At one minute past midnight, Sunday, May 26, the 15 episodes of "Arrested Development," season 4 dropped, all at once, upon the battlefield of popular culture. If nothing else, this brings an end to all those articles wondering what the series — back after seven years and available exclusively through Netflix — would look like, how it would play and might best be consumed, and whether it would be the work of angels or apes. Let the speculation end, then, and the arguments begin! Let the metrics be gathered!
I have, to be clear, watched it all – and not with grim determination, but rather great, increasing satisfaction.
Briefly, allowing for some minor technological upgrades, it looks like the "Arrested Development" of yore, but it unrolls in a much different form: Each episode focuses on an individual character, within the same slice of time — the five years following the end of episode three — from different, sometimes overlapping angles. (It moves backward, as well, with Seth Rogen and Kristin Wiig as the younger George Sr. and Lucille, played in the present by Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter.)
In a sense, it is not merely a continuation of the show, but a celebration of it, from the way it quotes earlier seasons, down to repeating whole lines of dialogue, to the many please-may-we-come-to-the-party cameo appearances that at times threaten to turn the show into "It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World."
If you are joining late, "Arrested Development" tells the story of the Bluths of Newport Beach, a highly codependent dysfunctional family who continually try and fail to escape one another. ("Why is Michael so happy?" the show asked back in 2003, in the series' very first episode. "Because he's decided to never speak to these people again.") Sometimes they have a lot of money and sometimes they don't, and frequently one of them is incarcerated somewhere.
Season 3 ended with a coda in which young Maeby Bluth (Alia Shawkat) pitched Ron Howard (an executive producer of the series, and its narrator) her family story as a sitcom. (He saw it maybe as a movie.) That blossoms into a storyline this season; as in more than one storyline past, it involves one Bluth getting the others to sign somethings.
As previously, the show has fun with sex, race and money, and often runs to the edge of tastelessness, but in a nice way. The action moves from spa prison to desert camp, Hollywood board room to college dorm room, far India to the familiar lonely Bluth penthouse and model home, now surrounded by other homes, all of them are empty, as the development stands stand 20 miles from any services or amenities.
It begins with a sly admission of the passage of time, with Howard clearing his throat in voice-over. It'simpossible, if you are familiar with the series, not to note how the characters have aged, even though the actors have been constantly in the public eye in the years since. (Noting that you're noticing, there is a joke about the agelessness of Jason Bateman, who plays the more or less normal Bluth, Michael -- though the current season finds him in a state of crisis.
The series' signatures, all still in place, are a self-consciousness that extends beyond the frame; cutaways to magazine covers and clippings and web sites to advance the story, and often to assert the falsity of something a character just asserted to be true; and a taste for double-entendres the speaker does not understand.
As in a sitcom or a soap opera — and "Arrested Development" is both — much of what happens results because someone has improvised a lie, or crafted one, or is simply not paying attention. (Usually, because they are too busy thinking about themselves.) Misreadings fuel whole storylines, as when David Cross's Tobias Fünke (sexually confused husband to Portia de Rossi's Lindsay Bluth) mistakes a methadone clinic for a "Method One" acting school.
There has been much debate over whether Netflix has erred by making the whole series available at once; but video on demand is its business model, after all, and for viewers whose previous experience of "Arrested Development" has been entirely by DVD or download, the new season will be watched must like the old ones. Nowadays, a TV series is digested like a novel, taken fast or slow, at the viewer's convenience and pleasure. There was professional interest behind my having watched it at at one go, but the experience was more akin to being drawn on through a good book, allowing yourself just one more chapter after just one more chapter until you look up from the page and it's morning.
Although creator and caretaker Mitchell Hurwitz said at one point that a viewer would be able to watch the episodes in any order, he later thought better of it, and, while there is possibly more than one way through the material, having watched them in the stated order myself, I would vote for taking them by the numbers. There is an order to its revelations.
Allowing the series to go out at once, at Netflix's request, was smart, too, because neither the strategy nor the quality of the series is wholly apparent from the first episode. (I would watch three or four to start.) The show improves as it gathers context, and before long you stop thinking about what makes this "Arrested Development" different from all other "Arrested Developments."
There are doors left open at the end — indeed, some are freshly opened — to encourage further seasons (Netflix is reported to be willing) or the often bruited movie, or simply to acknowledge that lives this messy stay messy.