THE LAST COUPLE months, I keep trying to binge on Arrested Development’s fourth season, but instead find myself casting around looking for something else. I can sometimes force an episode down, helps if I’ve just returned from a few hours at the bar, but it’s still tough going. At last, I’m almost done with the 15 episodes, and I started months ago. Meanwhile, I inhaled all 75 episodes of Battlestar Galactica in about a week. Why does the new season of this show (which I love!) so overwhelm me with sadness?
It’s a strange kind of sadness, too, an ennui I associate with that last scene from Broadcast News.
If you’ve never seen Broadcast News, don’t panic, you’re not missing much. It’s fine, but when I rented it at 13, it hit me hard. I was just able to grasp the plot, but what most affected me—and what has haunted me ever since—was the brief coda: seven years after the drama has concluded, the co-workers/lovers at the center of the story (played by Holly Hunter, Albert Brooks, and William Hurt), have a painfully awkward and abortive picnic in a gazebo. They’re engaged to other people, one’s got a kid. They chat politely for a couple minutes and then scramble away from each other.
The scene confirmed my worst fears about growing up: Time ruins connections, erases passion, and makes us alone. They had been so close! Then—bah! In the gazebo, they were acquaintances, at best. No need to bury the hatchet, they didn’t seem to remember that there ever had been a hatchet.
Now, I adored Arrested Development as much its many other legions of fans (the show’s base was so rabid that producers essentially took the unprecedented step of resurrecting it six years after it was cancelled). Formerly on Fox, it came back as one of these weird “Netflix Originals,” which drop all at once, as if to dare us to binge watch.
It’s been six years since season 3 and, yes, everyone’s older, and they wear their age with varying degrees of success. Welcome to the human race. The real problem is that the show has contorted the storyline too far to accommodate its reluctant cast.
Since 2007, much of the cast has moved on to greener pastures, and it proved too expensive to hire them all back, as is. Instead, they chose to separate the stars out, divide them into distinct episodes and reduce costs that way. According to The Hollywood Reporter: “The actor ‘starring’ in the episode is paid $125,000. If he or she appears in more than 90 seconds of an episode (but is not the star), that actor receives $50,000. For less than 90 seconds of airtime in an episode, he or she receives $10,000. Finally, if a clip featuring the actor from a previous episode is used, that actor gets another $1,000.”
As a result, the biggest change in the show is how alone everyone is, now. They’ve always been a bunch of foolish and greedy egomaniacs, but at least they had each other. During the first three seasons, there was a surprising warmth, a crazy togetherness, which was all the more enticing because the characters were all such craven ghouls as individuals. But together, they were sweet.
As the protagonist Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) said in the pilot, at the moment he decided to abandon his escape to Arizona and move into the model home and try to save the family, “We are an incredibly disappointing family. But we are family. And I want my son to be happy, so maybe we should be in each other’s lives.”
Now, in season four, they’re in each other’s lives, but just kind of. Or, not really. It’s familiar to anyone who’s ever had a close friendship or relationship and then, over years, the closeness just kind of went away. It’s like the season four is accidentally demonstrating how alienating the passage of time is for us all. How relationships suffer with time.
Recently, I had good news to tell—a contract for my second novel—and after calling up some family and a good friend or two, I sat down on a chair, desperate to talk with someone. Staring at my phone, I scanned my contacts for several minutes — up the list, down the list. Eventually, I put the phone away. There was no one. Many of the names would have, at some point, been someone to call. Not anymore. No, Facebook would have to do for the rest.
It’s extravagantly baroque, but it’s a hollow game.
At the end of the day, the point seems to be to avoid having to shoot new scenes with all the cast in every episode. That is to say, it’s ultimately not even a full show, but a replica of a replica—a kind of model home that is profoundly vacant, fundamentally unsteady. There’s no one home. Literally: the scenes at the model home where the family used to live are the most bereft, character’s voices echoing against uninhabited space. The penthouse that was the other major location of the first three seasons is, likewise, a ghost town now. It’s mostly home to Lindsay Bluth (an unrecognizable Portia de Rossi) and her boyfriend (who amusingly suffers from face-blindness).
Michael, ostensibly the moral center of the show, is especially hard to behold. An aspiring Hollywood sleaze ball, he’s now forever trying to bamboozle his family members into signing away their life-rights for a movie he has little faith in. The show desperately needed one paladin, a saint, even if he was also profoundly flawed (as he was), but now he’s a flailing con artist. And, by the final episode, any suspicion that he’s lost his soul is confirmed. He’s as bad as any of them.
There’s an inexplicable ostrich for a while, but it doesn’t go anywhere. Michael’s quest to make a movie about his family peters out, eventually—he just sort of gives up after he gets all (or most?) of the signatures. What becomes of the regional election that’s also central to the season? I’m not sure. What about everyone’s various crimes? Is anyone arrested or set free in the final episodes? No. It doesn’t end. George Bluth barely exists in the final episode. The story doesn’t end. It just stops. If there is a home, no one’s there
“What about you?” G.O.B. replies. “I didn’t even hear from you for your entire childhood!” The hollow (but apt) joke is, of course, that G.O.B. didn’t know he even had a son until recently.
But even here, even with this feeble attempt at a broken heart-to-heart, they’re on the phone. Maybe it was initially written that way. It seems unlikely. But maybe.
In season 4, people are so rarely face-to-face. And perhaps that’s just the way of the world, now. But the only pain-reliever the show ever had to offer its viewers for these abominable characters was their inexplicable (and reassuring) unity. Without that, what’s left is astonishingly bleak.
It’s like Broadcast News, but instead of a slender and crushing scene in the playground years later, there’s a 15-hour sequel set in that playground.