Whether or not you liked Arrested Development’s fourth season, the execution occupied a gray area somewhere between television, short-story collection, and big long movie. So it's not with total surprise that we find Mitch Hurwitz, Arrested’s creator and superbrain, signing on with Fox 2000 to direct his first feature. Guinea Pigging will be written by Thomas Lennon and Robert Ben Garant, cocreators of Reno 911! and The State and writers behind the Night at the Museum series; it'll detail a "community of semiprofessionals who spend their lives as test subjects for drug companies, hospitals and universities." The concept is based on Carl Elliott's 5,000-word New Yorker piece from 2008. The Hollywood Reporter says the spin will be "a sophisticated comedy" that'll deal with the "unusual side effects" of all that piggin'. (THR also remarks that Hurwitz signed for "a hefty seven-figure deal," which, congrats, sir!)
It's taken a long time for this season to click along at the pace I remember from Arrested Development’s first three outings, though comedy always flows at a faster pace in hindsight. You don't remember the journey to get to the joke, you remember the joke. One of the many reasons that Arrested bears repeated viewings is that there's no need to rely on faith that your patience will be rewarded, there's only the anticipation of the reward.
This first and only Buster episode clicks along nicely, perhaps because Buster is so singularly weird and delightful. He is barely a Bluth at all, a poster child for fetal alcohol poisoning in the best way possible. He is the most innocent of the Bluths, the most confused and least vengeful, and consequently the most tangential to the family's schemes.
And so more than any other episode, "Off the Hook" relies not just on a single character but a single actor; many of the scenes are just Tony Hale interacting with props or fantasies. I know people praise Arrested for its ensemble cast and say they miss the group dynamics in this season, but the scenes of Buster re-creating — and improving upon — his home life with a pillow-bodied Lucille ("Welcome home, chubs") delighted me as much as any of the snappy dialogue between two real people. Of course, it's Buster's nature to be more at ease with stone-cold objects rather than those made of flesh and blood. No wonder he loves his mother so much.
It's all finally coming together, fellow slow-bingers, the pieces (Fakeblock, George Maharis, Maeby's career) fall into place in George Michael's "It Gets Better" episode. The Rube Goldbergian plot of Season 4 gains the sleek chassis it needs to glide smoothly over the finish line. "Sleek" and "smooth" are not, of course, adjectives one would normally associate with George Michael Bluth. And one still would not associate them with him, though by the end of the episode, he has gotten much better at lying.
Michael Cera continues to play George Michael with endearing and familiar awkwardness — an adolescent since the crib, really, and probably forever one. There's a lot of talk in the entertainment world about Cera growing into other parts beyond Seth Rogen's geekier shadow (even as played in the show, Rogen is somehow more believable as George Michael's grandfather than Michael's father); apparently, he's going to be a bad guy. "It Gets Better" picks up the Opies plot thread, and there's a weird meta-echo to the Cera hype in the multiple references to child actors struggling to remain relevant/attractive/believable as they age. (Steve Holt, anyone?) But George Michael's development is just as arrested as any other Bluth, and thank god for that. The producers seem to recognize this; much of the George Michael humor still derives from seeing baby-faced Cera struggle to cope with inappropriately adult situations — or a porn star mustache.
Maeby has an equivocal name but an unequivocal nature. She is decisive and, seemingly, self-assured, able to waltz into a production company as a 16-year-old and not just pass as an adult but thrive as a producer. She's secure in her identity, even if it's a fake one. She's not much of a Bluth, basically. The end of Season 3 revealed that she literally wasn't a Bluth, either. Lindsay was adopted, so Maeby is not of the Bluth blood, though she was raised in a Bluthian way — she may have filled a hole in Tobias and Lindsay's lives, but after she was born, they kept on filling it.
