It's been 36 hours since I completed the final episode of Arrested Development's fourth season and, to be honest, I still don't know what to really think about the series. Granted, it's been only 36 hours since I finished so to think I would have come up with some sort of magnificent insight into the series is laughable. And, too, this, more than any other season of the show, will demand repeat viewings just for everything to sink in. With a seven year wait, you'd think Twitter would be lit up with "LOVE IT" or "HATE IT" but what I suspected might be a cacophony over the Memorial Day weekend was simply a murmur, an indication that people are taking longer to work through the series and, most likely, longer to sort through their feelings.
Adding a surreal edge to my experience was, of course, the fact I watched the entire series in one day. Last week, creator Mitch Hurwitz advised against that with the advice, "You'll get tired." I dismissed it, thinking there wouldn't be a problem, that I've breezed my way through two or three hour chunks of AD episodes before in a weekend afternoon easily. But the problem is that this isn't the Arrested Development of 2005. This is a far more complex, more bloated version. And nothing hammers that home like the very first scene.
Our welcome back to the Bluth family is a scene in which a desperate Michael stumbles along the pier during the annual "Cinco de Cuatro" celebration. It's a dark, jarring opening and, through 15 hours, there's a lot to love, a lot to ignore, and in the end, you're left with an equally dark, jarring closing which also leaves everything wide-open for the alleged movie that this new set of episodes is setting up. But it's those intervening hours in between that have left me scratching my head. It's not that I didn't dislike it. There were moments that will stand alongside the best moments from the earlier seasons. But it's the acceptance of this series as something completely different that has to sink in for me (and hopefully will over repeated viewings).
First, yes, this is a darker series than before. Most notably among the issues is Michael. While there was always an underlying Bluth-ness to him - selfishness and misguided rationalization - it was far lower than his siblings and with a dose of self-awareness. He was always able to hit the brakes before going over that emotional cliff the rest of his family had long since jumped off. But that sense of a moral center is, well, gone in this new series. And the structure of the new series doesn't allow us to see an organic growth (or, in this case, breakdown) of his character that makes the final, jarring scene make full sense. It's the nadir for a character that seems to experience a series of them and while it's not totally unbelievable to see him fall that far, it doesn't quite come off due to the nature of the new series.
Of course, it always has to be in our minds that so much of the new series was based on simply filming around the conflicting schedules' of the actors. That's presumably the reason there were hardly any scenes with the full ensemble. It may be the binge-watching watering down my (already poor) short-term memory, but I can only think of one scene (repeated from different perspectives throughout the season) of the entire Bluth family together in one place. Without more than two or three characters, that feisty chemistry, the quick, zippy exchange of lines, is hard to recreate. There are certainly moments where it shines through, but it's harder to recapture that lightning when only two characters are on screen.
How much of this is also due to the editing, therefore, is up for debate. Without the constraints of commercials, Hurwitz and his crew could let the episodes run longer than the typical 20-21 minutes they had during those first three seasons on FOX. But there is such a thing as too much freedom and this is a great example. Scenes that, edited down, would have provided more of that zip drag on, the joke run into the ground. At other times, the scenes drag on well past the point of even being interesting and it's hard to see why some characters warrant the amount of time spent on them. The sole episodes devoted to Maeby and Buster (!!!) seem like they're at lightspeed compared to the second Tobias episode, the main plot of which (the Fantastic 4 musical) would have made more sense as a sub-plot unfolded over multiple, shorter episodes. Hurwitz, in an interview with The A.V. Club, described the post-shoot editing process as "brutal" and it sort of shows. If there was a down-side of the binge-watch, it's that this pacing did cause a certain worn-out feeling by the end of a run of 35-37 minute-long episodes.
And it's at this point that I, like the Michael of the earlier seasons, have to keep myself from going off the cliff. Yes, there's a lot to digest here and the parts I dislike are easiest to pick out. But there's still a lot to love about the show once the acceptance of this being "something different" sinks in. Despite the sometimes wonky editing, the overlapping nature of the episodes lead to some great payoffs. And despite the lack of rapid-fire dialog in some places, there are still some transcendent moments. While some storylines fall flat (George Sr., Michael), others prove to be fantastic (Gob, Buster). Most of the "guest stars," particularly Isla Fisher, John Slattery, Kristen Wiig, and Maria Bamford, prove to be great casting choices and weave themselves well into the fabric of the series. (And, good lord, is Bamford terrific as "Debris.")
The grain of salt (or is it sugar when you're trying to be positive?) I have to keep in mind is that this is a series of episodes that not only requires repeated viewings to unpack the necessary information, it's also necessary for digestion. The rewards of those repeat viewings will be different than the recurring jokes that reward multiple viewings of earlier episodes. As Hurwitz himself said, these new episodes are more character-based than plot-based. And so it makes sense that requires us to spend more time with these characters. But this new season is incredibly innovative, telling these stories in a way that's rare for any television show. Other shows - LOST comes to mind - have tried the character-centric episode approach but this is a show that not only has been resurrected but also reinvented and for that, Hurwitz and company have no lack of respect from me. And the way all these episodes converge at "Cinco de Cuatro" shows there is an end-game at play here; Hurwitz and his crew do have an idea where they're going to end up even if they occasionally seem to get a little lost along the way.
Again, I admit that I probably suffered more by the binge watching. A.V. Club TV critic Todd VanDerWerff wrote over a year ago on the pleasures of "slow TV" and the need to just let it be what it needs to be. It's appropriate that a year later, he followed that up with a piece on Netflix and the nature of binge-watching (though not really focused on this AD series). These new episodes are "slow TV." It's not Mad Men, to be sure, but the nature of the information and structure require the necessary breaks to digest the many elements of the show, to let them breathe instead of cramming it all into my brain at once.
Do I feel like I had a lesser experience by watching the show all at once? Not really. I knew going in these were likely going to require multiple viewings to really get down and now, on the other side, I know that's definitely the case. Things probably would have sunk in more had I stretched it out, but that's the nature of binge-watching in general. But I don't think I had a lesser experience in watching them all at once. I did get tired and required more breaks of an hour or so between two-episode chunks as the day wore on, but I'm still fine with having consumed them the way I did. Like I said, it's going to take more time away and more viewings - and likely the movie - to fully digest everything anyway.
Over the next week or two, we'll see more reviews and recaps unspool from people who are far better at this sort of thing than me (like VanDerWerff who just posted his overview of the season which I've yet to fully read for fear of it being so far beyond something I can possibly write that it would discourage me completely from even attempting this though my bosses asked me to and now I'm rambling on and on...) and those will be worth reading to pull all perspectives in.
But if one thing seems certain, this is a set of episodes that's not going to give instant gratification but could age well, giving us a fuller sense of everything once the full story is told, a few years from now.
As always, patience will pay off, even if I chose not to heed that advice on Sunday.