This Arrested Development review contains spoilers.
Some reviews of Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz’s recut of the show’s fourth, Netflix-produced, season have already popped up (you all did not watch it that fast and I am calling your bluff). They all tell roughly the same tale: the fourth season was a disappointment and, while this recut fixes some problems, it’s still hardly a fun time.
First off, I want to bitterly reject what I keep seeing, which is critics and fans casually pretending like they always thought Season 4 was not good because I was there, man, and it was a lot more like myself and a handful of other outliers arguing that this thing was a lemon from top to bottom only to be shouted down by everyone else telling us “it gets better” or “watch the whole thing and it’ll magically become funny at the end.” The most correct assessment came from The Washington Post’s Dan Zak who called it a “chore to watch.” However, even that admission was followed by “and a delight to decrypt.” Yeah, no.
I put forth then as I do now that the original cut of Arrested Development Season 4 is an utter slog, overlong, with scene after boring scene that looked and sounded like crap. It felt more like some odd, low-budget, fan-made Arrested Development stage play that had somehow secured the original cast while losing everything else that had made the original series a classic.
Some of this could be chalked up to growing pains. The reboot was one of the earliest original series from Netflix. However, they’d started out with David Fincher’s far sleeker House of Cards, so it’s not much of an excuse. This was, however, Netflix’s first foray into the series revival business and, if everyone hadn’t been bending over backwards to find reasons to appreciate this turd, perhaps we wouldn’t currently be drowning in a deluge of subpar-to-trash television revivals (Twin Peaks notwithstanding). I’m being dramatic, but you look at Fuller House and tell me you don’t dream of going back in time to somehow avoid this timeline.
Now, here we are, five (you heard, me five) years later with a reedited version, the mouthfully-titled Arrested Development Season 4 Remix: Fateful Consequences, which sounds less like a comedy and more like DLC for the video game Life is Strange. The very existence of this new edit, not to mention that Netflix has craftily hidden the original cut behind some non-user-friendly UI, is a tacit admission that the original cut completely blue itself.
The recut makes an effort to make this season feel more like the first three. Each episode of the original cut of Season 4 focused on one family member at a time, with other members of the family occasionally dropping in. Now, we jump back and forth between all the family members. This reduces the fatigue that came with the original cut, which sometimes devoted two or three consecutive episodes to the same character. Multiple episodes in a row of George Sr. and Oscar in the desert, for example, starts to weigh on a viewer.
This approach also makes the events of the season progress in a closer to (but not entirely) consecutive fashion, which makes it somewhat (somewhat) less confusing. However, the season, which was already extremely convoluted for no justifiable reason (like Inception except not remotely enjoyable) was, with shifting perspectives, bound to be even harder to keep track of. Sensing, this, Hurwitz had Ron Howard record loads more narration to bridge and clarify events.
Full disclosure: doing a direct comparison of the narration of the original cut versus Fateful Consequences would literally kill me, so I could be wrong here. It is apparent that Howard has recorded new narration, but the narrator already had a problematically outsized presence in Season 4, so though I’m not positive, it certainly feels like there’s a lot more. Smarting from the criticism that gradually came out against Season 4, Hurwitz seems terrified that you’ll lose the plot (which you still totally will sometimes) and, as such, the narrator is constantly telling you what’s going on and why, not to mention recapping things you’ve seen only one episode ago. Near the latter section of the season, the episodes start out with 2 to 3 minutes of recap, which Netflix mercifully gives you the option to skip.
To be clear, jumping between characters and creating a more linear version of the storyline is an improvement, but this caveat of having Ron Howard ramble over everything almost all the time drags it way, way down. The narrator was a great comedic device in the earlier seasons when he was utilized not so constantly. Here, he dominates everything and, after a time, you tend to tune out the few interjections by the people onscreen. They’ve been relegated to bit parts, with the narrator as the lead. The effect is the entire season feels like a recap, even when you’re seeing new stuff. Try out the tenth episode, “Recurring Dreams,” which truly is almost wall-to-wall narration and you’ll see what I mean.
The final major alteration—and he does deserve credit for accomplishing this—is that Hurwitz has made each episode the length of a standard network TV sitcom. Each one is now a more palatable 22 to 23 minutes, as opposed to the previous random-ass runtimes, with some episodes ballooning to 40 minutes. It was already a slow, boring slog, and being asked to devote 30+ minutes to it at once was a lot to ask. So, yes, these reasonably-sized episodes are a welcome change, though it’s rare an episode ends in a resolute way or on a solid punchline.
Changes aside, the problems with Season 4 were manifold and a reshuffling of scenes is not enough to salvage this turkey. The first three seasons became complex gradually, building their own internal logic and language over time, while Season 4 is eating its own tail from the very first episode. Attempts to bring back classic gags feel perfunctory and forced. Further, the new recurring gags are dropped in and never prove themselves to be funny, but are repeated again and again anyway. “This is the new thing to parrot that’s funny!” the show tells you, unconvincingly, though some suckers have dutifully followed this directive. You see the occasional internet reference to the meh “Sound of Silence” gag or the wholly unfunny “I don’t want these.” (“Hot mess” is a slightly better joke that’s been overlooked).