Maeby's inability to distract her parents from their own self-involvement (Invisible Girl, anyone?) moves "Señoritis" along a parallel track to the main plots, and we get to know her insecurities a little better (she's competitive with George Michael), but she's still not so much a Bluth family member as she is a Bluth family hostage. As the narrator notes, "It's easier to get into a Bluth home than it is to get out."
This Gob-centered episode takes places almost entirely outside the established, already loopy story lines of Season 4. Though it briefly swerves into Michael's mission, and gives some context for what we'll eventually discover about George Michael's situation, Gob is — as usual — operating at the fringe.
In high school, apparently, Gob was the cock of the walk, but as an adult he's a Segway-riding, garishly dressed, part-time illusionist whose primary skill appears to be seducing women who are very old or very ugly. Naturally, he still thinks he's better than everyone: He's the guy in the $6,000 pants, but metaphorically he's garbed in whatever you'd call the opposite of the emperor's new clothes. He thinks he's dressed to kill; everyone else can see right through him.
This is the first Lucille episode, but I feel like she's been Season 4's most visible Bluth family member. It's her beaching of the Queen Mary that launches a plethora of plots, and it's her machinations that animate the herky-jerky attitudes of the Bluth family toward the border wall — and, for that matter, toward each other. She is very much the Queen B, and right up until the end of the episode, she seems in full command of her colony and of herself. The rest of the family may be in near-constant states of identity crisis, but Lucille is quite comfortable with who she is. In this episode, the only time she pretends to be what she's not is when she puts on her "drunk act" to get into rehab and, well, that's not much of an act.
The lack of pretense makes her the most consistent and least interesting Bluth. Buster may seem one-note, but he's actually pretty conflicted, even complicated. His love interests have included Lucille Two, Lupe, and a Roomba — how's that for range? No, Lucille is the most one-dimensional Bluth; it's not really that surprising that Jessica Walters does an almost note-for-note version of Lucille as the mother/mastermind on the animated series Archer. What's weird is that when the show offers Lucille a way out of her martini-swirling villainy, it's not to become more complex, but to consider becoming invisible. This might be a commentary on the paucity of roles available to actresses over 60.
I think before this whole experiment in synchronized storytelling started, I would have said that Tobias was an ancillary character, that he was the source of the series' least-subtle jokes, and the most thinly sketched. But as Season 4 has twisted around and into itself, piling on story lines and coincidences, the Tobias episodes are the lightest in tone (despite the darkness of some of the subject matter), the least freighted with backstory — and the ones I find myself invested in. I want Tobias to succeed! I want him to get the girl, pull off the musical production, and not go back to prison!
My sympathies have to find somewhere to land, what with most of the Bluth family careering about the limited frame, propelled mostly by greed and always cushioned by overweening self-regard. Even Michael, the series' longtime straight man and moral center, has drifted id-ward.
But by the end of "Smashed," Tobias also performs (hammily) out of pure self-interest; much like Lindsay, he comes to be a Bluth because he acts like one, not because he was born one.
Of all the Bluth family members, Lindsay has the most fraught sense of self, the biggest questions about her role in the family. She grew up thinking she was Michael's twin (twinness itself a complication of identity, multiplying it), and then discovered at the end of Season 3 that she was adopted. In "Red Hairing," she approaches her literal identity crisis in a very literal manner: Changing her appearance, or, given the eerie manipulation her face seems to have undergone since 2007, it might be more accurate to say that she's changing it even more. "Who am I?" she frets throughout the episode, trying on different looks and different relationships until, like all Bluths must, she returns to the sea … Cinco de Cuatro, to be specific.
The episode picks up almost exactly where the first Lindsay episode began: at an ostrich farm run by Marky Bark, freegan activist son of Lindsay's one-time protest partner Johnny Bark. Lindsay and Marky met cute, as many couples do, dropping their original partners off at the methadone clinic. Now Lindsay has joined her face-blind, speedy lover at his desert ostrich farm and is experiencing a little sweat-and-squeeze herself. She's so hot she'd "give $20,000 for a lemonade," even as Marky's mother presses her into grimy service as Marky puts pressure onto the neighboring businessmen's retreat that's rubbing up against their property lines.
