Arrested Development will be a show that I can never look at totally objectively. It was the first show I seriously watched on Netflix. It was the first show I rewatched ad nauseam. It was the first show I fell in love with. It was recommended to me by my first girlfriend. It was the first show I felt a profound sadness for when it ended the first time through. The shot of Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) commandeering the Queen Mary is burned forever into my head as my favorite character (sorry, GOB) in my favorite show finally taking the reigns and going for broke.
When Season 4 was announced, I was all in. Revisiting shows is tough (though we didn’t know that quite yet) and Arrested was primed for it! The ending was great, but certainly not definitive. It was ready to be picked back up!
I’ll start by saying I actually didn’t hate Season 4 the first time I watched it. I liked it even better the second time I watched it. But I’ve never felt any desire to go back and rewatch it since then. It may just be Arrested Development burn out (I don’t rewatch Seasons 1-3 a whole lot anymore either, but it’s hard to overstate how many times I watched them before getting tired of them forever). But there’s no denying the Season 4 is a straight up bizarre season of Arrested and of television.
Everything good about Season 4 also made it bad. On close inspection I think it’s actually a good season of television, just maybe not a highly watchable one. There was both too much fidelity and too much change. There was too much logic and too many risks. Let’s try to break down what I mean.
Having a show off the air for that many years presents a number of challenges, especially with a show titled Arrested Development. The characters have to change in that time. Circumstance may force them. People change over time. And it’d be depressing and pointless to return to a show without any change whatsoever. So the show had to present us with a new status quo.
Likewise, some things had to stay the same – the characters’ still had to be in arrested development (lowercase) because their arrested development is at the core of who they were. Though the show had to be fundamentally different, the characters (as a whole) whole’s schtick was that they were fundamentally Bluths, and that name came with some unfortunate behavioral tendencies (even for Tobias, who married in). The Bluths will always be delusional, self-obsessed, and opportunistic. One of the great feats of the original run was taking the rational straight-man Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) and peeling away the layers until he was laid bare. He is exactly the same as the rest of his family.
There were more drastic challenges than that. Seasons 1-3 hung together because the characters had two primary goals/questions. They wanted to a be a functioning family, and they wanted to save their family business. Arrested didn’t lead the way on shows about terrible people, but it remains a prime example. Why do these people remain in this toxic relationship with each other?
Season 4 tried to deal with all of these challenges. At the end of Season 3, Michael finally pulls the plug and decides to abandon ship, leaving behind the family and the business. It’s a triumphant moment, and offers hope that Michael may change or at least shelter his son from the Bluth family curse. But beginning Season 4 the creators were forced to walk that promise of hope back. Michael and Lucille both return to the mainland immediately. All the characters are brought into the same room. It looks like the show is bringing us back to status quo.
But it goes a step further. Presented for a fourth season of “why would these people be together” the show answers too logically. It says: “they wouldn’t be”. After three years of trying and failing, they cannot save their family and they cannot save their business. So the characters part ways. It may have been a necessity given the actors’ schedules, but it’s still in theory an uplifting moment as well as the logical progression of the story.
From there the show weaves together a pretty intriguing narrative tapestry. I don’t think that the different character episodes spanning time worked, but I don’t think they were terrible (and I do think they were a daring attempt to treat binge watching as something different, which I’d like to see more of). But this was an issue of the show trying to do too much. It wanted these characters to fall away from each other, but it also wanted them to stay together.
Dissolving the Bluth Company is probably the biggest issue the season had. Without the Bluth company, characters such as Lucille and Michael were cast totally adrift. The show never found another focus for the characters to swirl around. So they’re all left floundering and sinking into their own vices. Without something to move forward towards they fall into a sort of destructive self cycle, and become the worst version of themselves. We see it in Maeby, we see it in GOB, we see it especially in Michael who is full out horrific in this season. It’s a hilariously sad honest depiction of the characters. Even their limited interactions are strictly business – this is a truly splintered family.
What would have made this season work? They could have thrown the ending of the last season out the window and told us that the Bluths had struggled through six years of being together, showing us just the highlights, but would that have been any less depressing? They could have found new trajectory for characters – it’s a technique they tried with limited success (GOB, George Sr., and even Buster largely work for me this season, while Michael, Lucille, Maeby, and George Michael do not). They could have tried to rope the characters together somehow in the present day without showing us the intervening six years (probably the best possible fix, with limited flashbacks) but even that would not necessarily be honest to the way the show was heading, and would have been Season 1 all over again.
Season 4 of Arrested wasn’t a great season, but aside from a few huge major missteps it was a smart one. It went broad with it’s comedy, it stunted some characters, but as far as an arch of the show goes it works. It presents us a family we saw fail for three seasons more forward with their failure. It may not be pretty, and maybe it shouldn’t have been done at all, but it is an honest depiction of what these characters would probably look like six years down the line. It just doesn’t make for good television.
Thoughts? Let us know! Writing this article made me want to rewatch Season 4 tbh.
Book – It’s not even a book I’ve read, but Go Set a Watchman springs to mind. All controversy aside, and I’m sure there are other books that do this, sometimes revisiting a place reveals things that you didn’t want to know. Maybe Atticus Finch really wasn’t quite the shining hero he was made out to be. And maybe Maeby and Michael do spin out and give into their worst Bluthian traits. We’d like to believe otherwise, which is why it’s so painful when we’re proven wrong. But that’s the way life is too. There is no sure path upwards for anyone.