Arrested Development – Season 4, Episode 1 “Flight of the Phoenix” Review

Rating: 8.9

You remember that wealthy family? The one that lost everything? And the one son who had no choice but to keep them all together? Yep, it’s Arrested Development, and it’s back, clucking gloriously like a proud chicken: “Coo-coo-ka-cha! Coo-coo-ka-cha!”

This show has a loyal fan base, and for good reason. Its first (and up until yesterday only) 3 seasons were masterworks of running gags, character acting, and postmodern documentary-but-not-documentary style presentation. This loyal fan base is not only the reason Arrested Development is coming back years later for a fourth season (released on Netflix rather than its old network, FOX), but its the reason this season has to be very, very good.

Even before I had started “Flight of the Phoenix”, I was already appreciating the new season just based on what I had heard about it. Each episode revolves around a single character, and each episode is chronicling roughly the same moment in time. Subsequently,Arrested Development can showcase its trademark writing brilliance, and the fans get more bang for their Netflix buck out of their favorite characters. The episodes are even slightly longer than they were before, and the whole concept follows in line with one of my favorite aspects of the show: its handling of non-linear time and its tenuous 4th wall that, much like the Bluth family, teeters and sways between solidarity and total dysfunction.

I watched with bated breath as the first episode unfolded, and in the first 5 minutes I was ready to run a celebratory shower. Liza Minnelli came back as Lucille 2, and was lovely and talented as ever. A cameo by Kristin Wiig as a young Lucille Bluth was more than I ever dreamed it could be. The other appearances planned for this fourth season are doozies, and include treasures such as Comedian of Comedy Maria Bamford, Trace Beaulieu of Mystery Science Theater fame, and Kids in the Hall’s Bruce McCulloch.

There were artful callbacks, both in small one-liners and in what I can see will develop as the grand arcs of this season. This episode was viewed with two other fans, both greater than I, and we all could find something to laugh about. The only reason I didn’t give this episode a 9 was because the character focus of this episode (appropriately the original protagonist of the show, Michael) played out pretty well, but had some strange spots. I don’t mean strange in a typical Arrested Development way. I mean strange as in, “Hm, that doesn’t quite feel like the show I once knew.”

I realize it’s difficult to capture the same sort of feeling years later. Picking up a show in this way is bound to change its tone. Perhaps it’s the new format, and the fact that I didn’t marathon it like everyone else. I’m used to the focus being somewhat on Michael, but always being able to count on lots of family badgering throughout the episode. When it focused just on him I did feel the pace falter a bit. I’m expecting to be rewarded in the future, however, and I do feel like conceptually it was fitting to follow Michael and his interaction with his son, as that was always the sad, enmeshed heart of the show. This first episode was funny and tragic, and I am a firm believer that the best comedy comes from what most pains us. I also believe that Michael is way more emotionally damaged than was first revealed in the older episodes, and I love that his codependency and delusion shine in the debut.

Much like Michael with his crazy family, I find myself taking the great with the not-so-great in stride with this new season (there was no bad). Whatever this episode lacked, it made up for. I’m again forced to think about time and how highlighting its flexible and subjective nature is large part of this show’s appeal. I was enjoying the idea of the show before it aired. I took part in the unique and innovative leap forward, as well as enjoyed a brilliant cancellation joke involving watermarks. Now I’m consciously considering how my perception of this episode will change with the arrival of the rest.

I feel like this week-by-week reviewing system will reveal a different facet of the show’s format that a marathon wouldn’t. I feel like I’m in for some treats of the abstract, long-term, and sometimes avian variety. Also, I feel like FOX is thinking…”I’ve made a huge mistake.”

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