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.