IN SEASON TWO of Arrested Development, Buster Bluth, the unweaned runt of the Bluth family, asserts his independence from the two women who have dominated his life in one simple act: he goes swimming. Both women are named Lucille; one is his mother (Jessica Walter), the other his erstwhile lover (Liza Minelli). Family rules roundly forbid Buster from entering the Pacific. He has never done so before, and this moment of self-sovereignty is exultant but brief, as Buster finds his hand promptly bitten off by a loose seal that has developed a taste for human blood. (Blame it on eldest brother Gob, pronounced like the biblical “Job.”) In season three, the Bluths’s shyster lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn, played by Henry Winkler of Happy Days, hops over the carcass of a shark on the same pier from which the family viewed the severance of Buster’s hand.
Ron Howard narrates. An aged Fonzie jumps another shark. Buster escapes one breed of Lucille only to encounter a yet more pernicious breed: a loose seal. Out of the frying pan, into a mixed-metaphor word puzzle. If Lewis Carroll and S.J. Perelman wished to write a post-structuralist sitcom about SoCal real estate in 2003, they would struggle to top this stuff with any regularity.
All situational comedies depend on miscommunication, but none so incessantly and brilliantly as Arrested Development. The show’s preoccupation with mishearing — or, more often, with hearing what one wants — blossomed into a grand cartoon via semiotic games and high-concept puns writ large. At a time in America when such infinitely elastic terms of art as “Mission Accomplished” were enjoying their vogue, the sense that words could pop out of conversation, out of context, and into a life of their own was both very familiar and very uncomfortable, in a deep-seated way that no one talked much about. I binge-watched the full 2003-2005 run on DVDs lent me by a hip Houstonian friend whom tech entrepreneurs would call an “early adopter.” I watched them through hazes of first- or second-hand smoke in a common room littered with signs from various failed Democratic campaigns. No-longer significant signifiers. Signs and Tony Wonders.
Arrested Development, of course, is also a show about family, a unit the show sketches via ad absurdum caricature, all the more absurd because a lot of people seem truly to care about the largely atrocious and backbiting Bluths. (This writer included.) But Mitch Hurwitz, the show’s creator, is interested in more than the dynamics of family betrayal, and for social satire he uses the family frame as a metaphor in itself. Name a show whose politics are at once so oblique and so obvious: the Bluths were both a conspicuous model of the Bushes and a warning about con-men and short-sellers seeking to capitalize on the real estate bubble, no small foresight in 2003 when the show first aired. Biblical in its simplicity, Freudian in its symbolism (it is rumored that Buster breast-fed into his teens), Arrested Development was as rich in formal and moral delights as any other show on the planet.
Yes, it was probably too “smart” for TV, but mainly it was too weird, and non-initiates couldn’t exactly just slip into the show’s groove; plot, and the slow accretion of glimmering self-reference, were the bellylaughs. Two and a Half Men this was not. But man did it hit the spot via DVD marathon. Plus or minus the smoke, this is how Arrested Development deserves, and ought, to be watched.
The fourth season — 15 episodes released simultaneously on May 26 — has kept cognoscenti drooling for years but has also left time for new viewers to enter the welcoming, only vaguely canine circle of devotion. A lot has happened between 2005 and 2013, for the Bluths and for us. The new episodes each focus on what has happened to a given character in the years following the implosion of the latest Bluth scheme, and very rarely is it pretty to look at. If in 2003 Enron was a topical referent for the Bluths’s dynastic malfeasance, the collapse of the housing bubble, and of all the dreams and derivatives that depended on it, offer creator and executive producer Mitch Hurwitz far darker material. Most everyone in the family hits rock bottom, at least one of them quite literally, and most everyone enters a very ominous (or at least extremely weird) headspace. Buster (Tony Hale) goes all Norman Bates — to a point. Michael (Jason Bateman) ends up squatting in the dorm room of his son (Michael Cera), until he gets voted out of the room. (Final tally? Four to zero!). Gob (Will Arnett) lives in his own filth in a locked storage unit for close to a month after an abortive wedding to Egg — er, Ann Veal. Lucille Bluth gets three to five without parole, at a trial that takes place in a sailors’ bar. Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller) accidentally has sex with Gob. Nearly everyone must do battle with one particular female ostrich who is in a.) heat and b.) the penthouse at the Balboa Towers. Lindsay (Portia di Rossi) finds herself a smiley eco-terrorist boyfriend who suffers from a rare (indeed, unique) condition called “face-blindness.” Her husband Tobias (David Cross) falls in with a still-tweaking junkie named DeBrie (pronounced, yes, “Debris”) played with almost heartbreaking tremors by Maria Bamford. What happens to a dream deferred? Apparently it festers while Lindsay gets a “light ego cleanse” at a Four Seasons in India.
