When it was announced in late 2011 that Netflix had contracted with Mitchell Hurwitz and his crew to begin filming on a fourth season of the beloved hit sitcom Arrested Development, the internet erupted in collective joy. The show, canceled after just three seasons on FOX in the mid-2000s, had long been mourned by fans for having been gone too soon. Many petitions were started through the years to bring the show back in some form, and finally the call had been answered years later. Excitement began as details leaked slowly, building to a May 2013 debut. However, the fourth season wasn’t quite what we had all hoped for. So what exactly went “wrong”?
The format of the fourth season was ambitious. Initially, Hurwitz had intended upon it being a “pick-your-adventure” format, where you could see one character doing something in the background, then pause the episode and go find where it’s happening in another episode. However, this format proved a bit too ambitious and never really came to fruition. Instead, it ended up being pieced together in the form of telling each character’s story from their perspective, thereby still creating some overlap in characters’ storylines but making it somewhat nonsensical to try to watch it out of order. In fact, viewing out of order turned out to not be an option at all, as in typical Arrested Development fashion many jokes would be alluded to in certain episodes but only fully explained once or twice, meaning someone trying to view the episodes out of order would be as lost as someone trying to watch a season three episode with no context. The format chosen was likely the best that could be done given the significant amount of expositional work needed as well as the filming constraints (more on that shortly).
The storyline in the fourth season is not too bad, but is perhaps a bit more complicated than necessary. Michael, wishing to restore his family’s status, re-launches the construction company, but this quickly fails and he jumps into trying to get a movie made about his family. The “meta” aspect of this is worth appreciating, sure, but it comes across as relatively forced. Likewise, the love triangle between Michael, Rebel, and George Michael comes across as an excuse to have Michael and his son fight, as well as to re-focus the show around George Michael’s character while painting Michael as basically being just as bad as the rest. It was a disappointing knocking-down of Michael; while he certainly had his selfish and aloof moments in the first three seasons, he still was “normal” enough to act as an audience surrogate. In the fourth season, the writers very clearly wanted to emphasize George Michael as the relatable and prominent one, likely due at least in part to Michael Cera’s new role as a producer for the show. Meanwhile, the other characters trotted along aimlessly as usual, but their aimlessness took on more prominence given entire episodes to let it play out. Tobias continues trying to act, GOB suddenly decides he’s gay, Buster searches hopelessly for a maternal figure, and the rest really don’t do much of interest despite having entire episodes dedicated to them. And of course there were the usual recurring jokes peppered in there, but even those felt shoehorned in for audience gratification rather than being as organic as they felt in earlier seasons. The show was still entertaining, don’t get me wrong, it just wasn’t the quality we had come to expect from this group. Put simply, the Bluths just aren’t the same when they’re not together.
And now we will discuss why they weren’t together. As it turns out, it’s incredibly complicated to gather a large cast of successful, in-demand actors back together after 7 years of a show not existing. Cast members had previously had a running joke wherein the reason a fourth season was not happening was because Michael Cera had become too famous to come back and do it. While they may have been joking, it was the exact same issue (granted not only on Cera’s part) they ended up facing while they tried to shoot season four. Jason Bateman was beginning to move into film, Cera obviously was well-established there already, Jeffrey Tambor always seems to have work (as well he should, the man is a national treasure), Will Arnett is equally always busy. And that’s not even taking into consideration that Jessica Walter (Archer) and Tony Hale (Veep) were committed to other sitcoms at the time. As a result of trying to make all of these schedules match up, and trying to put out a finished product as fast as possible, green screens were heavily utilized and many scenes were written specifically to allow for editing tricks. Editing was done with the intent of creating coherent episodes, meaning elements such as the obviousness of the green-screen scenes were overlooked in the interest of time. The end result was a collection of heavily edited, somewhat disjointed episodes that came together to tell a story in much more time than what was needed to do so, with the overwhelming majority of the storytelling being done via Ron Howard’s ever-present voiceover because it was simply the only way to bring it all together coherently.
So what now?
Season four was underwhelming by AD standards, plain and simple. However, it was still “good” in a general sense, and still makes us want to see what happens next. Netflix, happy with the hype season four generated, has ordered a fifth season. But will it be any better this time around? If anything the cast has become less available, with Bateman launching a successful film career and Arnett now having a critically-acclaimed show (Bojack Horseman) of his own finally. Meanwhile, Hale and Walter remain committed to their shows, and Tambor looks to be in line to win a few Emmys with Amazon’s Transparent. Hurwitz and the cast seem intent upon this fifth season, however, and they all seem to acknowledge that the fourth season wasn’t as strong as it could have been. But will Netflix, and a hungry fanbase, be patient enough to allow filming to resume only when all the Bluths can be together? Only time will tell, but regardless it’s hard not to feel like this continued effort to keep the show alive is only harming its once-bulletproof status among TV fans.