Flight of the PhoenixOn Sunday, after a wait of seven years, three months and 16 days no less, Arrested Development finally returned with a fourth season of 15 episodes. Debuting on Netflix in one batch, there was approximately 8 hours and 20 minutes of new footage for fans to consume, and many (myself included, I must admit) blasted through it all in just one day. Opinions were formed, knees were jerked and early assessments seemed to be fairly wide-ranging. The initial plan was for HeyUGuys to review the entirety of Season 4 in one fell swoop, but given how much the episodes seem to differ both in tone and quality throughout the season, we thought we’d instead go for a spoiler-filled episode-by-episode approach. So let’s jump into it, shall we, with the Michael-centric episode, Flight of the Phoenix.

And with that immediately we’ve touched on one of the main points of contention regarding these new episodes – their character-centric approach. We’ll get into how well that structure works generally as we make our way through the series run, but specifically in regards to this opening episode, I found it to be a problem. The last time I can remember being heavily invested in a show that followed a similar format was Lost, although the split between flashbacks and real-time action on that show allowed for a more balanced representation of the ensemble. Perhaps a better point of comparison then would be Skins, which is a show that did something with the format that I’d have desperately liked Mitch Hurwitz to do here. Most series of that E4 show were bookended by episodes that followed the entire cast, with the episodes in the middle putting the focus on individuals to the same extent that this season of Arrested Development does. If only to ease us back in (and in the finale tie things up a little more neatly), bookending this season in the same way may have helped.

But hey, that didn’t happen, and this first episode features Michael heavily, although it takes a minute or two to get to him. Ron Howard’s narrator get the first laugh of the season as he croaks out his first few words before coughing and getting back into the swing of things, introducing the audience to the Cinco de Cuatro celebration that serves as one of the three main fulcrum points of the season’s complex narrative. Instead of then catching us up with Michael, we get a flashback to a younger Lucille and George Sr played by Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen – Wiig’s fantastic, Rogen’s fine – explaining the history of the fictional holiday. It’s a solid scene but it makes for a clumsy opening, and in a season structured as this is you feel there would have surely been a more appropriate place for it elsewhere. When we finally cut to Michael Bluth looking like a shell of his former self, a sense of disorientation pervades. Then after a nice bit of physical comedy with Liza Minelli, Michael retreats to the old model home where he finds Gob and the audience finds sense of welcome familiarity. The two talk, fight, and Gob slips Michael a forget-me-now pill (the birth of a new running joke from the embers of an old one) when his brother sees something he shouldn’t. At this point, over six minutes into a 32-minute episode, we finally arrive at the opening titles.

As well as seeding other plotlines, the main question the introductory sequence wants us to ask is just how did Michael end up in the situation where he owes Lucille II $700k and seems to be a broken man. Wasn’t Michael always the stable centre of Arrested Development? Has the character been altered beyond recognition? Those questions are compounded when cut to him six months earlier living in George Michael’s dorm room, oblivious to the fact that his son doesn’t really want him around. An argument I’ve always made, however, is that Michael was never the straight man in Arrested Development. The only characters not to be emotionally broken beyond repair were George Michael and Maeby… they were yet to have their innocence corrupted by the Bluth family. Michael may have been the man who “had no choice but to keep them all together,” but he only seemed more grounded in comparison to the wackjobs around him. That’s why I totally bought this vision of Michael Bluth, a man who never listened to his son and constantly made terrible decisions could easily end up in this situation. Ironically, given the complaints that separating the Bluths has changed what was best about the show, I think one of the running themes of the season is that each of the Bluths only begins to really suffer when they’re removed from the relatively safety of a family construct. In Michael’s case, while he was busy keeping the family together, the family were also unknowingly keeping him together too.

