Chalk one up for the Internet: It has killed “Arrested Development.”
The actual execution was carried out by the producers of the show’s fourth season, posted on Sunday morning on Netflix, seven years after the original television series was canceled by Fox. But watching 8 of the 15 new episodes — the biggest binge I could manage before deadline — it seemed likely that the on-demand, all-at-once possibilities of online streaming had helped lead this groundbreaking comedy’s creator, Mitch Hurwitz, and his colleagues down a bad path.
During the insane rush of publicity leading up to the premiere, Mr. Hurwitz said: “This is a new media where you get to see all the episodes at once. Maybe they should all happen at the same time.”
That’s more or less the case in the new “Arrested Development,” but the paradoxical result is that Season 4 is a painstaking exercise in the art of withholding. It’s “Rashomon” on steroids: As each episode tracks one member of the hyper-dysfunctional Bluth family over roughly the same stretch of time, the story constantly circles back on itself, and information is rationed like methadone in the rehab center that first appears in Episode 3. Principal scenes play out over and over, becoming incrementally more clear.
This is not how “Arrested Development” worked in its first three seasons (encompassing 53 episodes). There was narrative trickery, but the chronology was straightforward, and, more important, the storytelling and the humor were furiously paced. Jokes of every variety, bits of physical comedy, elaborate wordplay, innuendo and allusions tumbled out so quickly that you barely had time to register them. If one thing didn’t make you laugh, the next was there before you knew it.
That density (to borrow a frequent descriptor) was, along with the performances, the best thing about the show, and it took away any need to make the story rational or even engaging in any conventional sense. It also meant that most of the characters could be one-dimensional cartoons — mean mother, venal father, materialistic sister, dumb brother-in-law — as long as the writers were endlessly inventive in making fun of them and in embroidering their comic universe.
That particular party is over in Season 4, however, where everything feels slowed down and dragged out at the same time that it feels forced and overly complicated. The longer expository scenes seem interminable. Story and character now overshadow jokes and conceptual foolery, but for all their new prominence, they’re still as thin and rudimentary as they were in the first three seasons — and watching the episodes in large doses further exposes their deficiencies.
(It’s also no improvement that the commercial-free Netflix episodes average more than 32 minutes versus the tight and bright 21 minutes of the earlier seasons.)
Season 4 begins with an episode focused on Michael (Jason Bateman), the mostly honest, frequently gullible son charged with keeping the rest of the Bluths solvent, united and out of jail. We see him at different points of a chronology that begins with the family’s attempt to escape from federal agents at the end of Season 3; gradually the story is filled out with new arrests, financial and romantic reversals, infighting and inappropriate sex, leading up to what appears to be a climactic scene at Newport Beach’s annual Cinco de Cuatro celebration. (If you’ve watched all 15 episodes, you’ll know if the scene is actually climactic; if you’ve watched one, you’ll get the Cinco de Cuatro joke.)
Along the way there are doses of the self-referential and metafictional humor that have made the show a cult item — enough for fans to compile lists, but not enough to really enliven the episodes or distract you from the story’s dullness. Long scenes are built on one-barrel gags, like an extended “Entourage” takeoff in Episode 7 or the closeted Tobias’s vanity plate — an alternate spelling of “a new start” — in Episode 5.
The inside jokes are pleasing when they arrive — “I’ve made a huge mistake” (Episode 7); “It’s like we finish each other’s ——” “Sandwiches!” (Episode 8); the frequent appearance of boom mikes in the frame. And an impressive number of amusing secondary characters have been reintegrated, including Judy Greer’s breast-obsessed Kitty Sanchez and Carl Weathers’s insufferable Carl Weathers. (It would be nice to see more of them and less of Ron Howard, the narrator and executive producer whose on-screen role has been greatly expanded.)
The first three seasons of “Arrested Development” are currently available online from multiple sources including Amazon, Hulu, iTunes, Netflix and Vudu, and they present a quandary. You need to have watched them to comprehend Season 4 — to understand much of its humor or to make sense of its convoluted plot — but if you truly loved them, it’s hard to imagine being anything but disappointed with this new rendition.
All episodes available for streaming on Netflix.com.