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MH checks out Arrested Development Season Four!

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It was with equal amounts of trepidation & excitement that I sat down to watch the first episode of the latest Netflix (semi) original series – the long awaited resurrection of “Arrested Development” – because this was a show that I loved when it first ran. Loved, loved, loved – right from the very start, I felt like I really *got* it, and until “Community” came along, it was an island of a show – such a uniquely intricate story full of call-backs to episodes from occasionally seasons past, let alone episodes that every new story felt like it was an improvement on the last. It’s also one of the few shows that has grown in its audience size since it was cancelled – both in terms of repeat viewership on TV along with DVD sales.

My nervous caution in starting to watch it lies with the fact that Netflix has had a hit & miss run with their new ventures into original programming – the Kevin Spacey / David Fincher driven “House of Cards” was incredible from start to finish, whereas Eli Roth’s “Hemlock Grove” was a slightly edgier soap opera than the typical “CW” fare that was all over the place in terms of tone & general story (not to mention Famke Janssen’s wildly varying accent).

Then came the talk on “AD” that certain cast members were reportedly not all that interested in reprising roles (in a telling move, the main rumored cast member is now listed as a Producer); that episodes would only focus on one character at a time (true, but with caveats); that Netflix viewed this season as a “one & done” venture (since flip-flopped to leave the door open for more) – and there was the disappointing response to creator Mitch Hurwitz’ subsequent series “Sit Down Shut Up” & “Running Wilde” to consider, both of which were cancelled early in their runs, and had been critically panned. Had Hurwitz’ given his all to the first 3 seasons of “AD”, and was now running on empty? I was about to find out…

The first striking thing when going to the “AD” section of Netflix is seeing that these are the first new episodes of “AD” to air since February 2006, it kind of brings it home as you fire up the first episode of Season 4 – “Flight Of The Phoenix” – that feeling of just how special it is for a show to be brought back so many years later with the original cast & crew in place (and for the majority, physically unchanged with one quite notable difference – and the jokes made about it are as hilarious as they are brutal). Before beginning, a word of caution – Netflix has continued its tradition of making all episodes available at once – I highly recommend not binge viewing all 15 in a marathon (as many friends & colleagues did), you will miss things – I guarantee it, and for a show as intricate as this, you don’t want to miss the little things, which can sometimes be the highlight of the episode.

Season 4 picks up after the events of “Development Arrested” (and includes some time jumps over the course of a year). To attempt to explain the storylines of S4 would take 10 pages minimally, so I’ll give a generalization of a few of them:

• Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) is now the owner of the Sudden Valley housing development after (again) breaking ties with his family, but owes Lucille 2 (Liza Minelli) $700,000 in loan repayments, and finds himself unable to pay it back after the housing market collapse – all this despite an impending movie deal with Ron Howard (featuring as himself & continuing as series narrator).
• George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), has stolen the plans for the construction of a giant Wall closing off the border between the U.S. & Mexico, and plans to build it himself in an effort to win the funding rights from the Government until he runs into his twin brother Oscar (also Tambor) squatting on the land.
• Lindsay Bluth-Fünke (Portia de Rossi) & her Husband Tobias (David Cross) find themselves going their separate ways after each reading only the “Eat, Pray” component of “Eat, Pray, Love”, and both travel to India to “find themselves”, leaving forgotten daughter Maeby (Alia Shawkat) behind to fend for herself.
• Gob Bluth (Will Arnett) finds himself in a bitter rivalry with recently outed Magician, Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller), and comes up with a….. unique….plan to seek revenge on him for an illusion gone wrong.
• George-Michael Bluth (Michael Cera) finds his popularity & appeal rising when he invents “Fake Block”, or as it is described many times – “The Anti-Social Network”, while struggling with the overbearing behavior of his father Michael.
• Finally – Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) faces Maritime Law for hijacking the Queen Mary, with the help of family Attorney Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler), while Buster Bluth (Tony Hale) contemplates life for the first time without his Mother being around.

Now – that’s the most basic of breakdowns – and I can say with all honesty, that they get significantly deeper, wider & more involved as they go along, but to say any more would ruin some great surprises.

So, what’s good about the new season? For one, it’s 15 brand new episodes of a great show which felt for a long time like it was gone forever, and throughout the season, it manages to maintain the feel & tone of the original run. Typecasting aside, I would be a happy man if Will Arnett spent the rest of his life playing Gob – his two “featured” episodes in particular had me doubled over in laughter at some points, and his interactions with Ben Stiller & Michael Cera are absolutely hilarious.

