Seven years after being canceled by Fox, ‘Arrested Development’ returns with 15 brand-new episodes (currently) available only on Netflix. Like it has done with its other exclusive series, Netflix has made the entire season available all at once, which allows fans to binge on the Bluths or take their time to savor each and every new episode individually.
There are a few things that potential viewers should know before diving into these episodes. First, this new series was conceived as an update of the Bluth family’s current status, to prepare for a yet-to-be-finalized feature film. So, don’t expect the story to be tied up in a nice little bow. (In fact, a number of major story threads go unresolved.) Secondly, because of the logistics of getting all the cast together again, only a handful of scenes contain all nine of the major characters in the same room together. There are even a handful of easily-noticeable scenes where an actor has been added via green-screen. Since there was only a limited amount of time each actor was available for filming, the episodes each focus on one member of the Bluth family. Don’t worry, most of the cast appears in each episode. However, usually only a couple of them interact at any one time.
Most of the main characters get two episodes that focus on his or her story. (Lucille, Maeby and Buster only get one each). Each episode covers what they’ve been up to in the past seven years as well as where they currently are in their lives. It’s kind of like a comedic ‘Memento‘, not in the sense that things are told in reverse, but rather in the sense that events we see in one episode don’t make sense until we see the same events from a different character’s point of view in another episode. The episodes proceed like that, and we see many of the same things over and over again, with new twists and connections getting added each time. A little bit of this is fun, but after 15 long (most episodes run over 30 minutes, and some are close to 40) episodes, it gets to be a bit tiresome.
Here’s a brief synopsis of what’s up with each member of the Bluth family in Season 4:
Michael is the focus of Episode 1, and at first glance \ seems much different than the Michael Bluth we know and love. This is primarily due to the fact that he’s deeply in debt (he finished the housing project around the old Bluth model home, but can’t get any buyers) and is forced to move into George Michael’s college dorm room. Things appear to brighten up when Ron Howard (as himself) contacts Michael and says he’s interested in making a movie about the family… But Michael will need to get the signed approval of his other family members. He also finds himself falling for Ron Howard’s daughter, Rebel Alley (Isla Fisher).
The patriarch of the Bluth family finds himself south of the border, buying a chunk of land on the U.S./Mexico border where he hopes to later make a buck by getting the government to build a wall between the two countries. While there, he gets sidetracked into a money-making scheme with his twin brother Oscar, where they use a sweat lodge and some spiritual mumbo-jumbo to bilk rich businessmen out of their hard-earned cash. Later on in the season, George will see his money-making schemes go south (pardon the pun), question his own manhood, and discover an affinity for women’s clothing.
After a trip to India hoping for some spiritual guidance, Lindsay returns hoping to rekindle her relationship with husband Tobias. Instead, she winds up meeting political activist Marky Bark (Chris Diamantopoulos), and the two start a relationship together, which includes both moving into and trashing the mansion owned by George and Lucille. Later, she falls out of that relationship and into a new one with the already-married political candidate Herbert Love (Terry Crews), who not only treats her like an escort, but believes she is one.
At the same place Lindsay meets Marky Bark (they think they’re at an acting class, but it’s actually a drug rehab meeting), Tobias meets DeBrie Bardeaux (Maria Bamford), whom Tobias learns was in a cheap, low-budget version of ‘The Fantastic Four’ playing Sue Storm. The two begin a relationship, which is later brought to a halt when Tobias is arrested as a sex offender on a local ‘Catch a Predator’ TV show. (He was actually just trying to meet his daughter, Maeby.) As part of his probation, Tobias has to counsel others in rehab, which is where he runs into DeBrie once again. The rehab group, under the direction of Tobias, decides to make their own musical version of ‘The Fantastic Four.’
G.O.B. is unwillingly engaged to the younger Ann Veal (Mae Whitman). He decides to use the marriage ceremony for an elaborate magic trick that will have him (like Jesus) sealed in a tomb, only to reappear outside later. But G.O.B.’s trick is sabotaged (he believes) by his magician rival, Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller), an openly gay performer whom G.O.B. suspects isn’t gay at all. To get back at him, G.O.B. hatches an elaborate plan to out him as straight… only to find he actually has a lot in common with Tony, and starts to have feelings for him.
After the events with the Queen Mary ship at the end of Season 3, Lucille faces a possible prison sentence under maritime law. She’s defended by family lawyer Barry Zuckerhorn (Henry Winkler), but has to serve jail time after none of her family make it to the trial to testify on her behalf. While in prison, she ends up part of a Reality TV show called ‘Real Asian Prison Housewives of the Orange County White Collar Prison System’.
As it turns out, Maeby is still in high school after getting dismissed as a studio executive when it was discovered that she doesn’t have a high school diploma. She runs into George Michael again at his college when she’s sent there to get some tutoring in Algebra. There, she learns about George Michael’s “Fakeblock” project, and starts to become its biggest PR person, even renting offices out. She also winds up (unbeknownst to Lindsay) becoming her own mother’s pimp, taking payments from Herbert Love for what he believes are paid sexual favors from Lindsay.
In college, George Michael and his roommate come up with a wood block app that they secure the name “Fakeblock” for. But George Michael starts lying to everyone about what the app is really for, claiming it’s actually privacy software that will block everyone from seeing your information on the Internet. George Michael takes on the alias of George Maharis and eventually winds up in his own relationship with Rebel Alley, having no idea that his father is dating her as well.
Lucille’s prison stint takes its toll on Buster. He resorts to creating a doll of his mother to cope with her absence. He goes to Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli), hoping she’ll provide him with the mothering that he’s missing in his life. Lucille isn’t interested in that type of relationship, so Buster joins the Army, where his hook is replaced with a bionic hand. The one problem with the hand, other than being super-strong, is the fact that it’s twice the size of Buster’s other hand.
The above is only a hint of what happens to the Bluth family in Season 4. The show has so much going on and so many sight gags (some that refer back to the original series, while others get paid-off in later episodes) that it’s impossible to catch everything the first time through. It also has a parade of guest stars, both those from the first three seasons of the show (including Carl Weathers, James Lipton, Judy Greer and Andy Richter) and those making a first appearance (including Seth Rogen and Kristen Wiig as a young George and Lucille). Therefore, each and every one of the 15 episodes proves highly rewatchable.
However, there’s a downside to all this fun. Because each character’s arc tells much of the same story we’ve already seen from a different perspective, after four or five episodes you start to realize that the storyline will only progress to a certain point (a “Cinco de Quatro” festival we see in practically every episode) and no further. Season 4 is very much like the movie ‘Back to the Future, Part II’, in that it essentially feels like a really long trailer for a story that’s yet to come.
Those few faults aside, it’s amazing that Season 4 happened at all, and a tribute to the cast that all were willing to come back to make it happen. The episodes still have the look and feel of the original TV series, and none of the actors seem to have any trouble slipping back into characters they hadn’t played for many years. Although I had some issues with the story structure (noted above) and the pacing (one gets the feeling that the producers/directors didn’t want to cut anything in the editing room), I’d still rate this return as a solid B+ effort.