Confession: it took me over a month to finish Arrested Development’s fourth season. I logged into Netflix this May with the eager anticipation shared by millions of other would-be binge watchers, bulldozing through the first three episodes in a matter of hours. But the day after that, I watched only one episode; the day after that, none at all. And though I eventually followed the complicated, confusing, only occasionally funny story to its conclusion, my reaction to Netflix’s professed interest in a fifth season was instant: Are they crazy?
It’s difficult to judge Arrested’s fourth season by regular standards. Normal television shows aren’t resurrected seven years after their original end date; normal television shows don’t have Arrested’s built-in rabid fan base; normal television shows don’t face the absurdly high expectations, scheduling problems, and noticeably aged cast that come with reviving one of the best comedies of the past decade. It’s hard to unilaterally declare such a show “good” or “bad” given viewers’ built-in biases. So when asking whether Arrested deserves a third (or is it fifth?) shot, it might be better to ask instead what purpose the fourth season served — and how well its 15 episodes served it.
Part — well, let’s be honest, most — of the reason Arrested Development came back was its fans. Justifiably frustrated at the untimely end of its original FOX run, we craved one last chicken dance with our beloved Bluths. Luckily, as time passed, our numbers multiplied, and a true believer made it into a position of power at Netflix, it made more and more sense to give the people what they wanted. Eventually, Mitchell Hurwitz got the chance to pick up where he left off, and Arrested devotees got a chance to see what really happened after Michael and George Michael rode off into the sunset.
Popular appeal and unfulfilled creative potential are both completely valid reasons for reviving a TV show from the dead. And for these reasons, at the end of the day it’s a good thing that Season 4 happened. We got a glimpse into the Bluth family’s future, saw most of the show’s running gags extended, and learned what Hurwitz could do with creative carte blanche and a much bigger budget. But all of these justify the existence of Arrested’s fourth season; they don’t argue for granting the show a fifth.
Because while Season 4 served one purpose — fan service — amazingly well, it fell far short of the mark when it came to the more important work of actually entertaining its audience. Perhaps nothing illustrates the strengths and weaknesses of Season 4 better than the show’s celebrated running gags. Back in Arrested‘s original run, most of these jokes could stand on their own, with the self-reference factor acting as merely a bonus to the slapstick of the chicken dance or the sheer silliness of Lindsay’s “SLUT” shirt. In Season 4, however, “you’ve seen this before” is often the entirety of the joke; see the totally unnecessary “finishing each other’s sandwiches” gag between Lindsay and Herbert Love, or Gob’s sputtering breakdown in front of Ann, made up entirely of recycled quotes. Both scenes struck me as using repetition to replace original humor rather than add to it. The gags are thus no longer jokes so much as the writers throwing bone after bone to longtime viewers.
Much more serious than Season 4’s over-reliance on old jokes, though, was its brain-frying, head-scratching mess of a structure. A series that owes its survival to a preexisting fan base can be forgiven for leaning a little too heavily on their preexisting knowledge. There’s no excuse, though, for the overambitious timeline, which turned the Bluths’ story from a farce to a slog. After only a couple of episodes, just the thought of watching Season 4 began to give me a headache: subplots merged, diverged, and looped back around so many times that the show collapsed in on itself. The first part of the season was so trusting we’d forge ahead, whether out of dedication or just a desire to know what the hell was going on, that it didn’t even attempt to be coherent; big reveals later on answered questions posed so long ago I’d forgotten I had them.
The examples of Arrested’s structure devolving into self-sabotage are too numerous to catalog here, but suffice it to say that the details of George and Lucille’s build-a-wall scheme, Michael’s quest for his family’s life rights, and even the Michael-Rebel Alley-George Michael love triangle were totally lost on me — and, I imagine, any other viewer who didn’t feel the inclination to run over the season with a fine-toothed comb. But the structure was worse than confusing: it was distracting, leeching the fun out of what was ostensibly a comedy. I can count on one hand the number of times I laughed out loud while watching Season 4. I was too busy trying to connect the dots between setups and punch lines with half a season between them.
If Arrested Development has lost its ability to amuse us, what does the show have left to give? Sure, the finale left most of its story lines open-ended, since it merely brought us up to speed with the events of the premiere. But do we have any reason to believe the mystery of who killed Lucille 2, the fallout from Cinco de Cuatro, or the future of Rebel and George Michael’s relationship will be any more compelling — and more importantly, funnier — than the tangled mess that was Season 4?
Obviously, the Arrested Development writers aren’t guaranteed, or even likely, to repeat Season 4’s bizarre structure. But when we speculate what a hypothetical Season 5 would look like, Hurwitz’s most recent material (written with much more creative freedom, presumably, than when the show was at FOX) is the first place we ought to look. And the hard truth is that Season 4 just isn’t as original, clever, or straight-up fun as the original three. All the evidence points to Netflix’s finite resources being better spent elsewhere, hopefully developing original series as excellent as Orange Is the New Black.
By bringing Arrested Development back from the dead, Netflix gave a truly excellent show a much-deserved second chance, but let’s not pretend Season 4 was anything more than that. The excitement and novelty of having television’s most dysfunctional family back with us have run their course. It’s time to quit while we’re ahead and let the Bluths go.