Season four has ambitious reach and impressive grasp. The 15 interdependent episodes are so thoroughly integrated with one another that you almost begin to take the elegance of the integration for granted; one can only imagine what the storyboard looked like. On the macro scale, the season is structured on tentpole events — the Opies and various lesser events at the Century Plaza, that abortive Ann/Gob wedding, Lucille Bluth’s court date, and so forth, right up to the “Cinco de Quatro,” an anti-immigrant tradition begun by Lucille in the early days of her legion bigotry (in flashback, she’s played by Kristen Wiig). Throughout, the family finds itself in what George Bluth refers to as "these treason-adjacent situations”; a surprising number of characters chew hallucinogenic greens in the deserts of Mexico; and the usual semiotic foolery bites them all pretty hard, no one more so than Tobias. Most important: seeking “a new start,” Tobias buys a vanity plate proclaiming as much — except he shortens “new” to “nu,” leaving…well, you can spell it out. It’s an awful-sounding dessert, for one.
But the setpieces and the cohesion of season four (yet more meticulous than any of the first three) are not the main draws, nor even the main virtues of Arrested Development’s return. Yes, these web episodes spin a formally stunning web of their own, far more deeply interfused than in the old days. Several friends (and, for all I know, legions of television critics) insist that “no one cares” about the Bluths, that Arrested Development is like 30 Rock (a show that is hard to envision without AD as a forerunner), a show about jokes first and people second. I respect both jokes and people a great deal, and I don’t buy this line of thought. The Bluth family’s failings are ours, too, and I remember spending the first season rooting for Bateman’s character — a prig, but the only decent adult in the room — to turn things around. This was an exercise in willfully missing the point, but it also illustrates the irresistible charm of America’s most selfish family. In season four, the ensemble sparkles, and not just because of absence and its effects on the human heart. After watching Arnett play nice on Up All Night, seeing him revert to Gob is a sleazy delight. Jessica Walter, despite her character’s inability to wink, grows lovelier by the year, and possibly funnier, as well.
Even as fourth walls are broken, and fifth or sixth ones put up only to suffer the same fate; even as the family’s three generations keep double-crossing each other, the viewer knows, and the family comes to realize, that their only survival is in some form of togetherness. Opportunities for togetherness may present themselves outside the family, as they do for Tobias and George Michael, but it’s the internal reckoning that matters most. The new season could certainly use a lot more Maeby (Alia Shawkat), whose reflexive hucksterism makes it hard to believe she isn’t a Bluth by blood; but Cera, who joined the writing team for the new season, has done something very special with George Michael, who is now 23, going by the name “George MaHaris,” and talking big about his tech startup. (This is a play on the frequent equivalencies drawn between Jesse Eisenberg, star of David Fincher’s The Social Network, and Cera.) The mustache he grows in Spain during a semester abroad-cum-sexual awakening is just deliciously hideous, and, upon his return to the states, George MaHaris makes the occasional profound aside in his recently polished Spanish — most likely something about tristeza.
Two moments: in season four, Gob challenges Michael to fisticuffs in a cut-rate Discovery Zone. "You'll have to find me, Michael!" Gob declaims from the top of a child’s slide. In season one, Lucille cuts dead a pretty young PR maven on the make: “Let me tell you something, sweetie. We may pick on each other, get into little scrapes, call each other names and occasionally steal from each other, but that’s because we are family. You have no right. You don’t get to do that.” The show’s title didn’t just anticipate its untimely demise: we’re looking at overgrown, in some cases quite crafty, children here, held together by bonds of love, money, and mutual betrayal. There is more than a little of each Bluth in most people I know — sometimes startlingly so — and the family’s seemingly endless capacity for self-destruction and deus-ex-wackiness comebacks constitutes a sort of dynastic satiric saga that goes beyond satire to a place where we laugh while rooting. If the Bluths can find happiness in America, then so can the rest of us, however broken we’ve become.