It didn’t take too long for the sharp knives to unsheath to slay the sacrificial cow of Arrested Development Season 4. Most egregiously, the New York Times critic Mike Hale declared the body dead after watching only 8 of all 15 episodes. TVGuide also ran a review after only 7 episodes. (I’ll come back to point out why that’s idiotic and unfair.) The Daily Beast helpfully ran two stories to explain “why” the show is a failure, as if it were already the consensus. And even among the B and C grades given by other critics, the pattern of criticism emerges. I’d like to address these specific criticisms one by one, which means that you probably shouldn’t read this until you’ve gotten a chance to see the show. Spoilers will ensue.
1) Editing and Pace Issues: It’s worth noting that most of the technical team behind the original series did not return to participate in this new season, meaning that one of the immediate impressions one gets from watching the new season is that it is technically more crude, due to Netflix having a more limited production budget than FOX allowed. Therefore, it is a valid criticism that the crafted, kinetic hand-held camerawork of the OS is considerably dulled here, being shot flatter and with far less finesse. That second ingredient was an important element of the comic timing produced by the OS, and it’s true that S4 is not as sharply shot and cut. This is clear from the outset, as the familiarity of Michael Bluth’s model home in the first episode amplifies the difference in tone. I find it interesting that most of the negative remarks about S4 usually involve the first couple of episodes, as I think this is the period of adaptation as viewers get used to the new rhythm of the show.
The most common aspect of the “editing” that I’ve read is that the episodes are generally about 50% longer, and that this causes more “drag” than a more tightly edited 22 minute runtime. I’m not sure if I agree, but then again, I’m not someone who would turn down an extra helping of AD.
2) Michael is a Creep: Michael has always been a self-absorbed narcissist, only that his narcissism has been dependent more on his martyrdom than the other Bluths. Here, Michael has fallen pretty far from his more pious perch, and so his narcissism can no longer be obscured by his altruistic efforts. He still comes across as if everyone, especially son George Michael, should be thankful to be graced by his presence, only he no longer has the resources to indulge his generosity, which almost always had a selfish motive behind it anyway. Many people have criticized this loss of the show’s “moral compass”, but personally, I think this was a rather subversive way to throw out the rudders early on as we get to see the more self-destructive side of Michael’s ego.
3) The Individual Focus of the Episodes Destroys the Ensemble Aspect: This is a little hyperbolic, as it isn’t as if the individual episodes don’t feature many or even most of the other cast members to some degree. True, the full cast only comes together a couple of times, but of course, this adds to the climax of the 15th and final episode. With the exception of Buster (who does seem strangely absent for most of it), the entire cast appears in the majority of episodes in some extent or another, so there are many scenes of character interaction.
Now, the reason why it’s unfair to judge the show without finishing the season is the same reason why it’s unfair to compare these new episodes to the weekly episode dynamic of the OS. Mitchell Hurwitz was clever enough to understand that it was pointless to simply release a season of individual episodes, each with self-contained stories even if there was an underlying plot thread running through them, as if this were just another season picking up where the OS left off. Hurwitz understood that this simultaneous release strategy made the idea of self-contained episodes irrelevant, and he, no doubt, understood that AD fans would largely be unable to resist the urge to binge on multiple episodes at once, and would have much greater freedom for immediate rewatching. Such viewing has already become the preference for those who either marathon watch TV shows on DVD or streaming and those who hoard DVR episodes of shows for similar marathon viewing.
Hurwitz took the gamble that this method gave him the freedom to write episodes that don’t necessarily have to wrap up cleanly every 22 minutes, but can build momentum over several episodes. Part of the reason why the initial episodes of S4 are so commonly maligned is due to the fact that most of the jokes don’t make much sense until you finally get to later episodes. For one example, in the second episode, George Sr.’s “Borderline Personalities,” there were a few times when Jeffery Tambor seems off and awkward. It’s natural to come to the conclusion that maybe Tambor simply cannot carry his own episode on his own. Later, we discover that this awkwardness was because we were actually watching Oscar without knowing it. (Regardless of this, I still think the “Sweat & Squeeze” is brilliant by itself)
This is why it’s foolishness for critics to write these premature reviews without having seen every episode (much less only seeing them once). It’s a new idea that a television show should require such a non-linear interdependence between its episodes, but this is precisely what the new broadcasting format affords, and what Hurwitz chooses to take advantage of. Hurwitz noticed that many of the fan favorites of the OS were the “callbacks” or recurring gags, and so he decided to spread them out over multiple episodes, often putting the punchline out early before the viewer is aware what the set-up is going to be. Whatever the other problems that people cite for the new season, the writing is still impeccable, and frequently as brilliant as it always has been. AD became a lot of people’s favorite show after multiple viewings. Many of these initial reviews, written by critics in their impatient rush to be the first to publish their reactions (many of the worst reviews were out by the following Tuesday), are all vague, first impressions. I’ve actually read some describe how they feel about it. A couple of writers at Slate tweeted a disposable back-and-forth of their unripe apprehensions. Once you start to use your head, after stepping back for some digestive reflection, then you can begin to appreciate the intricacy of the multiple layers of humor and the audacity of the narrative accomplishment.