This post discusses the fourth season of Arrested Development, released on Netflix last weekend, in its entirety.
“They sound like terrible people!” George Michael Bluth (Michael Cera) tells Rebel Alley (Isla Fisher), the actress that he has been dating towards the end of the fourth season of Arrested Development after she describes attending a dinner party with a conservative politician (Terry Crews) who brought a prostitute to dinner. The joke, of course, is that said prostitute is actually George Michael’s aunt Lindsay Bluth Fünke (Portia di Rossi), who is dating said politician both as an act of political sabotage, and because she’s attracted to the fact that he’s attracted to her, and that Rebel’s own date to this dinner was George Michael’s father Michael (Jason Bateman). “Oh, they were,” Rebel tells George Michael, and that it’s not clear if her statement is confined to the other couple, to herself and both Bluth men, or to everyone in the Arrested Development universe is precisely the point.
I agree with many of the criticisms of Netflix’s resurrected version of the show, which was cancelled by Fox in 2006, including the arguments that the episodes and the scenes go on too long, prompted perhaps by the tight schedules of the cast, that the episodes seem clearly constructed to set up a movie, rather than to produce a satisfying arc on their own, and that the new episodes rely too heavily on cameos and repeated jokes. But the revived Arrested Development is an interesting experiment in what makes a comedy work, and how long privilege can be interesting to watch.
The classical definition of the forms means that in comedies, everyone will be all right—if by all right you mean hitched—by the end, while in dramas, things are destined to conclude poorly. But the best sitcoms have a talent for tricking you into forgetting that their characters’ predestination. I have been utterly convinced by Cheers that Norm might permanently drop out of the workforce, by Community that Abed Nadir might not survive his encounters with the social rules of the wider world, by 30 Rock that Liz Lemon might be crushed by Jack Donaghy, and later that their friendship might not survive some of the obstacles flung in its path.
But Arrested Development is a story about people who are privileged in the most basic sense: no matter what happens to them, and no matter the circumstances in which it happens, they’re always going to be all right. Land in prison for securities fraud or commandeering the Queen Mary? You’ll find your way in with a prison gang—and in Lucille’s case this season, maybe even onto a reality show. Have your assets seized? There’s money in the banana stand, or a rent-free model home to which you can retreat. Reduced to prostituting yourself out to your wealthy, vertiginous neighbor as Michael does in the first episode of this fourth season, proposing to Lucille Austero (Liza Minelli) that they have sex as a substitute for repaying a very large loan? The very presence of a Lucille Austero in the various Bluths’ lives is a rather odd form of good fortune, but there’s no denying that’s what it is.
At The Atlantic, Spencer Kornhaber argued, both as a reflection of the fourth season’s interlocking structure, in which all the episodes contribute, from different perspectives, to our understanding of a few key events, and in recognition of the way the characters come together, that “for all its many bait-and-switches, Arrested’s most impressive trick is a humanitarian one: caking itself in the makeup of narcissists to disguise the fact that it’s a shaman, preaching the message that we’re all in this together.” But marathoning the episodes on Tuesday and Wednesday, I felt a little overdosed on the Bluths’ blithe sociopathy, and the fact that they’re conning not just institutions, but each other.
Sometimes, that sociopathy works to good, pointed, ends. George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) comes up with a scheme to build a border wall between the United States and Mexico to bilk money out of the government, and to increase the value of a land investment he made earlier. “It’s about protecting our border, which is why we have a member of our armed forces with us today,” he declares, a born huckster, while shooting a video to promote the project starring his son Buster (Tony Hale) as a fake soldier. “It’s Mexican-proof,” Buster declares, his voice thick with carsickness. Later, seeking to prove that he’s a real man, Buster joins the military for real and becomes a talented drone pilot, though, Ender Wiggin-style, he believes he is playing video games. “Want to go to lunch, Bluth?” one of his fellow service-members asks Buster. “Not until I take out the hospital!” Buster tells him gleefully. “You won’t get away from me, little nurse! Take that, Taliban wedding!” The man gets concerned, telling him “Hey Bluth, you just took out an art museum in Madrid.” When Buster finds out what he’s actually done, he suffers a breakdown and sabotages his own rehabilitation to avoid returning to combat, a conclusion far more poignant than the show has any time to linger on.
But often, the Bluths are extendedly, painfully revolting in a way that’s intensified by marathoning the episodes, and perhaps by an effort to raise the stakes for the characters so a movie has a built-in plot. “These three people with burqas just walked right by you!” Michael complains when he is searched at airport security in one of the many moments when the show’s attempts to comment on racism feel less like commentary and more like actual bias. The fourth season doubles down on the idea that Michael is as narcissistic and pathetic as the rest of his family, and as he attempts to get them all on board with a movie about their lives, suggests that he’s as marginally competent as well. Tobias Fünke (David Cross), after mistaking a heroin addict for an actress, exacerbates her vulnerabilities, puts her in danger of legal prosecution, and ultimately puts her in a position to relapse. “How could you do this to me?” he asks her as she’s overdosing in a trash heap. “Or did I do this to you?” But never fear, the moment of potential growth and responsibility passes instantaneously. Failed-ish magician Gob Bluth (Will Arnett) passes off a house in a neighborhood full of sex offenders that Michael developed in a failed bid for financial independence to his nephew George Michael because, in the words of the omnipresent voiceover, “He would be able to prove to his brother that he could sell a house.”
And taken as a whole, the fourth season of Arrested Development managed to do the inverse of so many successful comedies, which trick us into believing that their characters are in real danger, and make us feel genuinely relieved when they triumph. By the time the credits came up for the fifteenth time, I was thoroughly convinced that there was absolutely no situation the Bluths couldn’t scam, seduce, sell, or scheme their way out of. And I was all too ready for them to, in keeping with the advice of their lawyer, take to the sea, not so they could escape yet again, but in the sincere wish that at long last, the system would demonstrate a semblance of fairness, and that they’d sink.