There is no such thing as a casual Arrested Development watcher. You're either a devotee or a maniacal fiend. Revisiting the Bluth family after seven years of separation has allowed the crescendo of excitement to escalate to proportions of Maeby Funke-level PR brilliance. And while the show delivers on many of the ingenious plot points and character idiosyncrasies it is renowned for, there is something decidedly grim about the newest season. Another notable difference between this singular season and its predecessors is that each episode focuses on the events taking place in a particular character's life, often setting up gaps in the story to be filled in later by another character's follies.
The fact that Netflix released the entire season of the show all at once is a testament to how significant it is to watch the story unfold continuously--in one entire sitting if possible (and yes, it's very possible to become that invested). This is one benefit that Arrested Development did not receive while airing on Fox, allowing many of the nuanced details to go unnoticed by its viewers. The bravery and intelligence of the series remains intact for the latest installment, but there is less of a sense of hope or playfulness among the Bluth family. Perhaps it has to do with the jadedness that comes with aging or maybe it's just that everyone has finally learned his or her lesson about trusting another Bluth. Either way, the first episode, "Flight of the Phoenix," sets a macabre tone on Newport Beach's annual Cinco de Cuatro celebration. In typical Arrested Development fashion, the first episode is centered around a major event that is built up throughout the entire season, wherein each character engages in some sort of high stakes behavior--or at least reveals something shocking on the big night in question. The invention of Cinco de Cuatro was, of course, Lucille's (Jessica Walter), whose younger scheming self is played by Kristen Wiig. The younger George Bluth Sr. is, correspondingly, played by Seth Rogen. The 80s versions of the Bluth matriarch and patriarch decide to create Cinco de Cuatro on the eve of Cinco de Mayo so that the Mexicans they employ can't actually use Cinco de Mayo as an excuse to take a holiday.
The political tensions surrounding this year's Cinco de Cuatro slowly begin to mount as Lucille plots her next moneymaking scheme from the comfort of a spa-like prison facility. Once again using the men in her family as puppets in her never-ending quest for more money, Lucille instructs George Sr. to build a wall between the border of Mexico and California. Bear in mind that the year is still supposed to be 2006, when such an issue was still fairly relevant/polarizing. Because each episode gives almost equal face time to one specific character (with Michael and George Sr. dominating most of the spotlight), the season unfolds somewhat like a mystery, starting with Michael walking in on Gob (Will Arnett) with another man in the model home, whose identity we don’t discover until the end of the season.
As usual, Tobias holds most of the cards when it comes to the best jokes, chief among them being changing his license plate to read “A Nu Start,” though, without the spaces, it looks like “ANUSTART.” And perhaps the best episode of all is the one devoted to Maeby, "Señoritis," in which we learn she has been repeating her senior year of high school for the past few years in order to get her parents’ attention. It is also Maeby who spreads the word about George Michael’s (Michael Cera) new “privacy software,” Face Block—though what he’s actually working on is an app that recreates the sound of a woodblock.
The character with the least amount of face time, it would seem, is Buster (Tony Hale). It’s quite possible that even Ron Howard and Brian Grazer are presented with more time on camera. Not given his episode until the second to last story, “Off the Hook,” Buster’s primary character arc involves, as usual, overcoming his mother issues. Naturally, Lucille can’t really be bothered to concern herself with his neediness after Buster misses her court hearing as a result of a night of drinking juice with Lucille II (Liza Minnelli). But when Buster rejoins the army and injures his hook while acting as a drone pilot, he is able to get Lucille’s attention again. Incidentally, Lucille is the character with quite possibly the most sinister air this season.
Although Arrested Development has never had qualms with owning up to its darker underbelly (see season two’s “Ready, Aim, Marry Me!), the nature of season four is decidedly bleaker. And while that may have been the intention of creator Mitchell Hurwitz, the series leaves an undeniably bitter taste in your mouth (try to reserve your Tobias jokes)—particularly the dramatic denouement between Michael and George Michael. There are also a number of loose ends that don’t quite get tied up (e.g. the disappearance of Lucille II, Gob’s affair with Tony Wonder, Lindsay running for office in local government, which Bluth brother ends up with Ron Howard's daughter, Rebel Alley [Isla Fisher], etc.).
Still, in spite of the new season missing some of its original, innovative panache, there is something to be said for maintaining the same level of integrity (minus the heavy use of green screens) and writing quality within the show even after all these years. And, who knows? Maybe this season will spawn others. After all, there’s no shortage of neuroses to explore when it comes to the Bluth family.