Noel Murray: For a show that so loves motifs, it’s surely (or perhaps Maeby) no coincidence that the first episode of the long-delayed fourth season of Arrested Development opens with George Oscar “GOB” Bluth shoving his last “forget-me-now” pill down the throat of his brother Michael. Or that the second episode features another set of brothers—the boys’ father George Sr. and their Uncle Oscar—muttering “forget the past” at each other. This new Arrested Development season has a narrow path to tread, finding a way to serve up all the show’s usual callbacks and self-reference without merely repeating old jokes or coasting on familiarity (which would be contrary to the spirit of the series). Add to that the complication of the cast’s busy schedules, and the “every episode available at once” model of Arrested Development’s new Netflix home, and creator Mitchell Hurwitz had no choice but to rethink and restructure his cult sitcom fairly significantly. That may be why he begins this season by telling viewers more than once to forget any preconceived notions they may have about what Arrested Development is.
No matter what Hurwitz suggests, Erik, I’m sure you’ll agree that our initial reaction to these new Arrested Development episodes have been at least partly governed by expectations. And I’m not just talking about comparing the overall quality of season four to that of seasons one through three (which’d be a hard legacy for any sitcom season to live up to). I’m also talking about the hype surrounding the circumstances of the show’s return.
Hurwitz fought fiercely to avoid any plot or joke spoilers during the long promotional push for this new season, but he did himself no favors by talking so openly about the bold storytelling experiment for this Netflix revival. Fans were told early on that each new episode would focus on one character at a time, rather than weaving together everyone’s plotlines, and that as a result the episodes could be watched in any order. Then shortly before this past weekend’s debut, Hurwitz backtracked and said that the season really only makes sense if watched in one particular order, which immediately made the new episodes feel less radical and more misshapen—as though the editors couldn’t figure out how to make them work as they were intended.
Hurwitz also urged fans not to binge, saying that the season will be funnier if watched at a more casual pace. Since you and I are going to be reviewing these at a two-a-week clip—with the finale as a standalone review—I’m personally only planning to watch two a week, which should make Hurwitz happy. Yet after watching these first two, I’m wondering if Hurwitz’s “don’t binge” advice was really all that savvy. Because what he have here, essentially, are two partial episodes.
“Flight Of The Phoenix” begins Michael Bluth’s story, and “Borderline Personalities” begins George Sr.’s, and while “Flight Of The Phoenix” has a fairly satisfying arc in and of itself, “Borderline Personalities” barely gets rolling before the closing credits roll. And both episodes are sprinkled with gags and themes that don’t pay off right away. These two episodes feel like the opening chapters in a book, which is unlike the way Arrested Development has been presented in the past. The show has always been dense with jokes that only work if the viewer has seen earlier episodes, but before the storytelling structure remained primarily episodic, with serialized elements. In other words: a viewer could drop in and understand at least the plot of any given Arrested Development episode, if not necessarily the humor. And I’m not so sure that’s the case here—at least not with “Borderline Personalities.”
Personally, I don’t have a problem with this new approach to the show, but it does hobble episode two, which doesn’t have quite enough going on. These first two episodes begin to fill in the gaps of what’s happened to the Bluths since the end of Arrested Development’s third season, and they begin to reveal what the gang is up to now, which in “Borderline Personalities” means following George Sr. as he launches his new “sweat and squeeze” business: luring corporate fatcats to one of Oscar’s sweat lodges on the Mexican border and then charging them thousands of dollars for a glass of lemonade (while promising to reveal secrets of success to these light-headed moneybags). Aside from the revelation that Oscar and George Sr. have gradually become more like each other over the past several years—and aside from introducing George and Lucille’s plan to pretend they’re getting divorced while they secretly swipe Stan Sitwell’s government contract to build a border fence—there’s not much story within “Borderline Personalities.” It’s more a collection of character moments and set-up.
The episode is still mostly pretty funny though, because of two MVP guest stars and one wonderfully absurdist recurring joke. The guests are John Slattery (playing Dr. Norman, a “disgraced anesthesiologist” pal of Oscar’s, who roams the border taking drugs with his girlfriend China Garden while complaining that, “Nobody cares about the part of the oath you kept”) and Mary Lynn Rajskub (playing a spiritualist named “Heartfire” who communicates solely with her mind and eyes, though the Bluths seem to have a hard time interpreting those glances accurately). I’ll talk more about those two later.
