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Wednesday, May 29, 2013

"A New Start" For ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (Season 4 Episodes 1-5)

Article first published as "A New Start" For ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT (Season 4 Episodes 1-5) on TheTVKing.

Netflix has resurrected Arrested Development, seven years after its cancellation on FOX, and now, starting today, presents fifteen brand new episodes. For ease of review purposes, I am breaking down my coverage into three articles covering five episodes each.

This new Arrested Development brings back all the beloved characters from the sitcom, but because of scheduling difficulties, each installment focuses on one specific player. Other cast members come in and out often, but there is a single person who gets the most stuff, while others are barely seen at all.

First up is "Flight of the Phoenix" with Michael (Jason Bateman), arguably the central protagonist of the ensemble. When last we leave Michael, he is trying to escape his family, a smart move considering how much they have been dragging him down. But as we see in this premiere, he is not able to stay away, and thus is pulled into self-destruction's embrace even tighter, hitting near rock bottom when forced to move into his son, George Michael's (Michael Cera), dorm room, only to eventually be kicked out.

This is wonderful development for Michael, both in keeping with the personality already established, and because it demonstrates just how much like the rest of the family he is. Michael has striven very hard to set himself apart and seem "normal," but that just isn't how life shakes out for him, and even after George Michael finally grows a bit of a spine and in a roundabout way asks Michael to leave, Michael still doesn't get the hint.

Michael seems better when episode four, "The B. Team," picks up his tale, but it has to be denial, rather than success, driving the change. Intent on becoming a movie producer, working with Ron Howard (the narrator of Arrested Development playing himself here) to put together a picture about the Bluth family, specifically Michael's relationship with George Michael. Hopefully, through this experience, Michael will finally see that he is just as bad a father as his dad is, albeit in different ways, and Ron Howard's interest will serve as a wake-up call to him, leading to understanding and lasting development.

I absolutely adore "The B. Team" because of all of the meta references in it. Besides Howard, we see Brian Grazer (himself), and their offices at Imagine Entertainment. Whether or not the picture gets made, which I feel it will, and that the flashback scenes with Kristen Wiig, Seth Rogen, and others playing the familiar characters are probably from this project, this is a clever, tongue-in-cheek extension of some of the self-referential jokes the series already does. I only wish Bryce Dallas Howard would play Ron Howard's daughter in Arrested Development, rather than Isla Fisher (Confessions of a Shopaholic) filling the role.

It's not just done for meta purposes, though, firmly ensconcing the bigger story with these bits. Through a few plot twists, Maeby's (Alia Shawkat) producer career ends up being connected, and former Bluth secretary Kitty (Judy Greer) now works there, using the job for some unknown scheme to bring down the family. And other recurring roles, such as Warden Gentles (James Lipton), Andy and Rocky Richter (Andy Richter), and Carl Weathers (Carl Weathers) figure in, as well.

In fact, that's how much of Arrested Development seems to be playing out. Season four, like the first three before it, brilliantly weaves new characters and gags into everything that has come before it, with many faces and bits returning when least expected. The list of guest stars in these first five half-hours is quite long, though each is used effectively to further the plot, rather than being distracting or plain stunt casting. I think this sort of talent effectively helps fill the gaps of the missing main players.

Episodes three and five, "Indian Takers" and "A New Start," unfold concurrently, with the former following Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and the latter focusing on Tobias (David Cross). Each have many of the same settings and scenes, but "A New Start" does not repeat "Indian Takers," instead giving new glimpses of the bigger picture.

I think Lindsay and Tobias are meant for each other. Sure, they end up with two other lovers in these episodes (The Office's Chris Diamantopoulus and comedian Maria Bamford), but they way that they keep crossing paths and end up in the same spots proves they're connected. Perhaps they aren't sexually attracted to one another, but there's a reason they are in each other's lives, and it's kind of sweet, if a bit sad, to see how hopeless they are to escape each other, much as they might try.

These two installments aren't the only ones that cross, with a couple of focal points, the aftermath of Lucille's (Jessica Walter) arrest in the season three finale and a family meeting to discuss stimulus money, bringing everyone back together. While it's sometimes hard to pinpoint the exact timeline of the narrative, each episode tells a cohesive story, and also serves the season's arcs as a whole. Putting this together has to be a difficult feat, and I'm impressed with how well it's being done, assuming it will all wrap up neatly in the end.

The weak point of these first five is episode two, "Borderline Personalities." This is about a scheme George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) hatches with Oscar (also Tambor) being his unwilling accomplice, but despite the wonderful additions of John Slattery (Mad Men), Karen Maruyama (Pulp Fiction), and Mary Lynn Rajskub (24), as well as the genius dual performance given by Tambor, I just couldn't get into the setting or story.

I think part of the accessibility problem is my general disinterest with anything set in the desert or with that harsh southwestern color scheme, so perhaps this is a personal opinion that will not be shared by other fans. However, even though I do consider it the worst of the five, I still think it is pretty darn funny.

Ten more episodes remain to check out, and they are sure to evoke as many laughs as the ostrich, an inability to recognize faces, subtle references, a secret ballot, a Google unnamed tech company car, and so much more have already gotten. I like that Netflix has them all out at once because I don't have to wait, but it's sad to think they'll be burned through in a few days and then it'll be over again. Thankfully, the first five installments prove that Arrested Development has lost nothing during the very long hiatus, and remains one of TV's smartest, most original, most complex comedies. I'm so glad it's back!

Arrested Development season four is available in its entirety on Netflix now.

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