Fans of "Arrested Development" will certainly enjoy returning to the show's universe, which is what the new, fourth season on Netflix offers. But if fans of the 2003-06 Fox series are accustomed to the show's characters and the whiplash comedy of jokes that go speeding by at 80 mph, the format of these new episodes takes some getting used to.
And, honestly, this season is strictly for fans. If you haven't watched the show before, go back and watch the early seasons before attempting the new season. And if you don't remember the last episode of the show's third season on Fox, it's best to re-watch it before starting the new episodes.
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The show's basic premise when it began was that levelheaded son Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) took over the family business after his father, George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), was sent to jail. In addition to handling the family business, Michael also had to manage the family itself, including his alcohol-gurgling mother, Lucille (Jessica Walter), oddball brother Buster (Tony Hale) and magician brother Gob (Will Arnett). There's also Michael's self-involved sister, Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), and her seemingly gay husband, Tobias (David Cross). Michael also had to keep an eye on his son, George Michael (Michael Cera), who was in love with his cousin, Maeby (Alia Shawkat).
The new season goes back in time to wrap up the storylines from the 2006 third season finale then advances forward through time. Each episode is devoted to a different character -- some characters get more than one episode in the Netflix season -- and viewers often see the same scenes from a variety of viewpoints. It's sort of a comedy "Rashomon."
Slowly the plots for all the characters advance with the more episodes you consume but the new season has to build. It gets off to a slow start and it takes a while for the whole enterprise to get up to speed. At about the third episode, there's enough of a foundation that the jokes start to come more easily and more quickly.
That said, even a viewer paying close attention will need to re-watch the whole season to get all the jokes and gags. That may be asking a lot. Even at the halfway point, the new series is a bit exhausting. Would fewer episodes have been better? Or maybe shorter episodes rather than these that run 27-37 minutes, much longer than the 22 minutes comedies generally run on TV?
Watching these episodes weekly seems ill-advised because viewers may forget some of the planted gags that pay off episode-to-episode. But watch them all in one sitting and a viewer might be worn out.
Regardless of how one chooses to watch, it's hard not to marvel at the way series creator Mitch Hurwitz and his writers have layered the season. It's easily one of the most densely, painstakingly packed pieces of entertainment ever created. And the devotion to even the most minor characters from the original show is astounding and admirable. New characters are more hit-and-miss in their success and flashbacks to younger versions of Lucille and George Bluth Sr., played by different, famous actors, seem unnecessary.
Of course, not every joke is going to work. Much has been made in social media already about a gag that plasters a watermark that reads "Showstealer Pro Trial Version" over any old footage from the series. Some viewers were confused but even if you get that it's a joke, it's not entirely clear how/why it's funny.
Luckily, more of the humor in the new season makes sense, from Tobias' ill-fated visit to see his daughter where he finds a local "To Catch a Predator" video crew lying in wait (Tobias opens the front door and calls out, "Is there a little girl here all by herself?") to the Bluths' new scheme to build a wall along the American-Mexican border and George Sr.'s attempts to bribe a Herman Cain-like political candidate (Terry Crews).
Fans of "Outsourced," take note: Half the cast of that canceled 2010-11 NBC sitcom shows up for scenes set in India. The casts of Comedy Central's "Workaholics" and the old "MST3K" also have bit parts.
Pittsburgh even gets a shout-out in the first episode when Michael, trying to get a copy of an in-flight magazine, asks an airline ticket counter clerk for a ticket "to your cheapest destination."
"You lucked out today," the clerk says. "It's Pittsburgh."
"What's your second cheapest destination?" Michael quickly shoots back.
Ouch, Mitch Hurwitz, ouch. But that's a testament to the style of comedy in "Arrested Development" -- fans will laugh until it hurts. And then they'll laugh some more.
If there's one particular downside to the new season of "Arrested Development," it's that it has an unsatisfactory ending. Or, rather, a non-ending. Mr. Hurwitz has always talked about how these episodes are a set-up for a movie but there's no one clear movie-ready plot that the end of the season appears to be leading toward. Instead, myriad plot threads are left to dangle.
It's also not clear that "Arrested Development," with its dozens of characters, would be well-served by a movie format. In a series, there's time to get to all those characters; in a two-hour movie, many would have to be left out.
Fans can worry about the future of the "Arrested" franchise down the road. For now, it's enough to simply enjoy this fourth-season ride, appreciating how different it is from the Fox series but also how scrupulously it rebuilds a universe that's been dormant for seven years.mobilehome - tvradio
TV writer Rob Owen: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-2582. Follow RobOwenTV on Twitter or Facebook. First Published June 6, 2013 4:00 AM