I have been reading some complaints about Season 4 of "Arrested Development" in comments online. I was responsible for a few of these complaints myself on Twitter after watching the first two episodes. I didn't think they were up to the previous standard set by Seasons 1-3 of "Arrested Development." I haven't changed my mind completely, but now that I have watched the majority of Season 4 I can see why some people are disappointed in a way by Season 4. I think there are four reasons some people have been disappointed and it isn't entirely the show's fault, but some reasons for the public's disappointment are the fault of the show. Don't get me wrong, I have really enjoyed the majority of the episodes, and comparing Season 4 to Seasons 1-3 is probably going to be a losing battle. Seasons 1-3 were superior television and it isn't easy to duplicate these seasons. It's probably near impossible. I think there are four reasons the new season of "Arrested Development" could not measure up to Seasons 1-3 and these could be a few of the reasons some fans have been disappointed.
1. These episodes are only intended to be a prologue to a movie
The reason Mitchell Hurwitz did Season 4 of "Arrested Development" is because he is intent on doing an "Arrested Development" movie. He found it too difficult to catch viewers up with what each of the major characters had been doing in a short span of time when writing the movie, so he decided it made sense to do an entire season to catch the viewers up on the Bluth family's adventures since we last saw them at the end of Season 3. So a lot of Season 4 consists of catching up with the characters and furthering the plot at the same time. It sounds easy to do, but 5-6 years time for each character must be covered in a 30-something minute episode. It can be quite difficult to cover a lot of time plot-wise and still maintain the situational comedy. Granted, "Arrested Development" isn't entirely a situational comedy, but a lot of the comedy comes from situations and dialogue that exists between two or more characters. The show has to speed up to catch up with the characters while also slowing down enough to maintain the humor of an ostrich running around loose in a room or a swarm of bees stinging a group of people. Therein lies a lot of the reason why I think Hurwitz chose to do each character's plot separate from each other. It allows time to fill in the narrative, but also jokes that don't seem like much in the first place can turn into a punchline down the road. The jokes begin to accumulate and make more sense as the season wore on. Basically Hurwitz has his cake and eats it too, but potentially at the expense of the audience being lost initially. Of course with a dedicated audience like "Arrested Development" seems to have, Hurwitz knows they will wait a couple of episodes for the punchline to come.
So these Season 4 episodes serve as the beginning to what (hopefully) will be a movie. The purpose of these episodes seem to be to catch the audience up on what the Bluth family has been up to. I'm not a writer, but I imagine it is hard to further the narrative over a few years while still giving enough time for running jokes and situational comedy.
2. The production schedule
One of the issues with getting all of the actors back for Season 4 of "Arrested Development" is none of the actors are essentially committed to the series anymore. They have other acting jobs that are more permanent, so they weren't all available at the same time to shoot the episodes. So the actors each ended up having their own episodes that almost feel too character-specific heavy to be "Arrested Development." We get 37 minutes of Lindsay Bluth in one episode, partly because Portia de Rossi's schedule did not necessarily allow for her to shoot scenes with the other principal actors. It's sort of like if Led Zeppelin promised a reunion album, but first we had to listen to each band member (minus John Bonham of course) do a solo album. Obviously this isn't the best analogy, but we have to learn about each principal character on their own before we get to see them shoot a movie where they will (hopefully) interact with each other more. The production schedule and the actor's availability prevented the episodes from featuring all of the principal cast members in all 15 episodes. So what we have are essentially 15 episodes which feature one specific actor/actress in each episode with cameo drop-ins from the other principal cast members. It's sort of not fulfilling to watch at times because I don't personally care to watch 37 minutes of Lindsay Bluth and then 34 minutes of Tobias in back-to-back episodes. It's what the production schedule called for though and so that's what we got. This leads me to my next point.
