In the epilogue of Arrested Development's season-three finale, Ron Howard says to teenage Hollywood executive Maeby Fünke, "I don't see this as a series, but it could work as a movie." While the Bluth family's entrance into cinema has yet to happen, the fourth season, a Netflix exclusive, feels more self-contained than previous ones, resembling a circular meta-fiction puzzle more than a self-referential continuation of events. Each episode—or in some cases, two episodes—is told from the perspective of principal family members Michael (Jason Bateman), George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), Tobias (David Cross), Gob (Will Arnett), Lucille (Jessica Walter), Maeby (Alia Shawkat), George-Michael (Michael Cera), and Buster (Tony Hale), laying aggressively diagramed groundwork for multiple narrative strands, dropping breadcrumbs that will mostly congeal into a rounded Bluthian cornball by season's end.
This POV storytelling method is a clever and innovative choice—mirroring the extreme solipsism of the Bluth clan. It isn't exactly Rashomon though: Instead of using the character-based episodic organization to lend insight into conflicting accounts, showrunner Mitchell Hurwitz, who co-directed the season with Troy Miller, uses the platform to fragment and revisit overlapping storylines and events, slowly layering grand details and delicately timed reveals with every subsequent episode. It's an absurdly audacious conceit that helps the highly deconstructionist Arrested Development maintain its title of "most ambitious sitcom" even if it slightly diminishes its otherwise deserved reputation as "greatest sitcom of the 21st century."
The writers immediately dive into an onslaught of throat-clearing exposition and setups. Conquering the complex new material will be a daunting task even for die-hard fans, and the first three episodes (focused on Michael's money-sucking expansion of Sudden Valley, George Sr.'s deceptive corporate-CEO desert retreat, and Lindsay's quest for enlightenment, respectively) are convoluted in a way that can only be helped with knowledge of what happens by season's end. The social commentary behind major plots—the building of a wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, a fictional holiday (Cinco de Cuatro) Lucille created out of bitterness, and Michael as a would-be Hollywood producer—are a bit obvious, but Arrested Development has always been about how a story is told and less about what the story is. The season gains strength (and promising new players, like Maria Bamford's recovering addict DeBrie Bardeaux) as the occasionally intertwining plots gather context: A majority of the audience rewards still come from the show's trademark penchant for well-timed aural cues, innuendo-laden dialogue, brilliantly fleeting asides, brisk social critique, heavily detailed settings, and furtive visual gags—which now benefit from a platform where pausing is just a click away.
Instead of expertly balanced subplots, however, many episodes topple under the focus on characters that don't require, or are calculated to defy, such consistent attention. Arrested Development was built on an ensemble that inherently understood the project, their roles, and various comic experimentations, coupled with a collective ability to channel the offbeat wavelengths and dynamic character interplay. Make no mistake: This is still an intricately constructed piece of television (or whatever it is now), but without Michael at the center, the new format compromises its quickness, with exhausting pacing issues plaguing certain episodes that attempt to be autonomous and yet intrinsically linked. Also, for all the show's cunningness in mounting a season built entirely on the idea of a suspended time period, the explicit mention of an ostensible timeline of five years makes the slightly muddled chronology even fuzzier.
Transformation is a major theme at the heart of the new season, and this looks and feels like a different Arrested Development: the same universe, but set on a slightly darker planet. It's a far knottier and sinister season, with a sharp undercurrent of disaffection. The series, like its flailing characters, has boldly tried to change. The atmosphere is drearier, with the famously aloof family members failing in more drastic ways in less buoyantly captured tones as they confront their transitional periods. Michael is introduced in the first episode as "one man about to hit his lowest point," and—now almost completely devoid of his sense of superiority—he only occasionally rises above his ashes and frequent poor decisions. Throughout the season, every increasingly selfish character reaches—and often stays at—their nadirs, whether it's Lucille facing imprisonment, George Sr. dwindling in confidence, Lindsay growing more desperate, Gob deepening his insolent neediness, Buster worsening in his Oedipal complex, Tobias furthering in obliviousness, or Maeby and George-Michael trying to ignore their rising-and-plummeting self-esteem.
The new season never devolves into cynical nihilism, as there's still a chipper energy and inspired messiness that drives the seemingly improbable plot mechanics. And this unyielding spirit, even amid chaotic formulas that don't always add up, is what continues to make Arrested Development a trailblazing success (particularly in the Entourage-pranking "Colony Collapse" and Maeby-centric "Señoritis"), conjoined with a collection of outrageously pitiable characters whose dishonesty and denial hilariously exaggerate human behaviors. The cultural references feel a bit dated (the bubble-bursting housing-market collapse, Herman Cain proxy Herbert Love, The Blind Side, and The Social Network among them), and there's too much miscalculated racial humor and preoccupation with sex offender-related jokes, but there's still a plethora of fresh homonym-friendly wordplay, surprising parallels, and witty allusions to delight and preoccupy us until the series pulls off its next magic trick.