than three days, particularly when you feel you *have* to watch it all so rapidly. As well, it`s the critics job to be critical, and given the hype, it`s natural to focus on the flaws.)
By the end of this season, I was both hungry for more (particularly because of the really surprising final moment, which was as juicy a dramatic moment as it was a shockingly comedic one) as well as eager to go back to the start and watch again. I think a second run will be kinder, both in knowing what to expect and in discovering all the things I didn`t catch the first time around (which I`m certain was a lot).