Gob is a dick. He'd probably be the first to admit it. What's amazing about the character is how much we like him anyway. In previous seasons, he's bedded (or attempted to bed) Michael's girlfriend, he's romanced Lucille Two for her money, he's been the voice of a racist puppet, pretended to kill a stripper, and fired the entire staff of the Bluth company for laughing at him. Yet he's so inept and ultimately so desperate for love and acceptance that his avarice isn't offensive. We know, if he doesn't, that the reason he craves success is to fill that Bluth-family-size hole inside him. His development is less obviously arrested than others in the family, but he's no less a child — he even believes in magic. (A favorite moment from this episode: Gob unloads his drowned stunt animals, explaining how he was going to turn flowers into doves, and doves into rabbits. Tobias interjects, "And rabbits into mice!" Gob deadpans with the seriousness of a believer, not a skeptic: "That can't be done.")
Of the entire Bluth family, Gob has the biggest gap between his selfishness and his haplessness: Lucille might be greedier, but she's also more on the ball; Tobias is comparatively saintly (like the Amazing Jesus!), but he's also almost completely helpless. Gob desperately wants fame, riches, and women, and his egotism would be distasteful but for his inability to actually obtain what he wants — and the pitiful depths (sometimes literally) he sinks to while trying. His awareness of his faults glimmers to the surface only rarely; he doesn't think it's his character flaws that doom him, but his choices: He's not stupid, he's just made a huge mistake.
People forget that when Arrested Development debuted, it was marketed as a comedic spin on the financial scandals of the time — Enron, Global Crossing — not a multilayered postmodern meditation on father-son relationships, identity, and avian behaviors. I remember feeling almost betrayed by the series circling back to quasi-ripped-from-the-headlines comedy with its Bluths-build-in-Iraq story line; Wee Britain was about as far as I wanted the Bluths to travel.
But in retrospect, and upon repeated viewing, the "light treason" subplot doesn't just illustrate the show's fearlessness, it reveals itself to be the through line of the first three seasons, long before Buster joins Army. "Light treason" is, in fact, mentioned in the sixth episode of the first season; the 14th episode of that season is called "Shock and Aww," and features an adoring collage homage to Saddam Hussein; and Gob announces that the company's slogan is "Solid as a rock," in Season 2's second episode. The show satirizes greed and self-centeredness, and reckless intervention, mostly on the level of personal relationships, but the punch lines apply to international ones as well.
All this is to say, of course there's a Herman Cain character — Herbert Love, mentioned previously but actually present in "Double Crossers" — and I suspect that the show will again prove itself to be just as much a story of wealth as it is a story of a wealthy family.
Before we dive into "A New Start," let's get some housekeeping out of the way. First: I have apparently been stubbornly mishearing the moniker of George Michael's privacy software (if that's what it really is). It is not "FaceBlock," but rather "FakeBlock." I still argue that the project fits in with the season's central theme, exploring the nature of identity: What is maintaining one's identity but to "block" what is "fake"? See also: this episode's running joke about copyright infringement and character rights.
And that little grad school semiotics flashback brings me to my next point: I hope this doesn't feel like homework for you guys, but watching the series on my own, constantly searching for hidden themes and self-aware references, largely fueled by coffee and popcorn and dressed in sweatpants — well, at least I'm not racking up any student loans.
This Tobias-centric episode actually leavened what has been becoming less of an Easter egg hunt and more of a forced march through hazily familiar territory. Tobias has always been something of a blank slate, both in terms of his character's background and his character's self-knowledge, and this episode was refreshingly whimsical and untethered in comparison to the freighted story lines we've seen so far. Yes, there were the required callbacks and Tobias's story intersected in the plots we're already aware of, but most of the humor was about Tobias, who really does live in his own little, even wee, world.