For now I want to marvel at the best recurring joke in “Borderline Personalities,” which carries over from “Flight Of The Phoenix,” and involves the Bluth family’s long-ago decision—inspired by a young Barry Zuckerkorn, played by Max Winkler—to conduct their shadier business on boats, which puts their various malfeasances under maritime law. The maritime motif brings the unforgettable image of the older Barry in a sailor suit, as well as another flashback to young Michael’s acclaimed performance in The Trial Of Captain Hook, and footage of Lucille’s trial in a converted crab shack. All of which is very funny. But for me the whole bit is worth it for all the scenes of the man from the “maritime penal system,” who tests the court-mandated waterproof surveillance cameras by tromping through the Bluth apartment with a ladder and a dripping hose. That, friend, is classic Arrested Development: at once insanely detailed and deeply silly.
“Borderline Personalities” re-establishes Arrested Development’s political edge, touching on bullshit religious cults, illegal immigration, pork-filled government contracts, wasteful corporate spending, and the recent fiscal crisis. The season’s first episode, on the other hand, really only covers the last item on that list, showing what happens to Michael when he borrows money from Lucille Austero to complete the Bluth family’s long-dormant Sudden Valley subdivision. When the market crashes, Michael’s stuck with $700,000 worth of unsold property. (It doesn’t help that Michael got the neighborhood paved but failed to get the city to pave the roads leading to the neighborhood. Also, Michael’s construction crew inadvertently severed the cable that provides television and internet service to the subdivision, but hey, who uses those anyway?)
“Flight Of The Phoenix” has the higher degree of difficulty for these two episodes, since it has to reintroduce the entire Arrested Development concept while also presenting the premise and format for this season. The episode opens with a flash-forward to May 4th—or “Cinco de Cuatro,” a Bluth-crated holiday designed to deplete all the party supplies for Cinco de Mayo—and teases a moment when a defeated, debased Michael returns to the Model Home and finds GOB there with a mysterious woman. The episode then flashes back through what happened to Michael, showing how the failure of Sudden Valley prompted Michael to move into his son’s dorm at UC-Irvine. (Go Anteaters!)
The Michael/George-Michael scenes are what give “Flight Of The Phoenix” the edge over “Borderline Personalities,” and what make it work better as a TV episode, as opposed to a thirty-minute hunk of an eight-hour movie. There is a story here, about George-Michael’s embarrassment as he tries to break away from his family and start his own business, and about Michael’s persistent inability to see beyond what suits his immediate needs. When I did my Arrested Development re-watch for TV Club Classic, I ultimately determined that what made the show great was that Michael—presented in the first episode as the sane center of an insane family—turns out to be just as self-centered and short-sighted as any other Bluth. If anything, Michael’s sense of self-righteousness makes him even worse than GOB, who knows he’s a sleaze. (And GOB actually has a soft side that’s closer to the surface than any other Bluths’, save Oscar).
And so we come to a sequence that to my mind is one of the funniest in the whole of Arrested Development to date—though over the past weekend several friends and critics I follow on Twitter cited it as an example of this new season at its worst. (Our pal Todd dissed it too, in his whole season review.) It begins with George-Michael’s roommate “P-Hound” suggesting they hold a vote in the room to decide which of the three of them will move out. When Michael hears about this, he feels bad for P-Hound, whose feelings he assumes are about to be crushed. The group then brings in the visiting Maeby, to throw another vote into the mix and cushion the blow. They also institute a policy that everyone involved will pack their bags, and that whomever gets voted out will leave the room without saying a word. Inevitably, Michael gets the boot and slumps away, “Good Grief”-style.
The complaints I’ve read about this sequence are that it’s predictable, unfunny, and goes on forever, extending past the campus and to the airport, where Michael confuses security by arriving with empty suitcases. For me, the sequence is funny because it’s predictable, and because it’s so long. It’s hilariously tense to see Michael keep his son out of class while they sit around for hours discussing the various voting scenarios, when we viewers know which way this is all going to go. The sequence is indicative of just how blindered Michael can be, and is bolstered by the deadpan, mortified reaction shots of George-Michael and Maeby while Michael keeps rambling on.
