The New Arrested Development Is Something Genuinely New

The 15 episodes of Season Four aren't really episodes—or a season.

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This is a (not-spoilery!) post in a series from Atlantic writers on Arrested Development's fourth season.

Last week, I argued with a few colleagues that Netflix was making a mistake in dropping all 15 episodes of the new season of Arrested Development simultaneously. Yes, it had worked with House of Cards, but that was a different animal, a political soap-melodrama that could be binge-watched without suffering in impact. AD creator Mitch Hurwitz himself claimed that comedy was different, and that if you watched too many episodes in a short period of time you'd wear out your sense of humor. And given the pent-up demand on the part of the show's rabid devotees—my wife and I had just finished watching the first three seasons for the fourth (or maybe fifth?) time—there was a large cohort out there virtually certain to overindulge, even against their better judgment. Wouldn't it be better, I suggested, if Netflix parceled out the season more judiciously—say, five episodes at a time for three weeks?

Well, no. Hurwitz's concerns about comedy overdose notwithstanding—and, as my colleague Spencer Kornhaber has noted, the effects can be disorienting—Netflix did exactly the right thing, really the only thing. Because the new season of Arrested Development isn't a season in any conventional understanding of the word, and the episodes aren't really episodes. Rather, Hurwitz et al. have bequeathed to us something that doesn't really have a name, or a meaningful precedent: not a series, or a movie, or even a mini-series, but rather a single, eight-hour work of dada televisual art.

This is not, in other words, the Arrested Development that so many of us loved so dearly back in the day, but a deliriously radical narrative experiment involving the same characters and a similar—though not identical—brand of humor. The original show was delightfully meta; this variation has metastasized.

For those unfamiliar with the show's ambitions this time around, the 15 "episodes" take place more or less concurrently, but each is told from the perspective of one of the principal characters: now Michael, now Lucille, now GOB, etc. It's like the bastard comic progeny of Rashomon, Memento, and The Dictionary of the Khazars. On acid. As such, it all but demands to be watched in as compressed a schedule as one can manage without sacrificing health, employment, or custody of one's children. It almost seems that the ideal way to experience the show—and no doubt someone will try—would be on 15 separate screens simultaneously.

A more plausible temptation, though, is to watch the show in sequence and then watch it again. (Like Spencer, my wife and I had no sooner completed Episode 15 than we went back and re-watched Episode One.) Indeed, the show is engineered to reward exactly such mania. It's not merely the solution to the central mystery of the plot that becomes clearer in rewatching; there were at least a half-dozen gags in the first episode that I didn't get—couldn't get—the first time around. (Michael to GOB: "Is that who you were with? I knew it! I always knew it!")

Nor is this the only sense in which the show virtually mandates multiple viewings. The very structure doubles back on itself like a televisual Mobius strip, a narrative Ouroboros swallowing its own tail. The story begins with the show's central relationship between Michael Bluth and his son George-Michael (two of the first four episodes are from Michael's perspective), veers outward to encompass the rest of clan Bluth, and then returns to where it began, with two of the final three episodes shown from George-Michael's perspective. It's the Cloud Atlas of TV comedy.

The new "season" differs from what came before in other ways, too. It's substantially darker—Michael, in particular, has had a decidedly Bluthian makeover—and, given that a substantial number of the punch lines aren't comprehensible on first viewing, it inevitably lacks the effortless comic rhythm that characterized the original show. But rest assured, those of you frustrated in the early going: The show gains hilarious velocity as it proceeds.

So yes, the new Arrested Development may not offer quite the same easy pleasure as the first three seasons. (And I only say this as someone who's found few entertainments in the world as pleasurable.) But it's an endeavor no less brilliant and still more addictive. I don't intend to rewatch all 15 episodes a second time, at least not in the immediate future. But I'm not certain I'll be able to resist. I fear that this is what it's like to be caught in a roofie circle...