Arrested Development Season Four: An Unwieldy, Beautiful Mess

What was pitched as an artistic choice turned out to be one of necessity — and we’re all the better for it.


Here’s my favorite joke from the original run of Arrested Development: While planning a charity event, George Bluth Sr. asks his family to recommend an organization or cause to benefit. Everyone recommends something self-serving in the secret ballot, except one family member, who suggests “cervical cancer.”

“Oh, I wonder who wrote that one down,” George Sr. deadpans as the camera cuts to Michael.

I love this moment, not only because it’s funny and indicative of the family’s self-involvement, but also because this is how we find out the cause of Tracey Bluth’s death — through comedy.

For me, comedies are always best when they’re dramas (or outright tragedies) first. The fourth season of AD didn’t deliver as much tragedy as I would have liked, but it did finally reveal Michael’s late wife amidst a hectic, muddled, misshapen new season that was frustrating and funny, off-kilter and canny.

I know I’m late to the party with this write-up, but the much-anticipated fourth season of Arrested Development is a lurching, unwieldy behemoth that delivers laughs and pathos in fits and starts. Many, many other pundits have deconstructed and analyzed the new season already, so I’ll limit my comments to a few observations:

• Seeing Tracey Bluth onscreen for the first time was bracing. Going into this new season, I hoped that we’d meet her in a flashback. As it happened, the AD showrunners out-thought me, broadsiding us with her image during an old infomercial. She was cradling George-Michael in her arms. Michael and Tracey’s relationship is one of the great unspoken storylines in AD. I wish we’d gotten more of it, but we got some tantalizing hints that we may see more of Tracey in the form of …

• Isla Fisher and the movie-within-a-movie. OK, I didn’t like the Hollywood storyline at all. Insider Hollywood movies have their place, of course, but they’re incredibly self-serving, self-centered — hell, self-everything. The good ones are good — sometimes even great: The Player, Swimming With Sharks, Mulholland Drive, Get Shorty — but most of the time, they give you that oogy, embarrassed feeling you get while watching a particularly self-congratulatory skit in the Oscars. Meeting Ron Howard was satisfyingly meta, but why did we see so much of Brian Grazer?

• That said, the movie-within-a-movie may very well give us our first look at Michael and Tracey onscreen together, even if it’s only by proxy. For you Star Trek geeks out there, I compared the Isla Fisher-as-Tracey storyline to the finale of Enterprisein which we finally got to meet the elusive ship’s cook in the form of a holodeck-jaunting Will Riker. I don’t know if Mitchell Hurwitz have any plans to give Michael a Six Feet Under-style catharsis in the movie, but if we got to find out more about his wife, I’d be all for it.

• Overall, the season started very slow. My girlfriend and I got to attend the premiere in Hollywood, where they showed the first two Michael-centric episodes. They were funny, but they were definitely shaking some cobwebs loose. The “Michael getting voted off the island” dorm episode felt strangely false. I know Michael is needy, clingy and occasionally clueless, but his obliviousness felt too extreme, like someone was writing a spoof of AD, not AD itself.

• After the second episode — the interminable “Borderline Personalities” — I thought, “Uh, oh. We’re in for a loooooong season.”

• But the season rallied. “Colony Collapse” might be my favorite of the new batch. I almost had a heart attack laughing when Gob unwittingly released bees into the back of the limo.

• The character-centric structure denied the new season any chance to fully recapture the tone and feel of the first three stanzas, but it yielded surprising fruit. The repertory company’s disparate schedule forced the showrunners to deliver 15 short movies, each with its own perspective, structure and tone. We got spoofs of corporate culture, start-up mania, reality television, and Entourage — a self-indulgent property that demands spoofery if there ever was one.

• The character-centric episodes also gave us a slew of great new guest stars. Fourth season MVP: John Slattery, who fit right into this universe. Also delightful were Terry Crews, Kristen Wiig and the aforementioned Isla Fisher.

• The greenscreen was weird, but there wasn’t enough of it to be really objectionable for me. (I only spotted three instances of it — Henry Winkler at the maritime police station, Liza Minelli on the witness stand, and I think some of Jessica Walters’ shots in rehearsal for the Fantastic Four musical were screened in.)

• I was actually surprised that there weren’t more callbacks to the first three seasons. To be sure, there were plenty, but the showrunners delivered new gags and new catch-phrases a-plenty, including the ear-wormy pop song “Getaway.”

• Untold hosannas must be sung for the season’s use of Roger Corman’s zero-budget Fantastic Four as a load-bearing member. (Oh, and add Maria Bamford to my list of season MVPs. She was a perfect fit.)

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