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Having watched all 15 episodes of the new season of Arrested Development, this is the first thing you should know: Watch all 15 — in a marathon (or two, if needed). And you’ll probably want to watch them again after that.
Not only is there a real brilliance to how the episodes are constructed, but after a slow-ish start (as creator Mitch Hurwitz and his writers no doubt had to get their mojo back, but also because the structure is incredibly intricate and, at first glance, there seems to be a disjointed feeling to them), the comedic payout begins to multiply with each succeeding episode.
The Rashomon-style storytelling takes a bit to get used to, and the sometimes feverish flow of the jokes (which fans may remember from the hall-of-fame first three seasons) struggle to unleash themselves in the first couple of episodes, but then it snowballs into seven-and-a-half hours of hilarity just waiting for a movie to follow it up.
That, of course, was the whole intention of this Netflix idea. A two-hour big-screen movie about a cult television series wouldn’t really fly if newbies had no idea who the characters were or what the recurring jokes might be. Part of the reason that Arrested Development is revered as one of the greatest comedies of all time is that Hurwitz and his writers spent an inordinate amount of time stuffing jokes into each 22-minute episode (until Fox scheduled it against the Olympics and killed it). That layering of the humor — multiple jokes in every scene — was the kind of effort that paid off for fans who discovered the series by DVD or Netflix long after it was on Fox.
The fact that Arrested Development could contain, simultaneously, a verbal joke, a visual joke, a physical joke, several call-back mentions to past jokes (stretching back to previous seasons) and even humor in the voice-over narration and music was an epic effort that was, sadly, lost on most network viewers back in the day.
This fourth “season” was created as a way to tell a complicated backstory that would set up a movie. Whether that movie will ever get made, who knows, but there is enough closure on these 15 episodes as a television season — and enough unresolved issues — for a movie. Perhaps it will be a win-win.
Much has been written about how the Netflix format — dropping all the episodes online at the same time for marathon viewing or binging as you wish — had allowed Hurwitz to tinker with the traditional narrative format. Tinker he did. Although the initial conceit was that viewers could actually watch the episodes out of order, it’s certainly best to watch them in a row.
But it’s impossible to give Hurwitz enough credit for the insane number of call-back jokes, feints, altered point-of-view translations of innumerable punch lines and the nutty way Arrested Development plays as a Rubik’s Cube of laughter. Repeat viewings after the initial run would, in fact, be perfectly acceptable in an out-of-order fashion just to better appreciate the skill that went into the season. Not only does this format fit what Netflix is all about, it rewards all the effort that it will take on the part of viewers to suss out the jokes. (You’ll definitely want to freeze-frame anything that has printed material in it). In essence, the way the series is constructed rewards repeat viewings however randomly they’re watched.
When telling the “story of one family whose life was abruptly canceled,” Hurwitz and his writing team give each character his or her own episode (sometimes more than one, of course) and very rarely has the cast in the same scene (logistics issues). Fear not, however, because apparently every funny actor in Hollywood has a cameo in this season of Arrested Development. Seriously, you’ll give up counting (but still smile when you see them).
A smattering of those: Seth Rogen, Kristen Wiig, Ben Stiller, Ed Helms, Terry Crews, Judy Greer, Andy Richter, Jeff Garlin, Liza Minelli, John Beard — and the list goes on until you lose track (and not knowing is part of the joy, so let’s leave it at that).
The main cast, of course, shines as expected. Jason Bateman‘s impeccable comic timing, so essential to the success of the original series, doesn’t miss a beat here. Will Arnett is comic gold. Jessica Walter and Jeffrey Tambor are flawless (and Tambor does double-duty as George and Oscar). Michael Cera, Tony Hale, David Cross, Portia de Rossi, Alia Shawkat, Ron Howard — everybody has their own standout moments. Cross’ “speaking in a misleading way” is such a tour de force of cluelessness from the character and a willingness to go for it from the actor. Cera taps into the geeky naivete from the past but also grows up and expands the character. The number of painful laughs generated by Hale is countless.
All of your favorites — both fringe characters and go-to references — are back in force during season four. Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler), Ann Veal (Mae Whitman), Annyong (Justin Lee), Steve Holt (Justin Grant Wade), Bob Loblaw (Scott Baio), James Lipton, Carl Weathers and many more.
Also present: “I’ve made a huge mistake.” The Cornballer. No touching. Buster’s maps. Lucille’s wink. Dangerous Cousins. And yep, you’ll laugh at other familiar call-backs, just as a whole slew of new references will enter your vocabulary, such as “straightbait,” “Hello darkness my old friend,” “roofie circle,” “face-blindness,” “Anustart,” “the old noodle thrust,” “A much-vaunted yes” and “China Garden,” plus sublime jokes about Google, lemonade, Imagine Television and Eat, Pray, Love.
The beauty about the Netflix version of Arrested Development is that, given the laws of time and hype, it should not have succeeded. If you were on Twitter in the early light of Sunday, when it launched, you would have read some discouraging comments (more proof that recaps of individual episodes are a mug’s game) and perhaps felt the twinge yourself of over-anticipation, when jokes seemed to fall flat or scenarios made no sense. But the series quickly found its pacing; the elaborate Rashomon structure revealed its glorious ambition and the combination of absurdity and intelligence meshed as well or better than you may have remembered from the original three seasons.
While there are countless jokes that could be recalled here, why spoil the fun? If you were holding your breath that a legend un-retiring might be a disaster in the making, breathe deep, carve out some time for a marathon or a binge, then set aside even more time to go back for what you missed. Hurwitz, his writers (particularly Jim Vallely), the directors and all the actors put a lot of genius into the resurrection of this classic. And if you don’t have a Netflix subscription, well, why do you think they made more of this thing?
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