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Arrested Development returns: Does it live up to the hype?
Critics are divided on the merits of the resurrected sitcom's fourth season, which made its zealously anticipated Netflix debut on Sunday
 
The Bluths are back in town.
The Bluths are back in town. Netflix.com

No, this isn't a dream: Arrested Development really is back, and anyone who has Netflix can watch all 15 episodes right now.

This story of a family who lost everything — and the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together — had ended in 2006 after a three-season run on Fox, and most fans assumed that it was gone for good. But thanks to Netflix and the dogged efforts of series creator Mitch Hurwitz, a sprawling ensemble cast, and the rest of the show's creative team, Arrested Development is finally back to show us what happened to the Bluths over the last seven years.

The unlikely fourth season of Arrested Development debuted on Netflix on Sunday, and already, several intrepid critics have devoured the entire 15-episode run. Is this the triumphant return that fans have been dreaming about for years, or has Netflix made a huge mistake? Here, a collection of the smartest takes on the fourth season of Arrested Development:

It's as good as ever, says Tim Goodman at The Hollywood Reporter:

The Rashomon-style storytelling takes a bit to get used to, and the sometimes feverish flow of the jokes (which fans may remember from the hall-of-fame first three seasons) struggle to unleash themselves in the first couple of episodes, but then it snowballs into seven-and-a-half hours of hilarity just waiting for a movie to follow it up. ... Part of the reason that Arrested Development is revered as one of the greatest comedies of all time is that Hurwitz and his writers spent an inordinate amount of time stuffing jokes into each 22-minute episode (until Fox scheduled it against the Olympics and killed it). That layering of the humor — multiple jokes in every scene — was the kind of effort that paid off for fans who discovered the series by DVD or Netflix long after it was on Fox. [The Hollywood Reporter]

And the show is perfect for Netflix, says Dave Wiegand at the San Francisco Chronicle:

The new season is not only as smart and absurdly funny as ever, but also reflects the rapid changes in how we watch television. Netflix and other new content providers get that people want to watch an episode of a show when they want to watch it. And if they want to watch two, give them two to watch. Three? Why not? For that matter, why not the entire 'season'? Yes, you can do this with any television show, including those in a traditional weekly format whose full seasons are now available on platforms like Netflix and Hulu. But the fact that the new AD episodes are even more self-contained than those of the first three seasons makes them an even better fit for new content providers. [San Francisco Chronicle]

Indeed, you'll love binge-watching this, says Robert Lloyd at the Los Angeles Times:

There has been much debate over whether Netflix has erred by making the whole series available at once; but video on demand is its business model, after all, and for viewers whose previous experience of Arrested Development has been entirely by DVD or download, the new season will be watched must like the old ones. Nowadays, a TV series is digested like a novel, taken fast or slow, at the viewer's convenience and pleasure. There was professional interest behind my having watched it at at one go, but the experience was more akin to being drawn on through a good book, allowing yourself just one more chapter after just one more chapter until you look up from the page and it's morning. [Los Angeles Times]

But the new narrative format is a total flop, says Jace Lacob at The Daily Beast:

This new format relies on all of its characters being able to carry an episode on their own (though a few other characters often do turn up throughout), and I'll be honest here: they're not always able to. The season opener, which focused on comedic straight man Michael (Jason Bateman) — who loses everything and goes to live in the dorm room occupied by his son, George Michael (Michael Cera), at college— was painful, partially because it showed a lack of understanding of why the original show worked with Michael at its center. (It also lacked the shrewd sense of humor that defined the show's original run.) Initially, Bateman's Michael managed to keep the dysfunctional Bluth family together at the cost of his own desires or needs; he was the magnetic north keeping the Bluths on track. But scattered, the Bluths here aren't a family, they're strangers who occasionally cross paths and that's a tricky proposition for a show whose focus is a single family. It all feels like prologue for the planned Arrested Development film that Hurwitz has been trying to make since the show went off the air in 2006. In fact, there is so much narration — used here as a crutch rather than the comedic tool it was during the show's Fox run — that the entire 15-episode season feels like a 'Previously on Arrested Development' segment told over eight hours. [The Daily Beast]

And the puzzling storytelling can make it hard to watch, says Mike Hale at The New York Times:

It's Rashomon on steroids: As each episode tracks one member of the hyper-dysfunctional Bluth family over roughly the same stretch of time, the story constantly circles back on itself, and information is rationed like methadone in the rehab center that first appears in Episode 3. Principal scenes play out over and over, becoming incrementally more clear. This is not how Arrested Development worked in its first three seasons (encompassing 53 episodes). There was narrative trickery, but the chronology was straightforward, and, more important, the storytelling and the humor were furiously paced. Jokes of every variety, bits of physical comedy, elaborate wordplay, innuendo and allusions tumbled out so quickly that you barely had time to register them. If one thing didn't make you laugh, the next was there before you knew it. That particular party is over in Season 4, however, where everything feels slowed down and dragged out at the same time that it feels forced and overly complicated. The longer expository scenes seem interminable. Story and character now overshadow jokes and conceptual foolery, but for all their new prominence, they're still as thin and rudimentary as they were in the first three seasons — and watching the episodes in large doses further exposes their deficiencies. [The New York Times]

Good or bad, it's not for the uninitiated, says Daniel Fienberg at HitFix:

Arrested Development has always had a game-like aspect for fans. Other than The Simpsons, it's possible that no show has ever been as confident in its audience's ability to retain information and just hold onto it, storing a set-up in the deep recesses of the brain for weeks or months just waiting for an eventual payoff, or returning to beloved recurring jokes with clockwork precision. The Season 4 model relies heavily on a highly trained fanbase. Hurwitz and the writers know that if a number of sequences are set-up in the first episode, viewers aren't just watching what's happening in the foreground. Yes, we're paying attention to the foreground at a harbor festival or in a police station, but we're also noticing in Lindsay and Tobias appear to be fighting in the background, if there's a loud cough, if a reclining airplane seat crushes an unseen passenger, if a familiar automobile hastily zips by. The game is much more important than the narrative or the character growth in Arrested Development Season 4 and, in this way, marathon viewing is ideal. The various stories, which I won't spoil, are only limitedly engaging. [HitFix]

And it's not the same Arrested Development you know and love, says Todd VanDerWerff at The AV Club:

How much you like the fourth season of Arrested Development will depend on just how quickly you can accept that it's a show that looks a lot like Arrested Development and shares most important elements in common with that show but is also another series entirely, something more like Mitch Hurwitz and the cast of that earlier show got together to make a bunch of loosely intersecting short films about the characters from the earlier project, each with its own tone and point-of-view. It's an occasionally hilarious, sometimes boring, always bloated boondoggle of a project, and it's the sort of thing that's at once staggering in its ambition and hard to approach with anything like real affection. It is, in places, masterful. It is also, in other places, at once weirdly pleased with itself and too ready to hold the audience's hand where that hand needn't be held. It's also very oddly directed and edited, though some of that just might stem from the project's inability to get the whole cast in one place at one time, due to the actors' other commitments. [The AV Club]

Consensus: Arrested Development is back, though it's not the same show it was before. Still, that shouldn't bother most fans who already have affection for these characters, and who are willing to be patient as the story slowly unfolds.

 
Scott Meslow is the entertainment editor and film and television critic for TheWeek.com. He has written about film and television at publications including The AtlanticPOLITICO Magazine, and Vulture.

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