1.) The series takes a good long time to find its groove, not least because the first few episodes focus a lot on Michael, and as the show gradually decided that Michael was just as bad as the rest of his family he stopped being the straight man in the midst of madness, which was always how the series operated best. (Which should not be surprising, since farce always needs a straight man to really soar.) Now, however, George Michael seems to have adopted Michael’s role as the one who is basically decent but not perfect, and it’s not for nothing that the show gets better and better as it goes on and the last few episodes focus much more heavily on George Michael. Episodes one and two are kind of blah with a few good moments; three and four are okay but nothing special.
2.) That having been said, I agree with those who say that episode 5 – focusing on Tobias – is where the show finds its old form. It helps that this is the point where the incredibly dense plotting of the season really starts to kick in, but I suspect it’s more because Tobias is and always has been easily the funniest character in the entire series, and between David Cross’ performance and the writers willing to go to new lengths to sell Tobias’ ambitious stupidity the whole thing just clicks and suddenly it’s like six years ago all over again.
3.) Speaking of that incredibly dense plotting – wow. This season is like Rashomon on steroids, and it’s one of the reasons the show gets better as it progresses through the story – Arrested Development has always been a show that relied heavily on running gags for comedy, and essentially it started out season four by creating a bunch of new ones.
4.) But the problem is that the writing, while very clever, relies overly on the repetition factor to get laughs. That doesn’t make it not funny – it still is, because the repeats are very clever – but there’s a difference in repeating a moderately amusing reference smartly and repeating, say, David Cross painting himself blue and hiding on blue things. (Which, needless to say, also gets called back, because that was always the single best and most iconic gag of the series and it would be stupid not to call back to it.) In the first place, you’re laughing because something is being cleverly repeated. In the second, you’re laughing because something hilarious is being cleverly repeated. There is a difference. (MAJOR EXCEPTION: the “registered sexual offender” gags, which are dark as fuck and entirely brilliant.)
5.) Arrested Development was also always a show that wasn’t afraid to get openly sentimental even though most of its characters were awful, awful people, and that is yet another reason that this season gets better towards the end (because at that point, the sentimental moments are earned, and the writing wisely stacks those towards the back of the run). The Gob storyline, of all of them, turns out to be one of the saddest and sweetest, and that is a bold choice when it involves what I think was unintentional gay sex. (That will make sense in context, trust me.)
6.) I don’t think Buster works any more as a character in this show. His episode has some of the funniest moments in the run (the bit where the military realizes they’re not behind a one-way mirror is probably the best visual gag in the entire season), but Buster has become tonally different from the rest of the show in that everybody else in the series has a sense of agency and Buster just doesn’t, because he is an idiot in the purest sense of the word. That’s fine when you’re using him as an occasional gag generator, but he can’t sustain narrative on his own because, come on, it’s Buster and nobody gives a fuck about him, both in the show’s universe and in ours. Alan Hale is a great actor; he deserves better.
7.) Conversely, I think Maeby is too good as a character to be in this show; her plotline is almost entirely divorced from the show’s larger story (and only joins up with it in the slimmest and least necessary of ways), just as her storylines in the original show were always digressions from the larger story as well, and her character is probably the most believable of all of them in a “real” context other than George Michael. I would totally vote for a Maeby spinoff show where she schemes her way into power – basically, a comedic take on House of Cards, except unlike House of Cards it would not be terrible. George Michael could come along too, because although the show actually veers away from the George Michael/Maeby romance, Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera have amazing chemistry together on so many levels – not just romantic, I’m talking the interplay here between mostly amoral Maeby and mostly moral George Michael – and I was disappointed not to see them have more screen time together.
8.) DISCLAIMER: I may be biased re: a Maeby series because I think Alia Shawkat is stunningly pretty, but in fairness I also feel guilty about that because, paraphrasing the underrated Ted Demme Beautiful Girls, the girl was a zygote when I was in ninth grade.
9.) I was a bit irritated that the Lucille 2 plotline wasn’t revealed because it seems too obvious a plea for a fifth season or movie or whatever. I mean, setting up Lindsay as Lucille: The Next Generation is fine because that’s mapping out a character’s future past the show. But not resolving who killed Lucille 2 (assuming someone did and she didn’t just fall down the stairs, or maybe a wacky misunderstanding involving some pig blood or something) or for that matter what happens to George Michael when FakeBlock finally crumbles – as you know it will – or leaving the question of who Rebel ends up with, if anybody (which she might not – see the Marta precedent) all up in the air when there’s no definitive fifth season yet? Irritating.
10.) That having been said, I think the season’s ending – with George Michael belting Michael in the face – is a cathartic end to it, since Michael fucking deserved to get belted in the face. It would be a bit of an unsatisfying ending if there’s no eventual emotional reunion – mostly because we know George Michael is a good person and would ultimately forgive his dad – but it’s a great payoff. All in all, I’d rank this season as slightly better than the third, but nowhere near the heights of the second.
11.) Ron Howard should play himself more often.