For many people the much anticipated arrival of the new series of the fiercely-loved cult comedy Arrested Development was met with disappointment: casual followers quickly lost interest and the normally vocal core of dedicated fans were left strangely muted. So how has Series Four gone wrong?
They changed the format!
The most obvious deviation from the original formula is that the format of the series has undergone a dramatic upheaval: episodes are now about 35 minutes long (as opposed to the usual 20-ish minutes) and each episode centres around just one character. This utterly transforms the nature of the comedy, and while commendably audacious, it simply does not suit the frenetic tone of the show, making each episode feel more like a quirky short film than a hilarious, snappy farce. The old series’ success lied in its pace, cutting swiftly between characters who are governed by farcical plot twists and guided by miscommunication, yet tying up a satisfying, sophisticated narrative. And all within 20 minutes. This punchiness has inevitably suffered as the mockumentary style of the original has been dropped (supposedly to provide a more cinematic approach), allowing for more drawn-out scenes which feel alien to Arrested Development’s quick-fire style. As much as we love the Bluths (and co.), 35 minutes is a hell of a long time to spend with just one of them – they are, above all, comedy characters and as such will always be at their best in the context of the others. George Bluth Sr. is funny because of the way he is emasculated by Lucille; Tobias is at his most entertaining when Michael is there to suffer his poor choices of words, and Gob is, well, Gob, which is probably why his episodes work the best.
The original premise of Arrested Development centred around keeping the family together in spite of their selfish, narcissistic and Machiavellian tendencies, and this dynamic was fundamental to the show; without this they are just a bunch of oddballs wandering around California. Furthermore, isolating our beloved Bluths in a fresh environment means we are subjected to characters that are not of the same calibre (such as Marky, the fleetingly amusing ‘face-blind’ anarchist), and we quickly lose interest when they predominate in an episode.
It’s kinda sad!
The extended focus on each character brings into question the nature of the comedy itself. Charlie Chaplin astutely observed that “life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot”; humour is based around archetypes, and exaggerations – it thrives on serious issues but only on the surface, in ‘long shot’ – any closer and tragic sentiments take over. In this sense, focussing on one character in such detail and at such length (i.e . ‘close up’) provides too much scrutiny into their psyche (such as Gob’s loneliness) and serves only to replace humour with an unwelcome sense of pathos which is too far removed from the spirit of the show.
It’s too dark
This shift in the mood and tone is another fundamental issue in the new series and is epitomised by one of the new characters, DeBrie (Maria Bamford), a nervy, anxious, drug-addled heroin addict. This is very dark territory, which can work in the context of comedy (as exemplified by the sublime It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia), but jars with the normally light, fun tone of Arrested Development. To Bamford’s credit, the role is convincing, but disturbingly so, and she elicits only uncomfortable pity, not laughter.
It’s too clever for its own good
Another problem with following just one character is that it makes each episode driven by plot, not humour, and this is an endemic issue in Series Four. Each episode feels weighed down by the complexity of the Pulp Fiction-esque non-linear narrative. Where Ron Howard’s role was previously a sardonic commentator, often providing a punchline or a juxtaposing cutaway, now he is overburdened with the task of explaining the convoluted story, which quickly becomes a chore to keep up with. Furthermore, while this series is full of classic Arrested Development gags, they are far more difficult to appreciate due to the new format. In the previous series, a joke would ‘start’ in one scene and the payoff would follow at the end of the conversation or perhaps in a later scene. The way the show rewarded attention to detail with ongoing, multi-layed jokes was the essence of its popularity, and gave it a richness which accumulated with each viewing. The problem with this series is that it demands that the viewer work too hard, and for less reward: now, a joke starts in one episode and resolves in another, by which time even the most dedicated fan is more likely to respond with a “hah oh yeah, how clever!” than screeching laughter. The series is actually significantly funnier on the second viewing (on which it relies too heavily), when all the in-jokes are fully established and the narrative is better understood, but I imagine a re-watch would not be an appealing prospect for much of the audience.
What happened to Michael Bluth?
Perhaps this litany of flaws could be forgiven if it weren’t for the final and worst issue of all: the enormous change in the personality of Michael Bluth. As the central character and hilarious ‘straight’ man of Arrested Development, Michael and his relationship with his son, George Michael, was the beating heart of the show. The Bluths are all self-centred sociopaths, but Michael’s humanity made us care for them and his (brilliantly flawed) self-awareness and good intentions acted as a reference of normality, a context to the selfishness and eccentricity of the other characters. Furthermore, Michael’s imperfect perspicacity is what brings about the hilarious exchanges with his slightly awkward, slightly unremarkable son: from Anne (who?!) to The Mayonegg, Michael’s self-defeating desperation for his son to fit in was a huge part of the comedy of Arrested Development. In this series, however, Michael is an obnoxious, self-serving and imperceptive idiot. In the first episode alone, he tries to sleep with Lucille Two; he – uninvited – moves into his son’s university room; he jumps in the shower with his George Michael and is then too stupid to realise his son has voted him out of the room. It is one thing establishing some turmoil in the father-son relationship (which supposedly provides the next series/film with a conflict to resolve), but quite quite another warping Michael’s character beyond recognition to do so. What is more, due to the new format, Michael is no longer the main protagonist and leader of the family, but just another Bluth, and one of the least appealing.
Being Arrested Development, there is undoubtedly a lot of entertainment to be had from Series Four, from Gob’s rivalry with Tony Wonder to Tobias’ brush with the law, and Kristin Wiig does a phenomenal young Lucille (albeit in contrast to Seth Rogan’s hopelessly inadequate George Bluth Sr). Unfortunately the structural changes made to the show make it much less enjoyable, but these are superficial and forgivable: it is the the alteration of Michael’s character – and consequently his relationship with his son – that leaves the viewer feeling despondent and longing for the warmth and fun of the old series, and perhaps a couple of Forget-me-nows.