"The B. Team" is easily the most self-aware and meta episode thus far, which, four episodes in, doesn't sound like much. But consider how far inside its own navel Arrested Development travels on a regular basis: This episode's mixture of nods and winks is almost distracting, a form of postmodern Tourette's so severe I can't even imagine what a non-fan might make of it. I take notes on the callbacks, call-forwards, and other references while I’m watching, and at this point I think it might be easier to keep track of the jokes anyone would get.
Yet I think this might be the best episode so far, too, but mainly because of the stuff that was easy to follow, not the intertextual filigree you need Google — or, um, "G-----" to get. First of all, it's a Michael episode, and he seems to have returned to the basic competence I complained about missing in the previous episodes. Even more helpfully, the story arc sticks mostly to one period in the Bluth family saga; there's none of the timeline hopscotching that marked the first Michael chapter. Whether or not any of these narrative aides would make the episode more comprehensible to an average viewer, I don't know. Maybe they can fix it in post.
Episode 3 is devoted to Lindsay Bluth, or "the one daughter who had no choice but to keep her life together." I had gathered from online chatter that Portia de Rossi looks, well, different in it, and I can report that this is true: She looks like a whittled-down, melty-Barbie version of Lindsay, something beautiful left too long in the desert sun.
Is it a coincidence or evidence of the show producers' shamanlike powers over narrative that the episode's plot provides some neat existential trapdoors for those who'd like to pretend that there's nothing strange going on here? The episode introduces an opiate addiction plotline, complete with the layers of denial, dissembling, desperation, and extreme weight loss that come with it. When Marky Bark (Chris Diamantopoulos) tells Lindsay she looks like a junkie — "What are you, 90 pounds?" she takes it as compliment. Even more to the point (or more pointedly disguising it), Marky suffers from "face blindness" — a real thing, and either a description of what's going on behind the scenes at Arrested Development or a command to those are watching it.
Did you binge all weekend on the new Arrested Development episodes? To each his own. We're going to slow it down a little. Two episodes per week, one at a time. It's what Mitch would want.
And so now it's George Bluth's story, or, rather: "And now the story of a family whose future was abruptly canceled and the one father who had no choice but to keep himself together. It's George Sr.'s Arrested Development."
George faces a particularly tough assignment in keeping himself together because, of course, there are two of him, and the main challenge of the episode is how to capitalize on his twin brother Oscar for use as an alibi/decoy/dupe.
We open with George leading a pseudo-spiritual sweat lodge ceremony for desperate corporate executives, a riff on his time huckstering Kabbalah-ish nonsense from prison via "Caged Wisdom" tapes and DVDs. After hours in the heat, he used to let the lemonade rule him! Now, having achieved enlightenment, he's willing to share the answers with businessmen thirsty for his secrets: "Come on, Daniels, you ran Bear Stearns, for God's sake!"
Did you binge all weekend on the new Arrested Development episodes? To each his own. We're going to slow it down a little. Two episodes per week, one at a time. It's what Mitch would want.
Great comedy is like an ice cream sundae: There's delicious, fluffy stuff at the top that anyone would like, then there's some more substantial material, and it just gets richer and richer the further you dig down. You are rewarded for patience and persistence with a more complicated and rewarding experience than someone who just licks the whipped cream off the top. And if you gobble too much down in one sitting, you'll probably puke.
Of course, no, not really, though I avoided the Internet all day Sunday just in case the legions of Arrested Development fans who binge-watched Season 4 got all upchucky about the experience. To be sure, there was some sour-breathed curmudgeonliness on display, but for the most part I was, if anything, surprised by the lack of intense reaction, at least on my little corner of the World Wide Web. And then I watched Episode 1 of the long-awaited, much-referenced, cleverly marketed, insanely anticipated series comeback and I understood the "Hmm, OK " that has greeted it.
So if great comedy is an ice cream sundae, "Flight of the Phoenix" is a frozen banana: It is one of the component ingredients of an ice cream sundae, but it's not quite all the way there.