That’s something we see illustrated in the flashback sequence as Michael makes a huge mistake with his housing development, Sudden Valley. This comes after he finally follows through on his threat to sever all ties with his family in another one of the season’s fulcrum points, a scene where the whole family meet at Lucille and George’s apartment. A marvellous feat of editing keeps us from seeing everything that’s going on in this scene (and we’re further rewarded every time we return to it), but the main takeaway is that Michael’s had enough. With that his safety net is gone. He’s no longer too busy looking after those other idiots to not make an idiot of himself. The only family Michael has left is George Michael, and it would take the breaking of that bond to send him to his lowest ebb.

And that’s the main story of the episode; how Michael comes to be kicked out of his son’s dorm room. Ignoring the six-minute intro and seven-minute flashback, what we’re left with is essentially a standard old-style Arrested Development episode, in length anyway. Now we know we’re missing the ensemble family dynamic from before, but that’s not why this main thread of the episode falls short of previous standards. Put simply, it’s flabby. The show used to zip through plot at a furious pace in its heyday, and here we have at best four or five scenes stretched very thinly indeed. That’s not to say there’s not any funny stuff in there. Michael getting in the shower with George Michael for instance, the return of the sullen Charlie Brown walk and the simultaneously heartbreaking and hilarious crossed out Da on George Michael’s vote are all testament to this. It just all feels a little too padded. The concept behind the voting scene, for example, is really pretty solid and should make for a good, funny scene. It does to a point, and the callbacks to it once Michael gets to the airport still raise a chuckle, but it also goes on for way longer than it should have done, and that’s a worrying precedent to set in episode one.

Of course, it’s probably not fair to compare these new episodes to the old episodes of Arrested Development, that’s an incredibly high standard to be held up against. Mitch Hurwitz, whether by design or necessity, has done something far bolder with these new episodes than simply churning out more of the show we remember fondly. He deserves to be applauded for that alone. There’s not an over-reliance on pre-established running jokes (and when they are revisited it’s usually with a new spin), and like it or not this new format will be experimenting with putting scene-stealing supporting characters front and centre, and seeing what they’re really made of. What all that doesn’t mean, however, is that there are no standards to hold these new episodes to. So on its own terms, there are things in this first episode that work and others that don’t, but it’s certainly good enough to have you let Netflix boot up the second episode. Change can be a good thing, and a change as drastic as this is certainly making the discourse around these episodes a lot more interesting, if nothing else. This is a decent, if unspectacular opening. We’ll see what a George Sr-centric episode can offer up tomorrow.

Any Other Business:

– Yes, that’s the plan. One episode of Arrested Development reviewed every day for the next 15 days. Should be a blast.

– “It’s so easy to forget – stupid forgetful Michael.” I’ll be thrilled to return to that scene as often as possible. And who did you initially think Gob had slept with? My first thought, based on what he said to Michael, was that it must be a man. But then in later episodes I assumed it was one of two female characters. I’m getting ahead of myself again…

– Great to see the return of news anchor John Beard who describes Lucille as a “seaward/c-word matriarch,” and I also particularly loved the headline ‘Pursed Lips Sinks Ship’.

-The whiteboard on Michael’s door reads ‘You missed me. Leave a note.’ And that’s why you always leave a note! I can’t help but feel bedding old running jokes into sight gags like this is the best way to go. I liked the new spins on ‘No touching!’ and the cornballer too.

– The cover of Attitude magazine was a real one featuring Emmerdale actor Danny Miller. “Boy George. George Michael. More than a name in common” and “Magic Man Tony Wonder’s Biggest Secret” were the AD additions.

– That airport mural is a far better means of catching up on past events from the show than any of the unnecessary exposition from the narrator. When you’re shows this complex, why are you bothering to pander to new fans?

– Can someone please turn Jason Bateman trying to kick the tumbleweed into an animated gif so that I can watch it on repeat all day.

– Buster’s reaction to hearing about his parents divorce is priceless. It’s such a shame that Veep kept Tony Hale from playing a bigger part in this season.

Grade: B