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'Arrested Development': What We Learned From Season Four

To binge or not to binge. We chose the former. Here's what we learned our first time through

Michael Cera as George Michael Bluth in 'Arrested Development'
Sam Urdank for Netflix
May 29, 2013 10:50 AM ET

After an eight-year wait, it was over in less than eight hours. Such was the case for fans that binge-watched all 15 episodes of Arrested Development's fourth season over the long holiday weekend. And who could blame them? As co-star Will Arnett told Rolling Stone, "you've got to hammer your way through." Yet, series creator Mitchell Hurwitz contradicted the AD vet, advising against watching the entire season in one sitting. But no matter how you decide(d) to watch, one thing's certain – it's designed to be watched (and re-watched) again and again. Here's what we learned from our first time through, consumed in one continuous viewing. (Warning: Spoilers Ahead.)

Running Gags – Old and New

It's worth commending the writing staff for not reusing all of the running jokes that have become synonymous with the show. Buster never once said "hey brother"; neither the banana stand nor Franklin Delano Bluth made cameos; and though the Chicken Dance was referenced, none of the Bluths performed their hilariously inaccurate interpretations (apparently someone in the family saw a chicken during the hiatus).

Instead, season four started its own running gags, while referencing past favorites in new ways (a stair car in the form of a Google Maps car; "no touching" reinvented as "no talking;” and sad Charlie Brown theme music used all the time everywhere). WMD and Bush jokes, which haven't aged well, are replaced with sizzling cracks at Halliburton and commentary on the Recession’s real estate bubble.

An in-flight magazine bit – a new source of competition between Michael and George Sr. – is among the new running jokes, and is featured prominently in the season's early episodes. Also, in an attempt to make viewers think they stole the archival footage, producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer placed a watermark that reads "Showstealer Pro Trial Version" over scenes replayed from seasons one through three. (Don’t worry – Netflix acquired the rights in 2011.)

Meet Our Guests

Of course, new gags alone can't breath new life into a show whose influence is all over television comedy in 2013. There are legitimate plot developments here, some of which work better than others (George Michael's Fake Block mess goes on too long, and Lindsay's prostitute bit with the Senator is a little predictable). The order of episodes, too, leaves you wondering when we're going to hear from Buster, Lucille, Maeby and George Michael (not until the season's end, it turns out).

GOB's entire storyline, however, has to be applauded: his two episodes (the seventh and eleventh) are among the season's finest, due in part to his relationship with fellow magician Tony Wonder (played by Ben Stiller), an under-developed rival for the eldest Bluth child throughout seasons one through three. In season four, however, we get to know Wonder, who has since come out of the closet (to gain new fans). In an attempt to exact his revenge, GOB pretends to be gay and pursues Wonder, only to develop genuine feelings for him. Stiller plays the whole thing perfectly, joining a list of season four guest stars that elevate the comedy to new levels.

Meek-voiced comedian Maria Bamford plays actress-turned-drug-addict Debris, the perfect love interest for Tobias (played by fellow stand-up vet David Cross). It's nice to see the writers doing something with Tobias besides finding another way to insinuate his homosexuality (there's plenty of that, too – ANUSTART, anyone?). Bamford plays off Cross well, particularly in a nonsensical subplot involving the Fantastic Four. There's also John Slattery as corrupt anesthesiologist Dr. Norman, Kristen Wiig as young Lucille Bluth and Isla Fisher as George Michael/Michael's girlfriend (and Ron Howard's daughter) Rebel Alley, who are all worth applauding for their respective roles. Ron Howard's transition from off-screen narrator to on-screen self, too, is absurdist and awesome, particularly his competitive obsession with Jerry Bruckheimer.

This Year's Model

AD's return – from years of rumors to the promo blitz leading up to the premiere – felt like a shared experience. Watching it, however, was a bit isolating – the opposite of the second-screen experience that’s become the primetime norm. The feeling that this was really the first major example of "create your own adventure" TV was palpable; fans schemed various strategies as to how to approach Netflix’s simultaneous premiere of all 15 episodes. And yet, outside of base-level reactions, talk of AD on social media seemed oddly silent. That was surprising, considering Arrested Development has some of the most rabid online fandom in all of television. But in a world that real-time recaps Mad Men in .GIF form, it was hard to tweet anything specific without getting yelled at for spoilers. In the long run, maybe the traditional way of watching is better – for the sense of community, sure, but for appreciating the comedic nuances, too.

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