3. The strength of the series is the characters can't carry an entire episode
The strength of "Arrested Development" isn't in the single characters of the show. Each character has attributes many people find to be funny. Michael is sarcastic, G.O.B. is an idiot who makes bad decisions, and so it goes. These attributes work very well together when the family interacts with each other. The problem lies in Season 4 of "Arrested Development" when you take these characters away from interacting with each other and make them single characters in a 30 minute long story. Yes, as I said above, the production schedule necessitated this, but the strength of "Arrested Development" lies in each of the characters interacting and playing off of each other and that wasn't able to happen as much during Season 4. Tobias' character works well when he is the comedy to Michael Bluth's straight man (no pun intended). Tobias can feel like just another closeted homosexual actor wannabe when his story isn't combined in some part with Lindsay or his latest adventure takes up a good portion of the screen time. His antics don't get old, but they tend to wear on the viewer and aren't quite as funny when put on screen in a 30-plus minute episode. Don't get me wrong, his story is still somewhat enjoyable, but it's more fun to have members of the Bluth family pop up and play off of each other rather than have to carry their own storylines for a full episode.
Isn't that what makes an ensemble comedy so great? It's not the individual characters, but how the parts of the characters as individuals don't add up to as much as the parts of the ensemble as a whole. Unfortunately, "Arrested Development" isn't the Avengers. They all aren't strong characters on their own who come together for one great purpose or carry an entire movie or episode. Their great purpose is for each of these characters together and being together while playing off each other makes them exciting and funny to watch. One of the major issues I had with Season 4 (and again, it was really good to have them back) was these characters I really enjoyed weren't always in the same room or plot line as each other. Lucille and George Bluth are funny characters, but they also need grounded characters like Michael Bluth to play off of each other. So I think a lot of the problems that some had with the show had to do with the characters of "Arrested Development" not always being in the same room as each other. The so-called "magic" during Seasons 1-3 had to do with these characters being around and interacting with each other and Season 4 didn't always allow for that to happen. So that could be disappointing for some fans watching the new episodes.
4. Nostalgia hurts the new episodes
My wife and I used G.O.B.'s theme for his magic act, "The Final Countdown" by the band Europe as the entrance song at our wedding reception. I love the show. I still say "Arrested Development" quotes at times and it's one of my favorite shows of all-time. So to an extent, the new episodes just simply weren't going to match up with my memories of the show. I don't want to project my feelings onto other people, but I have a feeling this goes for others as well. A lot of really good comedies aren't entirely funny until they have been re-watched a few times and the jokes start to sink in a little bit more. That was the case for Seasons 1-3 and could be the case sooner or later for Season 4. I do like "Arrested Development" and Mitchell Hurwitz didn't try to replicate the past or continuously use old jokes in the new episodes. There were callbacks, but not as many callbacks as could have been forced into the episodes. This was a good and bad thing. It was good because I have a feeling time may be more kind to the show when the new jokes start to take hold on the fans. It's a bad thing because fans could see Season 4 as a new show with new jokes, where the characters don't interact with each other, and the episode format doesn't feel as connected to the Seasons 1-3. But again, "Arrested Development" has pretty dedicated fans who probably won't mind giving the show the time necessary over the 15 episodes. It's not like these new episodes were made for casual fans of the show anyway.
I think the nostalgia for the earlier episodes (me included) hurts Season 4 a bit. It's almost like nothing was going to live up to the memories I have of the original three seasons. It's not fair, but it's also not very good writing to simply tell the same jokes that have already been told. I'm glad the writers didn't go in that direction, but Season 4 probably wasn't going to live up to my memories. I think if I am patient with Season 4 I could learn to like it as much as I have loved Seasons 1-3. Well maybe, but I think I will end up enjoying Season 4 of "Arrested Development" the most when some enterprising person edits all 15 episodes into 22 shorter episodes with each character's story mixed in together so that each episode doesn't focus on just one character. I'm betting it happens and it's probably not a terrible idea to give it a try. Of course, having any "Arrested Development" to watch beats the alternative.