Arrested Development's Crazy, Existential Message: We're All In This Together

Netflix's absurd fourth season of the show has a surprising lot to say about the real world.
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This is the first (not-spoilery!) post in a series from Atlantic writers on Arrested Development's fourth season.

It was at a Memorial Day barbecue that I realized Arrested Development had broken my brain.

Chatting with a friend, it became clear we both went to lunch at the same restaurant hours earlier without seeing each other. The party host, not wanting his cat to escape outside, would intermittently interrupt conversation to bark, "Only house rule: keep the door shut!" One attendee abruptly announced she had a doctor's appointment to catch and then sprinted down the street, into a cab. Surely, I started to think, the friend who'd missed me at lunch had been dining with a long-lost relative of mine; the cat would escape despite the host's warnings, causing mayhem; the cab was actually being driven by the doctor the partygoer had been on her way to see. The feeling was overwhelming: I was living in an Arrested Development episode.

This is the reality-warping power of the binge-watch. (The last time Netflix dropped a highly hyped entire season of TV on the world, a sociopathic Kevin Spacey temporarily hijacked viewers' internal monologues.) It's also the surprising power of the resurrected Arrested Development. On one level, surrealism defines the 15 episodes posted online this past Sunday: The Bluth family somehow gets up to even insaner exploits than they did during the three original seasons that aired on Fox from 2003 to 2006. But sit through eight or so hours set in methadone clinics mistaken for method-acting classes and courtrooms that double as crab shacks, and the bizarre logic of the show's world starts to make sense—because it's the logic of our own.

Sitting through those eight hours, though, can be tough. At least, at first. The opening installments of Season Four may play like a nightmare to devoted fans: And now, the story of a once-incredible TV show desecrated by weird pacing, inconsistent character motivation, shoehorned cameos, and so-so writing. Why start one of the most anticipated seasons of TV ever with extended exposition from culturally overexposed guests Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen? Where's the dysfunctional ensemble we've been waiting to see reunited? Was creator Mitchell Hurwitz not able wrangle all the actors together long enough to film the bantertastic scenes that made the old episodes so richly rewatchable? And that banter, when it shows up—why's it feel so one-dimensional?

Happily, these questions have good answers, though they don't start to present themselves till halfway through the season. It's best to think of Netflix's Arrested not as a rebooted sitcom but rather as a spinoff in a different, new medium whose closest predecessor may be the postmodern novel (suddenly, HBO's Visit From the Goon Squad project seems more doable). Hurwitz & co. aren't telling one story sequentially, but rather a lot of stories concurrently, all of which interlock to a larger story. This was always sort of the case with the show's original run, during which small jokes would be foreshadowed and called back and amplified and remixed. But back then, maintaining TV-friendly, scene-to-scene momentum and humor mattered more than anything. Now, even though each installment features a few amusing standalone plotlines, the pieces that connect across episodes are the main attractions.

That's why rewatching the season premiere after getting through the finale is a revelation: Scenes that once seemed empty of character and action are now cluttered with those things, happening just outside of the frame but enriching what's happening within it. Situations that initially scanned as implausible, even in the show's screwball universe, end up being covers for different, more-thought-out situations explained later. Quips that had felt inert on first encounter reveal themselves as punchlines to set-ups 10 episodes later. And a mystery that's ostensibly unsolved at season's end actually seems solved if you rewind to season's start.

This is a show about liars. By fragmenting the narrative into a half-dozen or so points of view, by withholding info from the viewer at the same time as characters withhold it from each other, the program makes us appreciate just how all this lying works.

These are neat narrative tricks, which take advantage of how devouring a bundle of videos online differs from tuning into an episode on TV once a week. But they're also remarkably suited for the story that Arrested Development has always wanted to tell. This is a show about liars—twins switching identities to make a buck, kids pretending to be moguls, moguls pretending to be altruists, cheaters cheating on cheaters. By fragmenting the narrative into a half-dozen or so points of view, by withholding info from the viewer at the same time as characters withhold it from each other, the program makes us appreciate just how all this lying works, how levels of deception accumulate until it's nearly impossible to remember where the truth really is.

You might argue that because of all of that, because it's so focused on self-motivated cynics, that the show itself is cynical. You might be right—after all, Season Four inspects institutions as varied as the Christian church, the entertainment industry, and the military, and finds them all to be marks for the show's leading con artists.

But by weaving a tale as sprawling and complex as it does, Arrested also can't help but rewire viewers' minds so that reality, barbecues and all, seems slightly grander. Day to day, we can all be as solipsistic as the Bluths, living as though the things that exist in front of us exist just to to exist in front of us—as obstacles to be overcome, or tools to be used. Arrested, though, zooms out to remind that the world is bigger than that, everything is the end product of something that happened elsewhere, and that each person's life is made up of a zillion other lives criss-crossing through the frame. That's why for all its many bait-and-switches, Arrested's most impressive trick is a humanitarian one: caking itself in the makeup of narcissists to disguise the fact that it's a shaman, preaching the message that we're all in this together.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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