While mentioning “Featured” episodes, I should also point out – yes, each episode does predominantly feature one of the cast members, but these are not solo adventures by any means, and the rest of the family aren’t merely in place as cameo appearances either – in fact, had it not been pointed out in various news stories prior to the premiere, and by Ron Howard’s personalized voice over intros (“This is Buster’s Arrested Development” etc.), I don’t think I would have noticed one way or another – rest assured, everyone gets plenty of screen time, and bear in mind things that may have you scratching your head in the earlier episodes pay off big time in later eps.

While on the topic of cameos – there are so many, and so many impossibly great ones that I would not dare to spoil them because they should be seen as they pop-up – but in the case of a few regular appearances, Kristen Wiig as a young Lucille Bluth & Seth Rogen as George Sr. recur quite frequently throughout the season, as does the aforementioned Ben Stiller and all are great in their respective roles – I’m smiling right now thinking of some of the other amazing guest spots – I really want to talk about them, but I don’t want to ruin it for you – suffice to say, it can play like a Robert Altman film at times in the amount of people who actually show up.

Also great are some of the newer “regulars” added to the cast – Marky Bark (Chris Diamantopoulos), the son of Environmental Warrior Johnny Bark (Clint Howard), who is afflicted with “Face Blindness” which renders new girlfriend Lindsay a “series of points & blobs”; DeBrie Bardeaux (Maria Bamford) as a regular at the “Method One” acting clinic that Tobias frequents (and played Sue Storm in a low budget “Fantastic Four” film); Oscar Bluth disciple Dr. Norman (John Slattery – who really needs to move into comedy after “Mad Men” finishes) & Isla Fisher doing her best work to date as Rebel Alley, one of Ron Howard’s daughters who has to go to Awards shows whenever “Bryce gets pregnant” – they all slip very comfortably into the world of the Bluth family, and hopefully will still be there if / when a new season / movie happens.

Now for the bad – I was really concerned during the first episode that Hurwitz’ really had given his all to the first 3 seasons – I had been re-watching them in preparation for Season 4, and tonally, there were definitely some things that felt very off in the beginning – particularly centering around Jason Bateman as Michael – the character felt very different in this episode, almost like a parody of the original character. A few scenes involving Computers / iPhones & his relationship with George-Michael in particular just didn’t ring true with anything that had come before it, and given that so much of the first episode focusses on that relationship, I was worried – thankfully, it doesn’t extend beyond these handful of scenes & are quickly forgotten in the overall story.

Also on the negative side is bloat. Going from the traditional 22 minute network run time to around the 30-32 minute mark on average doesn’t mean more is better in this case – with the exception of a few episodes, you could see quite easily where it could have been trimmed down to make things run a bit smoother (the shortest episode is 28 minutes, the longest 37) however, when some episodes were on, they felt way too short to me – so you take the good with the bad, but a *touch* more of a heavy hand could have fixed some of the pacing issue in a few of the stories – which brings us to……

George Sr. – one of the best written characters in the original run, here stars in my two least enjoyable episodes of the new bunch. That’s not to say that there aren’t some incredibly funny moments in both episodes featuring the fantastic Jeffrey Tambor (in fact, 3 of my favorite cameos in the history of the show occur during these episodes), but in my opinion, if ever there was a case for tightening up of run time – it’s 4×02 “Borderline Personalities” & 4×06 “Double Crossers”. I would point out in other reviews I have read on this season, almost no-one is in agreement on which are the best / worst episodes – so take that for what you will, I just personally felt that George was wasted in these.
Last, but not least – simply not enough Tony Hale – Buster is a favorite among most “AD” fans, and unfortunately, I think his schedule with “Veep” interrupted his ability to participate more than others – It’s doubly disappointing that his featured episode is in the top 3 of the season – he gets back into the role with ease, and his interactions with Jessica Walter & Liza Minelli in particular are incredibly funny to watch.

So, with Pros & Cons weighed up, where does Season 4 of “Arrested Development” stand? I’m very pleased to say that it does not disappoint. I watched it over the course of 3 days, and I’m actually about to go & start it over again over a longer course of time – I know there’s still a bunch of stuff that I’ve missed, and I can’t wait to dive back into it – for me, it fits perfectly in with Season 1-3, and feels just as comfortable as it used to – the central performances are as great as ever, the newcomers blend in effortlessly, and the cameos are killer. Highly recommended for original fans, but as I’ve seen on some forums questioning it, I would not recommend using this as a jumping on point – there’s a lot of reference work done to the earlier seasons that would fall flat with newcomers – to those people new to the show, I envy you – you’re about to watch a brilliant series.

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