The season three finale of “Arrested Development” contained a fragile optimism. Michael Bluth and his son George Michael rode off in the company yacht to begin a new life together. The charges against patriarch George Sr. were mysteriously dropped. Lucille—then revealed to be the actual criminal mastermind—fled by boat. We learned that Lindsay was adopted, making Maeby and George Michael not-actually cousins and absolving them at least partly of their incest-induced guilt. Things were looking up even as the family remained far from intact and no Bluth was entirely happy, which seemed like a fitting end for these self-destructive characters: terrible in their selfishness but redeemed in part by a twisted commitment to each other.
And so the biggest shock of the new season—all 15 episodes of which appeared on Netflix at 3 a.m. Sunday after months of delirious hype—is just how much darker it has gotten. In one episode a bee colony is released into a limo containing a young pop star and his entourage, all of whom end up unconscious and are whisked away by ambulance. Maeby becomes her mother’s pimp, sleeps with a seventeen-year-old, and is arrested as a sex offender. The one level-headed Bluth, Michael, has become a delusional failure. But the season’s sourness extends beyond its cynical jokes. It is built into the structure of the show itself: its hollow relationships, its lack of an emotional center, and its heavy-handed use of political context. The fourth season may be a monument to “Arrested Development” nostalgia, but its darkness makes it feels like an entirely different show—and a testament to the particular ways in which our new viewing culture is changing TV.
Each episode of the fourth season is devoted to catching us up on the life of a different character, and the first jolt is the strangeness of seeing these familiar faces suddenly aged: Lindsay’s surgically tweaked features, Steve Holt’s receding hairline and paunch. We learn that George Sr. has opened up a sweat lodge on the Mexican border to extort money from CEOs. Tobias has entered a methadone clinic after confusing it for a “Method One” acting class. Lindsay headed to India on a spiritual quest after reading “Eat, Pray, Love” (she skipped “Love”). Gob is dating George Michael’s drab ex-girlfriend Ann. Some of these storylines offer the same zany humor of the original, notably a bizarre romance between Gob and his rival, the magician Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller). Others fall flat, such as when Tobias and his therapy group put on a musical. But it is the first episode, which focuses on Michael Bluth, that sets the season’s new tone.
Michael was no one’s favorite character in the old “Arrested Development,” but this season makes you appreciate just how necessary his dull workhorse dependability was in the overall scheme of the show. He was previously the reliable nexus anchoring his wacky brood and casting their antics into sharp relief. He was a narcissist, too—his dutifulness was its own kind of self-absorption—but he was the one character in whom you felt the tension between vanity and responsibility. And his love for his son, along with George Michael’s golden-retriever pursuit of his father’s approval, was the show’s emotional heart.
But now that Michael is no longer trying to keep the family together, there is nothing left to like about him. When the season opens he is homeless and thoughtlessly imposing himself on his son, having installed himself as George Michael’s college roommate. By the end of the episode, father and son are not on speaking terms, and gradually we learn that each of the show’s central relationships has been fully wrecked. Lindsay’s weird, asexual chemistry with her husband Tobias was one of the best parts of the first three seasons, but now divorce has divided their storylines and disentangled the characters almost entirely from each other. “I really love you, Tobias,” Lindsay says, her new face straining to register feeling. “We have to get you to that acting clinic,” Tobias replies. “I was picturing fudge!” she says.
Throughout the first three seasons of “Arrested Development” we were never quite sure how genuinely the members of this family loved each other, but their total mutual dependency was its own intense, inextricable kind of attachment. Now the Bluths are crueler to each other than ever, which has made them accordingly unlikable. The old “Arrested Development” looks like “Modern Family” by comparison. Part of the problem is that—due to the difficulty of getting all the actors together in one place—the family members rarely appear together onscreen, leaving choppy cuts from one story to another. But it’s also a product of the season’s heightened focus on elaborate plotting rather than developing the relationships between its characters. The Bluths are so busy with their separate lives that no one comes to Lucille's trial, and the camera pans rows of empty chairs plastered with her family's headshots.
The darkness of the show is evident, too, in the way it handles its political context. The first three seasons’ morbid, grim humor—the Iraq plot line in which Gob stood in front of the Mission Accomplished banner as a model home crumbled around him, Buster losing his hand to a bowtie-wearing seal, the looming threat of homelessness—had a lightness to it, in part because the economy had not yet exploded. This gave the show as a whole an atmosphere of bouncy obliviousness rather than genuine gloom. Now season four has countless reminders of the newly bleak economic context. “In more grim economic news...” the TV, always set to Fox, blares in one scene. The Bluth model homes are referred to as “memorials to the death of the housing market.” The fraying luxury and fragile prosperity that so cannily encapsulated the show’s era and milieu when it first aired has given way to broader, clunkier satire. The Bluths attempt to bribe right-wing candidate Herbert Love, a clear Herman Cain jab that feels distinctly out-of-date in 2013 (also: the “game changer” reference), into supporting a wall between the U.S. and Mexico. (Later, they change their minds and crusade against the wall.) Both the Herbert Love plot and the Mexican wall storyline, drawn out over the course of the season, quickly grow stale and dull.
