Arrested Development: or, when to say Enough is Enough

Like a lot of people, I love Arrested Development. It’s the ultimate show for neurotics, taking the format that Seinfeld pioneered (awful people doing awful things while the programme itself maintains a deceptively breezy tone) and doubling down on the obscure, the minutiae, the bizarre. Jokes were set up, riffed on, and a couple of season’s later twisted inside out; there is no such thing as an idle minute in Arrested Development, where everything will be called back to, or is setting up some obscure payoff however far in the future. It is the hardest show to explain the appeal of to someone who hasn’t seen it. It’s just… Funny. Not because of this joke, or that joke, but simply because the whole show operates as a joke.

It takes a little while for this to sink in, but once it does it’s hard not to stay hooked (if you’ll pardon the reference). And the beauty of the show is that everyone who is a fan has that secret feeling like they discovered it. When you spot jokes, or callbacks, or pick up on a line of dialogue or a craftily hidden piece of set-dressing, it feels like a minor achievement. It forces you to become some kind of amateur detective, scouring the show for clues. When it is rewarding, it is very rewarding indeed. When it is inscrutable (which it frequently is), you are at least aware that some kind of higher prank is being played that will be revealed to you in time, or at least with another watch.

This almost interactive element made the show’s being cut down seem cruel and almost cosmically unfair at the time; this was a show that had firmly hit it’s stride, and the powers that be decided that enough was enough. There was, of course, outrage, especially from the show itself, as in season 3’s ninth episode “S.O.B.s”, which is effectively one big middle finger erected towards FOX, the studio producing the programme (not that I picked up on that the first or second time).

Yet in this media-led age we seem condemned to get just what we want, and as I trawled through the interminable, recently released (by Netflix) Season 5 Part 2 of the revived programme the thought struck me that things would have been much, much better if the show had never come back at all.

Of course, before all this happened, any fan would have wanted new Arrested Development and they would have been right to; while Season 3 does offer up a meaningful conclusion, it’s thuddingly apparent that the ending was premature, a fact only just masked by the fittingly cyclical nature of that last episode. A show so intricate deserved a send-off that, really, ought to have taken a whole season to prepare for; you can certainly imagine how showrunner Mitch Hurwitz could have orchestrated it if the show’s demise had been on his terms.

Yet here we are, thirteen years, two seasons, and one remix of one of those seasons, later, and I can safely say there are probably only a handful of fans who are happy with what we got. Season 4 was not bad, necessarily, and it took the central relationship between Michael (Jason Bateman) and his son George Michael (Michael Cera) to strange, darker territories, but it was hampered by the very structure that it committed to, a sort of free-form portmanteau of stories focussed on just the one cast member, with all the stories overlapping at later dates. It wasn’t so much that it was bad, as much as it was merely overwhelming. It feels like, in retrospect, Hurwitz was doubling down on the intricacies of the show to make up for the fact that the cast was no longer all together, which was the central pull of the show in the first place.

And then the show went linear again, and in taking the exploits of Season 4 as canon, came rapidly undone. Where Season 4 could have functioned as a very literal incarnation of the ways in which the family was doomed to tear itself apart, Season 5 picked this up again and tried to shoehorn it back into the original format. The punch between Michael and George Michael was resolved far too tidily, undermining the original impact that it landed. The silliness with Lucille 2’s disappearance became steadily more to the front of the narrative, eventually dominating, even though by that point it had been so long since the original events that it was hard to know precisely what was going on. Certain characters such as Tony Hale’s manchild Buster became an aimless grab-bag of recycled tropes with very little context in which for them to land, and other new characters (Rebecca Drysdale’s ‘Lt Toddler’, The Guilty Guys) were introduced and then dropped again at random.

And then there’s the making of the show itself, which is, frankly appalling; much has been written about the awful sound editing and shoddy camerawork, but it really cannot be overstated how amateurish the production of this show is. In once scene in the finale, the camera cuts a speaking character out of the frame, and then arbitrarily zooms out to reveal him speaking, but not before his dialogue track audibly changes, obviously masking a piece of exposition probably delivered by a different actor. In another scene from an earlier episode footage is reversed and played again to expand a scene by three seconds, with no real payoff.

This is to say nothing, of course, of the scandal that plagued the show before release, of Jeffrey Tambor’s actions, of Jessica Walter’s fraught admission that Tambor is abusive. The optics of that are probably better-suited to another piece of writing with another focus, but I will say that I am very willing to believe that Tambor is as bad as all that.

It’s apparent that the show is less of a coherent programme and more of a cut-and-paste collage job, trying to salvage a morass of aimless footage (which would account for why it took so long for this second part of the season to surface).

But the ultimate effect is one of sadness. Aside from an admiration of Season 4 in retrospect (nobody really likes it while they’re watching it), and a brief flash across the central episodes of Season 5 Part 1, there is nothing in this run of episodes, which in length are probably equal to the original run, that warrants the show having been brought back at all. The lightning in the bottle that made those first three seasons so electrifying has been let out, and as the show has now presumably come to it’s final end (for real this time), it’s hard to fathom what was the point of it all.

Not that you’d be able to communicate that to the fans in 2006; perhaps going forward, this whole sorry affair should act as a warning that sometimes a little of a good thing is just enough, actually.

 

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