And then there’s the painful capper, where Michael—who voted for himself—reads his name three times and then digs out the fourth ballot, which has “Da-” crossed out and replaced by “Michael.” “It’s hard to know exactly why Michael opened the fourth ballot,” The Narrator says, in the second-funniest (and most wince-inducing) line in “Flight Of The Phoenix.” The answer is that Michael is so wrapped up in himself he’s honestly trying to understand what happened. As he leaves the room—with those suitcases, empty because in no version of this plan did he see himself getting voted out—he’s still convinced somebody misunderstood the plan. (“I was mistakenly voted out of a four-person housing situation in a ‘pack first, no talking after’ scenario,” he explains at the airport, in the episode’s funniest line.)
I don’t know, Erik. If that doesn’t make you laugh, it doesn’t make you laugh, which makes it hard for me to argue it’s as hysterical as I know it to be. For me, as the sequence plays out it becomes increasingly uncomfortable, and thus increasingly brilliant. It’s an epic breakdown, revealing exactly who Michael is.
What say you, Erik? Where do you stand on The Great Arrested Development Roommate Vote-Out Controversy Of 2013?
Erik Adams: Frustratingly on the fence, I’m afraid. Having watched these episodes twice now—a habit that will be maintained to the end of these reviews; I’ll probably watch ahead a little bit as well, without gorging on the whole season—I can say the sequence brought me bigger, deeper laughs on repeat viewing. As you suggest, Noel, it only truly gets cooking once all of the viewer’s suspicions come to fruition, and George Michael’s “Da- Michael” vote dumps some wickedly funny salt into the wound. But it’s also a bewildering sign of flabbiness from one of the most taut comedic enterprises of the past decade. The planning stages for the vote push past the limits of what one-time A.V. Club head writer Nathan Rabin termed “The Rake Effect” toward Family Guy “Chicken Fight” territory, before being salvaged by Michael’s boneheaded insistence on the “No talking” rule. (Is that the first “No touching!” callback of the Netflix era?) As an example of “Flight Of The Phoenix” peppering only what’s necessary into its script, the bit between Michael and the TSA agent—which Noel rightly cites as the episode at its funniest—works because it cuts to the chase.
It also works because of previously established information, one of the sharpest tools in Arrested Development’s chest—and one the new iteration of the show is still getting reacquainted with. These episodes start on strange footing: Ostensibly, the majority of people queuing up these 15 episodes have watched the three seasons that precede them. But the Netflix model still can’t account for a specter that vexed the show for its entire Fox run—the first-time viewer—so there’s a good deal of catch-up and exposition that must be disposed with before either “Flight Of The Phoenix” or “Borderline Personalities” digs into the meat of what little story is left to tell. That leads to another of the first two episode’s controversial jokes, involving the fake “Showstealer Pro Trial Version” watermark that’s stamped across footage from previous episodes. Variety rounded up tweets from viewers who were duped by this mega-meta, super-inside-baseball gag—which, I’ll admit, caught me off-guard as well.
But Arrested Development is also a program that wrung a lot of laughs out of events that were supposed to happen in future installments—but didn’t—so it’s truly, truly frustrating to watch these episodes get so hung up on the past. There’s a focus on connecting the dots in “Flight Of The Phoenix” particularly that weighs down the proceedings; at a certain point, I stopped caring about how Michael ended up living in his son’s dorm and starting yearning to find out what came next. That’s why the voting sequence, problematic as it is, rings its bells as well and as loudly as it does: It restores the momentum. To lift yet another TV analogy from Arrested Development’s former timeslot partner, it gets its characters to the fireworks factory.
So it looks like pacing is going to be the area where expectations for this fourth season need to be the most measured. This isn’t your Pop Pop’s Arrested Development, largely because those aforementioned scheduling conflicts didn’t allow for the kind of ensemble-based ping-ponging that laid the foundation for the first 53 episodes. That material has been stretched across the whole of the Netflix episodes, which is where I’m guessing Hurwitz's original episode-hopping claims were based. In some instances, that builds anticipation for what’s to come: I’m looking forward to seeing what that argument Tobias and Lindsay are having in the background of “Borderline Personalities” is all about. On Arrested Development Original Recipe, that would’ve formed an additional beat to the scene with Barry’s sailor suit (which is hilarious); because these are character studies more than full-fledged stories, however, we have to wait for a later episode to zoom in on it. (Another joke that’s building nicely: The slow reveal of who didn’t show up to Lucille’s hearing—which, the way things are going, is every member of the family.)
