Arrested Development Season 4 Deserves a Second Chance

On the heels of Arrested Development season 5’s confirmation, we explore the underappreciated fourth season of the show.

Netflix wants you to know they’re very sorry about Arrested Development season 4. This past week the streaming giant announced Arrested Development would be returning for a fifth season in 2018 and within that announcement there was a subtle apology for the much-maligned season 4.

See if you can spot it…

— Netflix US (@netflix) May 17, 2017

“Do not let the cast of Arrested Development out under any circumstances” the sign on the shipping container reads.The implication here is that the cast must all be locked away from their other jobs and kept together to avoid a situation like season 4 in which the cast’s various competing obligations meant they rarely appeared together onscreen.

It’s good marketing and some dank social media content but in our estimation an apology is not necessary. Yes, of the four seasons of Arrested Development, season 4 just happens to be the worst. That, however, speaks more to the first three season’s quality rather than the fourth’s ineptitude. Arrested Development season 4 is an excellent 15 episodes of television and it’s time to let go of our culture’s collective performative pain over it.

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The 4th season of Arrested Development was the first show to kickstart the new trend of streaming services “rescuing” old, canceled fan favorites. And as anyone who has attended a karaoke night with coworkers knows: you never want to go first.

Arrested Development season 4 had the dubious honor of being the first canceled TV show rescued by a streaming service. That very concept was all but unheard of back in the innocent, primitive days of  2013 as was the very concept of an original program on Netflix, itself. Only House of Cards (good) and Hemlock Grove (hilariously terrible) were Netflix originals before Arrested Development season 4 came to the streams.

Many of the issues that Arrested Development season 4 ran into occured only because of simple growing pains from transitioning from a terrestrial network TV to streaming. For one: the editing is not as tight as it had been in previous seasons. Perhaps the biggest strength of Arrested Development was how heavily and stylistically it was edited in its first three seasons. Creator Mitchell Hurwitz in season 4, perhaps emboldened by having no time constraints, let some slack into the editing leash. Episodes were a bit longer and scenes themselves carried longer than expected. The experience was certainly jarring to viewers who had become accustomed to Arrested Development’s initial rapid rhythm.

And then there was the casting issue that Netflix poked fun at in its season 5 announcement. Season 4 was intended to be a prequel of sorts for a movie creator Mitch Hurwitz hoped to make, fulfilling Ron Howard’s prophetic line from the original series finale.

That movie plan combined with the vagaries of scheduling for a cast with increasingly high profiles meant that there were very few episodes in the 15-episode 4th season in which all the characters could appear together. Instead, the show adopted the model of each episode focusing on one character. This format was different from the one fans had grown accustomed to. It’s understandable that some would feel cheated or let down.

Now that we’re four years past the debut of season 4 and a season 5 is on the way, many of those same fans are going to go back and rewatch season 4. When they do, they’re going to discover something that surprises them: it’s great.

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Yes, it’s different. Yes, it’s probably the least effective of the show’s four seasons. It’s also awesome.

When watching season 4 again with the knowledge that each episode will highlight a different character, you’ll find the experience is much smoother, easier and funnier. The lax editing is still an issue but the character-per-episode format is shockingly effective.

Arrested Development has always been best known for its structural ingenuity. Fans are often happy to point out that almost every joke on Arrested Development has at least one event that foreshadows it. In season 2 Buster encounters a hand-shaped chair he had previously lost and remarks and then says “I never thought I could miss a hand so much.” Later his hand is bitten off by a loose seal (Lucille, get it?)

Season 4 has about he same amount of those structurally ambitious jokes as earlier seasons, they just happen in a slightly different way due to the formatting. The character-centric episodes mean that the audience experiences many of the same events over and over again. Each time the viewer gets a new bit of information making the situation that much funnier. By the end of the season, the show is able to generate countless great jokes from an ill-fated Cinco de Quatro party just by adding layer upon layer upon layer of new contexts and perspectives to it.

The character-centric episode model also opens up a lot of new space to be occupied by new characters and almost all of them are wonderful new entrants into the Arrested Development universe. Since Michael, George Michael, GOB and the others can’t always interact with one another every episode, the show brings in brand new characters and brings back old side characters to interact with them. GOB engages in the most elaborate and needless love affair in history with Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller). Lindsay makes the acquaintance of the hilariously corrupt and selfish Herbert Love (Terry Crews). And Michael and George Michael come to actual fisticuffs over the lovely Rebel Alley (Isla Fisher).

The vibe and rhythm of the show is so strong that Hurwitz and company know that no one, regardless of how talented or charismatic can interrupt it – they can only enhance it.  That confidence along with season 4’s atypical structure brings Maria Bamford, Tommy Tune, Mary Lynn Rajskub and many more into the Arrested Development canon.

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Arrested Development season 5 is coming soon and with it the cure for all of season 4’s perceived sins. Season 5 very well could improve upon season 4 and it very well could be the best season of the show yet. That doesn’t mean we can’t appreciate season 4 for what it is: a fascinating, funny and worthwhile experience.