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Netflix’s ‘Arrested Development’ Revival: Binging on TV Perfectly Made for Binge Viewing
May 26, 2013  | By David Bianculli

I’ve just completed a 15-episode Arrested Development binge on its return opening day on Netflix — and wow, was it worth it. It’s as hilarious as it is ingenious…

Creator Mitch Hurwitz, in reassembling the cast and revisiting the story line of this beloved, Emmy-winning Fox sitcom from 2003-2006, didn’t just return to form. He reinvented the form — turning Arrested Development into something so literally twisted, so cleverly and intricately intertwined, it’s like a double helix of comedy.

The 15 episodes, most of which are super-sized in length (up to 36 minutes long, with no commercials), constantly feed back into each other, slowly but surely doling out more information about what’s right in front of you.

Remember the season of Breaking Bad when you saw something floating in the swimming pool in the opening of the first episode, but didn’t understand its significance until that year’s season finale? Imagine that intensely advanced plotting applied to comedy — and you’ve got Season 4, the Netflix season, of Arrested Development.

The treats are so plentiful, the surprises so rewarding and unexpected, that it would indeed so spoiling the fun to click off a list of specifics. But in the most general of terms, you’re in for a puzzle where pieces are delivered one at a time.

The true identity of a character in one episode is revealed to be another character, in disguise, a dozen episodes later. When series narrator Ron Howard, playing himself as the co-head of Imagine, talks to Jason Bateman’s Michael Bluth in front of a snapshot photo booth, we see flashes going off inside — but don’t learn who’s in there for many more episodes.

Everything is so astoundingly interwoven, it’s the first TV series that all but demands to be seen in binge mode. Wait too much time between episodes, and you may fail to derive maximum enjoyment from the subtle echoes and amplifications running through this instant classic of a season.

British playwright Alan Ayckbourn, in 1973, wrote and staged a trilogy of plays called The Norman Conquests, all of which depicted events in the same house during a single weekend — but from the perspectives of different rooms. Each play revealed information that deepened the understanding of the whole, and made it a richer experience. That’s what Arrested Development Season 4 is like: a prism that gets more brilliant, and more colorful, the more time you spend with it.

Each character, and each actor, is given what amounts to a spotlight episode, where they come front and center. But writers Hurwitz and Jim Vallelly, and the rest of the creative staff, don’t isolate those characters — just push them to the forefront, while revealing more nuggets along the way.

Without giving anything away, I can, and want to, hand out specific praise for a few of the regular cast members. Bateman, always the stoic and howlingly funny dry center of Arrested Development, does an even better job this time around as Michael Bluth, which I wouldn’t have thought possible. So does Michael Cera, as Michael’s son George-Michael: They’re the heart of this series, and they’re especially strong, and even touching, when they share scenes.

And while all the regulars — including Jeffrey Tambor, Tony Hale, Will Arnett, David Cross, Alia Shawkat and Tony Hale — are a delight, Jessica Walter (as the Bluth matriarch) and Portia de Rossi (left, as adopted daughter Lindsay) really get some meaty scenes through multiple episodes. De Rossi, especially, gets to don a red wig and play temptress, in a subplot that’s only one case of mistaken identity among many.

Hard-core Arrested Development fans will be delighted to know that many of their favorite guest stars from the original run return for this 2013 incarnation, including Henry Winkler and Liza Minnelli. Ron Howard’s contributions here, with his perfectly timed and delivered narration as well as his several on-screen appearances, are key, too.

And so many guest stars pop in that virtually every episode supplies a few special treats. Encountering them unexpectedly is part of the joy here, but there are so many that it seems fair to mention just a few, to demonstrate both the breadth and depth of the 2013 guest stars.

They include not only Kristen Wiig, flawlessly impersonating Walter’s Lucille Bluth in flashbacks, but Andy Richter (in multiple roles), Isla Fisher (far right, who’s a scene-stealer here, and fabulous), John Slattery (far afield from his Mad Men role of Roger Sterling), and even Bernie Kopell from The Love Boat. And trust me: I barely scratched the surface.

It takes about four episodes for the plot of this year’s Arrested Development to fully reveal itself. But by that time, I had laughed so often, and so loudly, that the time seemed to fly by. Comedy is a very personal thing, and different people will laugh at different stimuli. I’m fairly certain, though, that there’s something in Arrested Development for everybody, and on a regular basis.

For me, for whatever reason, it was whenever one of the cast members was trapped in the same camera frame as the ostrich — something you simply don’t see every day — or just a line of dialogue or particularly loopy plot point. You may have to be familiar with Walt Disney’s very first Mickey Mouse cartoon to get the line, “Oh, my God, he Steamboat Willie-ed it!”… but if you are, you’ll probably be just as pleasantly stunned as I was by the perfectly weird, weirdly perfect use of that analogy.

There’s a lot of talk today about the so-called “second screen” experience — information and interactive stuff you can call up on your tablets or smartphones while watching TV, to enhance the experience. Arrested Development, I’m thrilled to report, is an anti-second screen experience. What it presents on the main screen is so clever, so complicated, and so consistently delightful, if you look away or try to multi-task, you’re guaranteed to miss something really, really good.

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