But that’s just a neccessity of the production process for the fourth season. Unfortunately, it’s also to blame for my biggest problem with “Borderline Personalities.” The season’s second episode solves its shorthanded dilemma with a two-birds-one-stone trick—the birds being characters and the stone being an actor, as Jeffrey Tambor drives most of the action and carries multiple scenes playing both George Sr. and his twin brother, Oscar. Yet I can’t think of a single instance where George Sr. has been entrusted with an A-plot before, and as gifted a comedic performer as Tambor is, the importance of the entire Bluth clan to Arrested Development shows through “Borderline Personalities.” A George-Oscar episode (not to be confused with a George Oscar Bluth Jr. episode—that comes later) is a neat way of continuing Michael’s “Rise Of The Phoenix” insistence that he and George Michael are twins, but it doesn’t produce enough content to sustain a full 28 minutes of TV.
I fear I’m starting to sound ungracious about being handed 15 additional episodes of one of my favorite TV shows. It’s tough getting accustomed to this new format, and it pokes some holes in what were once foolproof gags. Oscar, for one, doesn’t fare well when he’s being used for purposes beyond a quick, tossed-off laugh about his perpetual intoxication, his use and abuse at the hands of his brother, or his insatiable lust for Lucille. In a spooky echo of “Borderline Personalities”’ big twist, it’s like he and Dr. Norman are playing their own parts in the Ostrich Man’s prophecy, with John Slattery’s doped-up quack occupying the crack-up-in-small-doses role Oscar once filled. In the absence of the old, familiar dynamics, I’m finding the most satisfying parts of these episodes to be the Bluths’ interactions with the new secondary players in their lives: Slattery and Rajskub, obviously, but also Richard Jin Namkung as George Michael’s unfortunately nicknamed roommate, “P-Hound.” Even the cameo by the Workaholics quartet of Blake Anderson, Adam Devine, Anders Holm, and Erik Griffin, servicey as it is to fans of that show, gives Michael a great bit of frustration his family members can’t provide for logistical reasons. What’s your take on these new and/or temporary additions to the cast, Noel? And while we’re at it, why not weigh in on Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen as Young Lucille and Young George Sr., respectively, a casting decision likely based on scheduling as much as the viewing public’s heretofore unknown need to see Wiig purse her lips through a caricature of Jessica Walter.
NM: I don’t know that Rogen makes a great George Sr.—though he nails the “Where the fuck are my socks?” line, a callback to George’s frustration with his children for leaving the cap off his Glisten—but Wiig’s a fine Lucille, and even better when she’s Lucille in a green mud mask and Grinch-y hair curl, sneering about how she hates Cinco de Mayo. And I’m right with you regarding the Workaholics cameo, which caps the roommate-vote sequence masterfully. It’s another example of classic Arrested Development-style comic intricacy, as one airline employee makes a casual reference to “honey nuts,” another demands, “Who wants honey nuts?”, and a third hands Michael a bag of honey nuts, which later sets off the metal detector. Nothing goes to waste on this show. (Also: “honey nuts.” It’s the “candy beans” of this season.)
Getting back to Slattery and Rajskub though, as I wrote in my reviews of the previous seasons, some actors fit well into the Arrested Development style and some don’t. Martin Short, as great as he otherwise is, doesn’t fit because he overplays, which is unnecessary in a show already so loony. Julia Louis Dreyfus, on the other hand, is perfect. And so is Slattery, with his indifferent vocal cadence, which doesn’t vary in pitch even when Dr. Norman’s saying to Oscar, “Now you’re gonna make me cry. Oh, a lizard! Look, a lizard!” As for Rajskub, she fits in because she doesn’t say anything at all, which helps sell the gag of Heartfire’s incongruously banal floating subtitles. (“I’m choking on a wasabi…”)
I agree somewhat with your concerns about the pacing of these new episodes, which I’ve seen a lot of people online mention over the past few days. But frankly, when I watched these first two a second time, the pacing seemed just fine—appropriate, even, for this new way of telling an Arrested Development story. The show is still well-packed with jokes, squeezed into the foreground and background and even into muttered lines of dialogue going into a cut. (My favorite example of the latter: a weakened Oscar at the sweat lodge whispering, “I’m not an iguana. It’s part of the process.”) Any sitcom that can still land a smash-cut as hilarious as the one from Lucille’s hearing being set for three months to Barry Zuckerkorn sighing, “Well, I missed the hearing!” is a sitcom that’s still pretty much clicking, as far as I’m concerned.