There are notable exceptions: Buster’s episode is perhaps the best in the new season both in its specific weirdness and the way—investing dark political material with benign ridiculousness—it recalls the best of old “Arrested Development.” Buster gets injured while serving as a drone pilot over Afghanistan (which is to say, his chair falls over while remotely piloting a drone that he thinks is a videogame from an office located in a mini-mall), and receives a giant prosthetic hand to replace his hook. It helps that this satire feels singularly topical, but it is also a sly riff on the real knottiness of our drone culture.
In interviews before the Netflix premiere, Hurwitz described creating a web made of yarn to plan out the season, and the over-intricacy of the plot is ultimately one of its most frustrating features. Sometimes the web of plot works in satisfying ways: a bearded guru who dispenses spiritual advice to Lindsay turns out to have been Maeby in disguise. A stranger keeps kicking Lindsay’s seat on the plane ride to India; later we learn that it was Tobias, en route to India as well. But there is ultimately too much chronological jerkiness, a constant confusion as to what is happening when and why. A breakneck parade of celebrity guest stars contributes to the season’s lurching feel. Many of the cameos—which include John Krasinski, Conan O’Brien, and the cast of Comedy Central's “Workaholics”—have a quality of stuntiness and tokenism that we didn’t sense in characters like Julia Louis Dreyfus’s brilliant fake-blind prosecutor from earlier seasons. Kristin Wiig and Seth Rogen play young Lucille and George Sr., and though Wiig’s taut delivery and hysterical eyes are a great match for young Lucille, she and Rogen have little to do besides flash their famous faces. Ron Howard is charming but his multiple appearances are a clumsier kind of meta-ness than even this relentlessly meta show is accustomed to.
The Netflix full-season dump seems to encourage certain kinds of tics: complex plotting, allusiveness, subtle visual moments that recall earlier scenes. These actually worked quite well in “House of Cards”—which, for all its dead-eyed luster and flatness of affect, made impressive use of the Netflix format with motifs and recurring images (an origami crane appears in several episodes, for instance) that rarely felt forced or too overt. But in some ways, “Arrested Development” was precisely the wrong show for the Netflix platform. After all, the collision with the constraints of the sitcom was partly what made the show so good. Its jam-packed 22 minutes were at once densely self-referential and snappily paced. It had already struck a delicate balance between throwbacks to previous episodes and the brisk forward movement of plot.
Now many episodes feel bloated, the plot made sluggish from too many nods to the behind-the-scenes work of making a show. The storyline in which Michael seeks signatures from his family members for film rights is a bit too self-conscious. Hurwitz has said that, in making this season for Netflix, his "canvas" was an "urn,” and this is clear in the new season: the sense of a massive, baggy space filled up with miscellaneous jokes, instead of tightly engineered slices of sitcom. Hurwitz was anticipating a format in which rewinding and fast-forwarding are part of the viewing process, in which you can easily hop back and forth between episodes. But here the Netflix effect has been to take the distinctive features of the original—the jumpiness, the hyper-plottedness, the inside jokes—that worked so well precisely because they were pushed right up to the edge of tolerability, and dial them up several notches higher. The show is still so smart and gutsy and innovative, but you can almost see Hurwitz furiously plotting new ways to complicate and wrinkle the story in order to capitalize on the new format at his disposal. The result is that the show feels too meta, too aware of the process behind it, for its own good.
Part of what made the first three seasons work so well is that they operated within sitcom conventions: many episodes ended with a neat life lesson for one of its characters, or an apology offered and accepted. Though each “Arrested Development” episode was embedded in a manic web of inside jokes, it was also satisfying, and often sneakily sweet, as a standalone piece of television. But season four resolutely denies viewers closure. Several key plot threads, such as one in which we learn that George Sr. is a cross-dresser who has begun to identify as a woman, are left to dangle. And the finale ends on a particularly sour note: with George Michael, after discovering that he and Michael are dating the same woman, punching his father in the face. The new season has many sharp and hilarious moments, but overall Hurwitz’s bid to make a new kind of comedy for the Netflix age is disappointing because it confuses darkness with depth and convolution with complexity. As with those rows of empty chairs at Lucille's trial, it is hard not to see what is missing.
Laura Bennett is a staff writer at The New Republic. Follow @lbennett.