The developments the characters undergo feel only partially correct. Gob realizing he’s gay is good. Buster becoming Norman Bates-esque makes perfect sense. Maeby redoing her senior year multiple times works, but becoming her mom’s pimp is a bit too horrible. And Michael’s fall from grace, though something that feels like a plausible turn, doesn’t get nearly enough build-up to sell it. He also just plain doesn’t act like himself at times. The fact that he can’t grasp that George Michael doesn’t want to share his dorm room with his dad makes him oblivious to the point of stupidity, and he’s not supposed to be a stupid person. The same goes for him vengefully ripping up the contracts he needs his family to sign.
Arrested Development has always been a shameless series, but there are times here where it’s straight-up racist. This stuff was there before, but usually a cut to Lupe or Michael registering their disapproval softened it. The scenes in India, though too cartoonish and odd to be based off any real-world stereotypes, still leave a bad taste. Then there’s the Jade Triad gang, who stab people with sharpened, uncooked instant noodles and have trouble pronouncing the word “loophole.”
Something I don’t see addressed nearly enough is how terrible Season 4 looks and sounds. The show on Fox was directed, as is common with network television, by a rotating stable of competent directors. The series’ visual language, for example, was created by Joe and Anthony Russo, who directed the pilot and later went on to direct episodes of Community as well as small indie film Avengers: Infinity War. Comparatively, Season 4 was directed exclusively by Hurwitz himself (whose directing credits are scant) and the dude who directed Dumb and Dumberer: When Harry Met Lloyd. In fairness, this guy has a lot of other directing credits under his belt, but the look is wrong all the same.
Many poorly-staged shots make it unclear what we’re meant to focus on or find funny or simply make the show look not like a comedy, but, again, like some manner of stage drama. Moments like Gob roofying Michael, though not necessarily any darker than subject matter from the first three seasons, feel disturbing, rather than funny. The CG effects also look cheaper than ever. There are tons of cutaways to graphics and they all look like they were slapped together in photoshop in a couple of hours. Then we’ve got the times characters are green-screened in because the actor wasn’t available in person. This always looks awful. With the new narration, they’ve added a joke referencing the problem, but that hardly makes up for it.
Some of it is down to editing. Even though the episodes are shorter now, scenes still drag, sometimes evidently just because Hurwitz incorrectly thought they were funny enough to go on for several minutes. The gag of Lucille smoking into Buster’s mouth is an uncomfortably long, uninterrupted take. Michael, George Michael, and Maeby deliberating on a roommate voting-out system is an unfunny concept that goes on for ages and is even brought back again later, no funnier than it was the first time.
Please feel free to look at any of my other TV reviews and I guarantee you not one will mention sound mixing or audio editing. I’m a stickler but, when something is professionally produced, this is usually not something anyone has to mention. But, yes, Season 4 sounds like garbage. The music is dropped in artlessly to putter along in the background of scenes, though sometimes it’s instead more in the foreground, making dialogue difficult to hear. A constant issue is that characters start delivering their lines before the narrator has finished speaking. Further, the dialogue just plain sounds bad sometimes for reasons I don’t fully understand. It might be poor audio mixing or that the lines were badly delivered and never rerecorded. Whatever the reason, it’s easy to frequently miss out on what people are saying.
There are times where you can feel Season 4 trying to rise above itself and be the old series, and it’s mostly down to the actors, who are doing their best. Gob and Michael playing off each other is still funny-ish and Lucille and Lindsay remain convincingly at each other’s throats. But the characters rarely get to act off one another due to actor schedules not matching up and the production quality handily saps the comedy out of normally funny people. Maria Bamford paired with David Cross sounds hilarious on paper, but for some reason it’s absolutely not. And I don’t know if the guy who plays Marky Bark is usually funny, but he sure isn’t here (and he sure gets a lot of screen time).
I will say this much: with Fateful Consequences, those who claimed the season got better as it went on are vindicated. I found Season 4’s old cut painful throughout and laughed, I shit you not, twice total (once at the CG depiction of George Michael’s kissing and, well, I can’t remember what the other thing was). Fateful Consequences isn’t much funnier; it only made me laugh out loud several times, but I wasn’t so exhausted by each episode that I couldn’t at least recognize the times it was being clever, of which there are a number.
However, it mostly gets “better” in that you start to understand the story in full over time. You’re still watching it like it’s a chore to get through, but you’re not entirely lost. In that way, it’s engaging, but only in the weird “constant recapping” manner that Fateful Consequences functions. Plus, it’s not like increased comprehension means all the laughs you didn’t have before come bubbling up and out of you in a grand hilarity explosion once you reach the end. I’d genuinely recommend reading a fan wiki plot summary over watching the season, because you’ll get the same basic experience in a much shorter amount of time.
Mitch Hurwitz has implied that the fifth season of Arrested Development will be upon us sooner than we know. He and Netflix have learned from their mistakes in that they made sure the entire cast was available all at once. However, I think the greater lesson to be learned is that Mitch needs a bigger crew. Season 4 has the feel of Hurwitz slapping this all together almost all by himself and if there aren’t some more competent people handling directing and the technical side of things, I fear we’ll still be in trouble (plus, the allegations about Jeffrey Tambor cast an unfortunate pall over everything). We’ll see.
I didn’t formally review Arrested Development Season 4 when it first came out, but if I had I would’ve given it zero stars. Arrested Development Season 4 Remix: Fateful Consequences Boogaloo is, indeed, an improvement over the original cut. This is me being nice.