For that reason, I also have to diverge from you again on the question of whether the story of Michael’s real estate failure takes too long to play out. For me that whole sequence delivers one sharp gag after another: Michael trying to tip the foreman of the Sudden Valley construction crew (after a previous debate with his father and Barry about whether or not it’s PC to tip African-Americans); Michael standing next to a buzzard; Michael kicking futilely at a tumbleweed; and finally Michael’s mailman Pete collapsing and gasping out, “Love each other…” while Michael scampers up a hill looking for a cell phone signal. This whole montage isn’t about hustling ahead to the next story beat. It’s about establishing—with no small amount of comic panache—how sad Michael’s life has become. And it’s in keeping with Arrested Development’s longstanding knack for concocting images that perfectly define the sublime ludicrousness of a situation: the staircar, the blue handprints, the Segway, et cetera.
I’ll be looking forward in the weeks ahead to seeing if this fourth season does anything meaningful with its commentary on the intersections of business, government, and religion, or if those are just going to be motifs for motifs’ sake. (Is it meaningful that Michael and George Sr. strike the same prayerful pose in photographs taken for different in-flight magazines? Or is that just something tossed-off?) But I saw nothing in these first two episodes to indicate that Hurwitz, his writers, or his cast have lost sight of these characters and what they stand for.
For example, both of these episodes end with a Bluth fleeing intolerable heat to return to the air-conditioned cool of Orange County. Oscar does it because he’s dehydrated, exhausted, and wants to see his true love, Lucille. Michael does it because he burns his hand on a taxi-cab door-handle. But both really do it because they’re Bluths, who keep returning to the same spot and repeating the same huge mistakes, mainly because they’re too self-centered to remember how badly they’ve screwed up before.
“Flight Of The Phoenix”: B+
“Borderline Personalities”: C+
NM: There are some interesting tangential aspects to Arrested Development now being “A Netflix Semi-Original.” The show acknowledges its new home by using Netflix-style rewinding and fast-forwarding, which is clever. But it also tries to pretend its still on network television, by including “commercial” breaks, and by bleeping all the swearing, which is strange. To me though, what I found most strikingly modern about these first two episodes is how much better they look than the original, non-HD series. Leaving aside the oft-cruddy special effects in the George/Oscar scenes—something George Sr. himself alludes to when he tells his twin brother, “I’ll sit opposite you so it won’t look bad”—the actual videography is brighter and cleaner, with shot-selections that resemble cinema more than docu-realism.
NM: It’s probably stupid of me to speculate on some of the as-yet-unexplained background action in these two episodes, especially when most of you reading this will have already watched ahead, and will know, for example, who the woman is at the Model Home with GOB. (Is it Lindsay? My money’s on Lindsay.) Nevertheless, I couldn’t help but notice someone who looked like a blindfolded George Sr. (or Oscar) walking into the store where GOB buys his forget-me-now pills just as GOB was walking out. I also couldn’t help but notice a fairly conspicuous film crew on the UC-Irvine campus, shooting some footage during the Michael/George-Michael scenes. Hmmmm…
EA: Good, I wasn’t hallucinating one of the elder Bluths into that scene at the farmacia. I went back and freeze-framed the film crew’s appearance in “Flight Of The Phoenix”: They’re on campus for the cumbersomely titled The Real The Graduate. That, Lucille 2’s re-appearance, and Michael’s mention of the “May-September” issue of Altitudes all suggest that Arrested Development hasn’t given up on the comedic potential of age-inappropriate romance. Can a rekindling of GOB’s dalliance with Ann Veal be close behind?
NM: Look at banner, Erik! It reads, “Your Future Starts Now [George Michael].”
NM: On that same note, I have to say I was impressed by how little these two episodes threw in fan-service-y references to old Arrested Development episodes. There are a few examples here and there, such as banner. But most of those examples are fairly sly, such as the news anchor calling Lucille Bluth “this seaward matriarch,” and a news report about Boy George that takes place in “Actual Britain” but is broadcast on “the Wee BBC.”
