Peter Queck and Bhaskar Sunkara provided me with my first review of the fourth season of Arrested Development. And they managed to put just about everything I hate about “criticism” into one article. Their fundamental problem with this recent material is that the producers of the show have changed its structure. Before, all plot lines were cross cut. Now, they are related in a way that doesn’t have a catchy phrase to describe them. But I can explain: each episode is told from a different character’s perspective. Thus, we commonly find out later that some story of character X was going on just off screen from when we first learned about character Y’s story.
Queck and Sunkara claimed that the cross cutting situation was “communism” and that the new structure destroys that. Leaving aside the strained metaphor, they seem not to understand the very basics of storytelling. Season 4 is no less integrated than Season 1. It is just integrated differently. More or less we could say that the cross cutting of the first three seasons was extended to be episode long. Thus in episode 1, we watch Michael’s story. In episode 2, we watch George’s story. They are happening at the same time. That is, in fact, cross cutting.
These guys also attacked the third season episode “S.O.B.s,” which I consider one of the best of the entire series. It lampoons the entire television industry in a wonderfully self-referenced, postmodern way. It is the most “inside” episode of a most “inside” television show. Their problems with the episode call into question how much they are even capable of meeting the show on its own terms. And that, as most of you know, is my biggest problem with critics: the pretense that their way of engagement is the only way. It’s fine to dislike something but it is not fine to complain that you thought it should have been something else.
They also commit the “not funny” sin. We all do this from time to time. Their problem is not just with the fourth season but with the third as well. Of it they wrote, “The quality of the show in the third season seemed to actually track its increasingly tenuous prospects, rolling out gags and characters more cruel, tasteless and grotesque than funny while circling a comedic black hole of self-reference.” Well, some of find the black hole of self-reference very funny. And I thought the fourth season rarely missed on a gag. And it isn’t like there isn’t a lot of stuff that would have fit very well in the first season.
Take for example, the scene where Lindsay and Tobias are sitting with a real estate agent. He asks if they have children. Lindsay says no, and Tobias doesn’t contradict her. As usual, they are both hoping that the agent might be interested in them sexually. After much very funny dialog, Lindsay admits that they actually do have a daughter. Tobias laughs uncomfortable, “Yeah, I should have caught that.” The camera pulls back and reveals their daughter Maeby was just out of frame. She says, “I could have spoken up but I just wanted to see if you guys got there.” As Zoidberg says, “Now that’s funny!”
But there was one part of their critique that I thought was dead on: the show is much less friendly. It is like the producers see the world in a much more negative light. And in that way, the show was not as much fun as it used to be. Clearly, that’s what the producers wanted, however. Part of it, I think is that George Michael and Maeby have grown up. George Michael especially is more an actor than a reactor. And he’s not nearly as nice a kid as he was. But what else could happen? He’s a Bluth, after all. The biggest change, however, is Michael who is far worse than he was in the first three seasons. But this is in line with his character arc. He got much worse over those first seasons. But now you can definitely see why he can’t seem to find a steady girlfriend.
Other characters have changed in various ways that don’t relate to the changed tone of the show. George’s brother Oscar is played quite differently (and I think better) by Jeffrey Tambor. Lucille is about the same, but I thought the writing could have been a bit more crisp. The Funke family is the same. G.O.B. is more or less the same, but it’s not clear where the producers are taking him. I’m hoping for a soft landing on that one, but I wouldn’t count on it.
Anyway, I wouldn’t count the opinions of a couple of guys who didn’t like season three of Arrested Development. Unless, of course, you didn’t like season three. But mostly, their review came down to the usual, “They didn’t do what I wanted them to.” Exactly how good the fourth season is will depend upon the upcoming feature film. I think that will color how we see this new season in the long run.
Some people may be wondering how I justify my generally savage discussions of action films. These are cultural critiques. I always admit that the films are competently produced. The point is that these kinds of films are pernicious propaganda. My effort is to point out some of the ways they go wrong. This isn’t any different than a physicist critiquing the science in a film. And of course, I’ve done that too.