And now, the story of an Emmy-winning sitcom that was canceled in 2006 and the one writer who had no choice but to spend seven years figuring out how to get it back on the air. It’s . . . Arrested Development. Or, to be precise, it’s the long-awaited, much-hyped fourth season of Arrested Development, which made its debut on Netflix a few weeks ago.
For those unfamiliar with the show and the saga surrounding its cancellation and (very) eventual revival, it was created by Mitchell Hurwitz in 2003 and chronicles the lives of the Bluths—a wealthy, WASPy, exceedingly dysfunctional Newport Beach, California, family—after their father is arrested for embezzlement and fraud. It premiered to critical acclaim a decade ago on Fox, and, over the next few years, it developed a small but devoted following: ardent fans who admired the show’s clever joke-writing, ingenious, intersecting plotlines, and sharp and original comedic acting. (Among other things, Arrested launched Michael Cera’s and Will Arnett’s careers, revived Jason Bateman’s and Jeffrey Tambor’s, and introduced alternative comic David Cross to a large, very appreciative audience.)
After two seasons and six Emmys, the show was canceled abruptly in the middle of season three. It was initially rumored that Showtime was going to pick it up, but Hurwitz backed out of the deal. Since then, there have been whispers here and there that it was going to be revived, or that a movie was imminent; but audiences heard nothing more from the Bluths until the fall of 2011, when Hurwitz announced a deal that would bring the show back by way of Netflix’s streaming video service.
And so, a mere decade after it first premiered, Arrested Development premiered again. Each of the new episodes follows a single character from the end of where the show left off to the present day. At first, this device is somewhat jarring to fans expecting the breakneck 22 minutes of chaotic family squabbling that characterized the first three seasons.
The first episode of season four focuses on Michael Bluth (Bateman), the protagonist who always held the Bluth family together, tasked as he was with getting his father out of jail, keeping the family’s real estate company afloat—and whatever else his ne’er-do-well siblings and mother might impose upon him to do. The episode reveals his travails over the past few years: He’s finally disassociated from the family that had taken such advantage of him, he’s lost a fortune developing a subdivision that had no road leading to it, and he’s taking online classes at the University of Phoenix while living, uninvited and unwanted, in his son George-Michael’s (Cera) college dormitory.
From a material standpoint, it is vintage Arrested Development, as are the next few episodes: George-Michael is developing an “anti-social network” called Fakeblock, and has come out of the closet as “O.S.” (overtly sexual). George Bluth Sr. (Tambor) is scamming investment bankers at a quasi-spiritual retreat in the desert that sits on land he bought to build a wall to keep Mexicans out of the United States. Gob Bluth (Arnett) is living the party-boy lifestyle with the young Hollywood crowd and takes Rohypnol, the date-rape drug, to erase his memories each morning.
But these first few episodes seem to lack the comedic oomph and careful plotting of the earlier shows. All the bizarre stories seem a bit disconnected, and it appears that, by isolating the characters, Hurwitz has willfully eliminated the internecine family conflict that made Arrested so hilarious in the first place. “Appears” is the operative word here, because what Hurwitz has actually done is much more complex and impressive, and every bit as funny, if not funnier, than the original.
In its first three seasons, the show always seemed to be running a short con and long con simultaneously: creating compelling, episode-long, intersecting arcs that very quickly delivered setups and payoffs, as well as season-long arcs that delivered big twists and big laughs over time. In season four, now unburdened by the 22-minute, three-act structure required by network TV and its advertisers, Hurwitz has made the show one really long, really complicated con.
As each episode reveals the progress (or lack of progress) of the characters in the intervening years, the same scenes are replayed over and over, and the same jokes are hit again and again from different perspectives, with each repetition adding dramatic irony to dramatic irony, and laughs to laughs, until what is actually going on starts to become clear.
This happens slowly at first, then more and more rapidly with each passing episode, until every scene seems to carry some new bit of information, some new joke playing on an old joke, until finally it is one huge comedic payoff after another, line after line, scene after scene, episode after episode, culminating in a series of cliffhangers that will have fans demanding more episodes—or the movie that Hurwitz has long been promising.
In short, Arrested Development is one of the most ambitious and brilliantly executed television shows ever made. All things considered, that might not be saying much. But like the handful of shows over the past decade that have helped make television superior to film as entertainment, it is so good as to practically demand watching and rewatching.
And fortunately, it’s on Netflix, so have at it.
Zack Munson is a writer in Los Angeles.