EA: As I’ve written elsewhere, this is one of my biggest fears concerning the new episodes, but “Flight Of The Phoenix” and “Borderline Personalities” use callbacks much in the same way any episode in the first three seasons would: organically, and with minimal fanfare. (Though it requires some strain to fit a “Loose Seal”/“Lucille” mixup into The Trial Of Captain Hook. Not that this is a show that ever tried to circumvent a bad pun.) This prompts my pick for the best “On the next Arrested Development”: Michael jerking away from the taxi’s door handle as if it’s a red-hot Cornballer.
NM: I’m not sure yet whether the social commentary this season is going to be hard-hitting or just snarky, but I thought the writers landed a pretty good blow with the snippet of Good News O.C. With John & Jackie, which sends up the Good Day L.A./Good Day N.Y./Fox & Friends model of pairing grim news with footage of good-looking people goofing around.
NM: Another good bit of of-the-moment satire is the online quiz George Sr. takes to be ordained as “Father B.,” which contains the following multiple-choice question: “What Is Science? (A.) An empirical study to determine the truth. (B.) A gob of spit in the eye of God. (C.) Even more of a religion than your thing. (D.) All of the above.”
NM: I’m sure everyone was pausing like crazy to read all the websites and magazine covers and news captions in these episodes. My favorite was the cover of British gay-friendly magazine Attitude, which sports the headlines, “Boy George / George Michael: More Than A Name In Common” and “Magic Man Tony Wonder’s Biggest Secret.” (Oh, I also liked the name of the online University Of Phoenix’s mascot: the “Icons.”)
NM: Another example of how the writers convey the lives and personalities of these characters through small details: George Sr. gets a cover story, “Wealth Warrior,” in the first-class-only in-flight magazine We-12, while Michael’s story, “Michael Bluth Is Praying You’ll Fix His Huge Mistake,” is relegated to the interior of the coach-only magazine Altitude. (To be fair though, Michael’s story makes it into We-12 in the magazine’s recurring feature “The Best Of Altitude: What They’re Reading Behind You.”)
EA: My favorite bit in this regard is George Sr. using what little hair is left on his head—a physical attribute he’s spent so much time lamenting—to lord something, anything over Stan Sitwell. This then prompts the spectacular physical gag of Ed Begley Jr. yanking on those bristly silver tufts, leading to the note-perfect punchline of two grown men crying out “My hair, my beautiful hair!”
NM: Interesting cameo from Community creator Dan Harmon at the sweat lodge. Is this going to be a motif this season, sprinkling in appearances by people who were involved in the post-Arrested Development wave of TV sitcoms?
NM: The opening scene at the Cinco de Cuatro party is a thicket of overheard jokes and corner-of-the-eye gags, the best of which in my opinion is the slogan of the maracas vendor: “You buy it, you break it!”
EA: I don’t know what this says about how these episodes use the main cast, but I don’t think I got a bigger kick out of any line than the one I got from Brian Huskey’s Cuatro sales pitch: “Fill the bay with chorizo!” Also note that the mariachi band sings the English-language version of “La Cucaracha.” (One way in which technology is just catching up with Arrested Development: This has always been a show that improves in the hermetically sealed environment of headphone viewing.)
NM: Not enough of Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat together in “Flight Of The Phoenix,” but as I mentioned, their reaction shots to Jason Bateman’s arrogant bafflement is a large part of what makes those scenes so funny (to me, anyway). We do get an old-school George-Michael/Maeby exchange though when Michael jokingly calls Maeby his son’s girlfriend, and she says, “I’m not even attracted to him,” and a hurt George-Michael mumbles, “Why is that even an issue?”
EA: If Hurwitz pulled in Max Winkler to do an impression of his dad and not lend a hand with directing duties, then that’s a hugely wasted opportunity. The younger Winkler’s work on New Girl this season is a prime example of a director stepping into a show with a strong ensemble and tightening up the occasional sluggish rhythm.
EA: That said, I was perhaps a bit harsh about the pacing of the Michael flashbacks, because I could watch Jason Bateman chase after that damn tumbleweed for five minutes, until their little dance comes to its inevitably painful, Peanuts-esque conclusion.