‘Arrested Development’ fixes a huge mistake
A deconstructed hamburger is many things—an artsy salad, a Paleo breakfast, something healthy and non-reliant on bread—but it is not a hamburger. The ingredients may certainly shine brighter when separate and not slathered together in a bun, but it is the interplay of meat and condiment and carbohydrate, and the juicy, sloppy consistency of their rough dance, which makes a burger a burger.
Created by Mitchell Hurwitz, Arrested Development (now on Netflix) is one of the most brilliant sitcoms of all time, a relentlessly funny show handing out comeuppance to its unscrupulous protagonists and elaborately messing up their already awry lives. It is a show about a wealthy family of frauds who have lost it all but refuse to lose any sleep over it, and it has deep-seeded jokes that bear fruit over many a season. For instance, Lupe, housekeeper to the family, is frequently seen wearing discarded sweatshirts exactly two holidays old: So in the Christmas episode she has a Halloween shirt on (it says “Boo!”), and on Valentine’s Day her shirt is for Thanksgiving (“Gobble Gobble”). This, as you can imagine, is a show built on detail.
Despite critical adulation, Arrested Development couldn’t get the ratings—it is a show that forces the viewer to keep up—and was cancelled in 2006 after three seasons, the fourth season dropping finally on Netflix in 2013, to much champagne and…silence. Hurwitz, eager to experiment with the concept of binge-watching, had changed the game and fanned out the same plot across 15 episodes, presenting each episode from an individual character’s perspective before sewing those meticulously arranged plot threads together. It was still a maddeningly clever show and both gags and cast were on point, but there was no interplay. Last week, Hurwitz likened this to the viewer “eating some toast, then some bacon, maybe a sliced tomato, followed by some turkey and realizing, ‘Hey, I think I just had a BLT.’”
This is true. Season 4 is the season of the diehards, the season those who love the show defend the loudest but also the one we don’t really want to watch again. As burgers go, our recommendation is significantly free of drool. Now, with a fifth season coming our way on 29 May, master-plotter Hurwitz has done something quite unheralded: He’s put together a “remix” of that infamous fourth season. Titled Arrested Development: Fateful Consequences, this tells the same story—involving the building of a wall between Mexico and America, among other things—in chronological order. It is true to the original form, and features as much mingling of the meats as fans could wish for.
Immediately, it scores. The delicious intricacies of the plot—a marriage that is also a televised magic show; a husband and wife who each read two-thirds of a self-help book and venture out to follow it; a mother who smokes into her son’s mouth—are a lot more apparent when these unforgettable characters and their constant machinations rub against each other. The idea of a Rashomon-style unfolding is inherently smart for a binge, sure, because you’re consuming all the episodes in a chunk, but the storytelling is uneven since some characters are infinitely less interesting. One of them is so bland that literally everyone forgets her name and she is once mistaken for a pile of hair. Every episode needs to contain at least a bit of the martini-breakfasting matron Lucille (Jessica Walter) and the “never-nude” optimist Tobias (David Cross), and now both liven up each installment. Excellent.
This remix is a fascinating experiment, and it works because of Ron Howard, the show’s narrator. Has there ever been a more snarky, cruel narrator? (“Later that night he went to break in on and up with her.”) Has there ever been a narrator both this dry and this arch? (“He saw a familiar face: his own, on his twin brother.”) Howard, the Academy Award-winning director who provides the all-seeing, eye-rolling voice-over, speaks about the Bluth family with the loathing of a disowned son, and he truly is the heart of season 4. When things come together in the edit, it is the narrator who must do the heavy lifting, and Howard makes for an unbelievably good secret sauce.
Ironically, the laughs stand out more when clubbed together. The way all these asides compete for attention is what makes this show special. On the one hand, we see pensive shots of Gob Bluth (Will Arnett, who also stars in The Lego Batman Movie) with The Sound Of Silence playing in the background—just like in those cruel/fantastic “Sad Ben Affleck” videos, featuring another actor who plays Batman—while, a few feet away, we see Tobias twirl flamboyantly, trying to make a musical number out of the word “fallacy” after it has just been said by his anguished wife. Arrested Development works better on repeated viewings, with multiple layers and gags to notice and unpack, with callbacks and self-references that come out of nowhere and demand to be recognized. More than any comedy, this show rewards the obsessive viewer.
What Hurwitz originally did with season 4 was an act of audacious storytelling—something we now see more often, with shows like Justin Simien’s Dear White People (Netflix), where each episode explores a different character’s perspective on the same event and aftermath—but his fault lay in letting us fall for the hamburger in the first place. A sitcom should not a salad be. Particularly when it features a family who finish each other’s… sandwiches.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online.
He tweets at @rajasen