Seven years have passed since Fox cancelled Arrested Development, and yet, with the Netflix-commissioned Season 4 going live on Sunday – much of the cast is in agreement: None of the characters has matured at all. Not a bit. In fact, one of them even seems to have regressed.
It would all be pretty depressing – if it wasn't such brilliant comedy.
Running for three acclaimed seasons after its 2003 debut, the laugh-track-free sitcom about the Bluth family, a dysfunctional clan in every respect (save for their comic timing) came out of the gate strong, with rapid-fire punchlines and surreal in-jokes. Ratings were middling, but with brisk DVD sales giving the show a life beyond its broadcast window, Netflix decided in 2011 to green-light a fourth season as part of its push for original programming.
Season 4 is a new lease on life in more ways than one. First, there's the attention-grabbing new format – each episode focuses on a single character, yet their stories intermingle in unexpected ways. It's a chance for creator Mitch Hurwitz and his writers to play with some of the more elaborate narrative conceits of TV dramas, such as The Wire and Breaking Bad, where intricate relationships and back-story pile up on each other.
Brampton, Ont. native Michael Cera, who plays George Michael and who, during the fourth season, was invited to join the show's writing team, explains how the format challenged the actors in new ways.
"We were shooting a scene that was very long, like five pages. We did it all continuously, like, as one long take," he recalls. "And they would be shooting with different cameras, filming things that would belong to different episodes.
"Just keeping that organized in your mind as you're performing is complicated," he adds. "It was a very different way to work."
There's also the fan-baiting likelihood of more chapters to come, whether as a long-discussed movie, or simply more episodes. Judging from the first episode of Season 4 (and this is where spoiler-averse readers will want to stop reading), part of the plan is to test the audience's relationship with the characters.
Jason Bateman's striving, thwarted Michael Bluth was an oasis of near-competence in a desert filled with almost-lovable losers. Now, Michael is living as a decidedly unwanted guest in his son George Michael's university dorm room, his plan to build a real estate empire crushed by the subprime housing crisis. It's a jarring change that recalls Ricky Gervais's clueless David Brent hanging around Wernham Hogg in Season 2 of The Office (U.K.), despite having been fired. Michael should know he doesn't belong, but somehow he's become as tone-deaf to his son's suffering as the family was to Michael's stifled ambitions.
The move to turn affable Michael, the only semi-sane character and certainly the glue that once held the show together, into a bit of a monster like most of his relatives will certainly prove disconcerting to fans. Does it mean that the Bluths are about to grow darker as a collective?
"They certainly age, but I don't think they grow," says David Cross, who plays clueless wannabe actor Tobias Funke. "They never really learn from their mistakes; none of them do." Cross concedes, however, that, "you do get a sense of travel and journey to each character because you're watching them for an hour."
In fact, Portia de Rossi, who plays Tobias's blond socialite wife Lindsay, says her view of her character has shifted.
"When I was 30 years old and playing this character," she muses, "I just thought she was an idiot, and that women like her were kind of pathetic. But now, at 40, I see that she's a more complicated woman. She's actually suffered a lot through her life; her shallowness is more of a deliberate choice."
"It's funny," de Rossi adds. "The only difference between me playing [Lindsay] in the first three seasons and me playing her now is the fact that I do have sympathy for her; I never did before," she explains, haltingly, as though even she's surprised by the thought.
Since Netflix wouldn't show me more than the first episode, we'll have to wait till Sunday, when it will release the entire 15-episode season, to find out. But even if the characters are in stasis, the show seems poised to keep moving forward. All three actors enthused about working with Netflix, and Cross and de Rossi seemed convinced that there's at least one more chapter to be told.
"I thought a movie would be weird, just to jump into a movie, but now I don't," says Cross. "Especially because this now exists."
"However it plays out," de Rossi adds, "whether it's a feature length on Netflix or even if it's another few episodes or something, I just can't see it ending here."
More key shows in the history of discomfort humour
The Larry Sanders Show (HBO, 1992-1998)
Garry Shandling's show-within-a-show about a vain talk-show host was full of classic sitcom banter, but it was also one of the first comedy series not to have a laugh track, and to turn uncomfortable situations into hilarity.
I'm Alan Partridge (BBC, 1997-2002)
Before Ricky Gervais's David Brent made our skin crawl, Steve Coogan's Alan Partridge made Britcom fans wonder how low a protagonist could go without ever realizing he might be in the wrong.
Tim and Eric Awesome Show Great Job! (Adult Swim/Cartoon Network, 2007-2010)
Tim Heidecker and Eric Wareheim took so-called alternative comedy so far into awkward and strange territory that many weren't sure whether it was meant to be funny at all. Tim and Eric's work is the free jazz of comedy: beloved by a few, incomprehensible to most.