With a subtle throat clear, Ron Howard shook off the rustiness. Like riding a bike for the first time in seven years, the strides are uneasy until you pick up some steam. It has been be a while since Howard, a Hollywood treasure long before his days narrating the misfortunes of the Bluth family, was guiding viewers of Arrested Development through a bounty of jokes, some of which could only be explained by a third party.Once Howard got going it was like he never left and Arrested Development’s comeback episode “Flight of the Phoenix”, in the precious first seconds, triggered a feeling heretofore unknown in television history. Is this really happening? Could a TV show, ratings-wise an unpopular one at that, rise from the dead?Netflix changed the entertainment game in its own right and now they have ridden the critical and cult success of Arrested Development to a PR bonanza. The big question coming into the release was: would it feel the same? Despite all the fanfare and unprecedented news coverage over the last month or so, the show has to deliver to make the comeback a success. After watching episode one, it’s clear that Showrunner Mitch Hurwitz is building toward something. Though like any Bluth construction project, there will be some bumps along the way.In the six-minute opening scene, we don’t immediately see the family that fought for a second, third and now fourth chance to have its story told. The first guest stars of the season, Seth Rogan and Kristen Wiig, open the new season as George Sr. and Lucille in a flashback to 1982. Wiig shines as Lucille while Rogan plays George Sr. with the typical Seth Rogan mannerisms we’ve come to expect. The opening scene is long, because on Netflix the show gained an extra nine minutes over its network run time. But particularly troubling is the pacing of the scenes that range from a drunken Michael courting Lucille 2, to Michael and Gob caught in an awkward moment back at the model home. With unfamiliar music constantly droning in the background, the beginning of the episode felt uncomfortable, like Arrested Development had somehow transitioned to the big screen.Before panic set in, the credits rolled. This is now the “story of a family who’s future was abruptly cancelled” and the one son who had to “keep himself together”. And then it was ok to adjust your eyes back to believing this is really happening. It was back, different, but back. All the characters have aged noticeably, the show is now shot in HD and there are some scenes dragged out longer than they need to. Nonetheless, “Flight of the Phoenix” had other challenges. It needed to catch the viewers up on the most basic storylines in the show’s absence. The finer details can be sorted out later. It succeeds in bridging the old plot points and explaining how they relate to the current situations that are slowly evolving.
The second challenge was changing the direction of the show. The episode followed the story of Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) and we learn that the character most predicated on helping others suddenly couldn’t help himself. Jason Bateman’s development as a seasoned actor is noticeable as he is written into a tougher role than in the original run. He’s playing that man who needs to get his life back together, the polar opposite of seven years ago where we saw a man who thought he could easily figure everything out. Now living out of George Michael’s college dorm, he finds that he has to rely on others, even though as George Sr. says, he “never accepts help from anyone”.Over the course of the episode we are left with situations that will be further examined and explained, with George Sr. and Lucille getting divorced, George Michael and Maeby possibly dating and the government’s stimulus package helping the Bluth’s find a way to cheat the system once again. Some new jokes fall flat. Some old gags remind us of how great the first three seasons were and an appearance by the Workaholics crew is a pleasant surprise. There are plenty of brief instances, such as the first glimpse of Buster who is alarmed at the idea of his parents splitting up, that give us hope that Arrested Development is just warming up for something special once again. We all know the first season started slow.
Plenty will rush to judge the first episode as an accurate predictor of the episodes to come. Arrested Development won’t prematurely shoot its wad, as Tobias once said. We’re definitely witnessing something different, but after the next 14 episodes it should be as equally as satisfying.