Michael’s MacGuffins: Arrested Development, Season 4

(Spoilers ahead.  Skip this post if you haven’t finished watching the new episodes.)

Allan Sepinwall has a great summarization and contextualization of the new Arrested Development season, and much of his review echoes my own thoughts on the show’s return.  The new interlocking format has its advantages and disadvantages, and although some of the episodes are overly long and contain uninspired plot threads, I think the final product succeeds in freshly adapting the AD formula for how people watch television in 2013.

The legacy of this season will ultimately depend on where the show goes from here.  There was little closure to the major story arcs by the last episode and a fifth season or film will decide if the writing team successfully and cohesively wove each narrative strand together.  We can argue whether a specific character, scene, or episode worked well or faithfully adhered to previous seasons, but given that there is still more of the story to tell, we should reserve absolute judgment on Mitch Hurwitz’s final product.

That said, there were a couple of important decisions in season 4 that I though ultimately detracted from the show’s earlier appeal.   One of the more notable ones that both reflects and accounts for the season’s more banal moments is the altered characterization of Michael.

The first three seasons positioned Michael as the one son who had no choice but to keep his family together.  He was the nucleus around which his kin revolved, the sole force keeping them from swinging off the axis of sanity into absolute madness.  Michael was not characterized as unfailingly superior to his siblings or parents, but he was the one authority figure who attempted to act with morality when presented with ethically dubious circumstances.  We see this when he repeatedly attempts to instill the value of truthfulness to his family as they prepare for various depositions and testimonies.  Countless specific cases demonstrate additional instances of moral behavior   His honesty to Maggie Lizer about not reading the case brief against the family in “Altar Egos,” for example, clearly demarcates him from G.O.B. (who had stolen the brief as soon as he possibly could).

Michael has his faults, of course.  At times he’s more narcissistic than anyone else, especially when he ignores or doesn’t listen to his son George Michael.  (Who’s Ann?)  Mitch Hurwitz has noted that in many ways, Michael is actually “the craziest one” for not being able to see what’s around him.  But there’s usually an effective counterbalance of compassion to Michael’s narcissism that demonstrates his love for his son and family.  Michael is also unique for his ability to direct moral imperatives to other members of the family.  Whereas George Michael and Buster exhibit similar inclinations for the good, they’re both subjugated to authority figures and lack the influence (and cult of personality) to impact anyone in a substantial way.  This makes Michael the one figure in the show that, despite clear and persistent character flaws, both attempts and has the sway to affect some sort of normative ideal.

The new season drastically recalibrates Michael’s character and, worse, gives him an inconsequential position of minimal authority.  While part of this is due to the show’s new narrative format of focusing on one character per episode, the sheer gap between who Michael was and is precludes the new season from capturing the same manic dynamic of the past.

Michael is still shown to be compassionate and caring.  His brief monologue in “Flight of the Phoenix,” when he tears up about moving out of George Michael’s dorm and says they’re like twins, movingly shows his love for the closest person in his life.  But subsequent scenes and scenarios make Michael’s caring side almost negligible.  He’s instead made out to be a tone-deaf, out-of-touch buffoon who is alarmingly unable to look past his own ends.  This characterization far exceeds Michael’s previous self-interested delusion to the point of absurdity.  Countless small scenes and larger plot points reinforce this perception, despite the fact that they’re meant to be funny:  getting in the shower with George Michael, taking George Michael’s laptop for a Skype call in the middle of a conversation about FakeBlock, and playing phone-tag with George Michael while having dinner with Rebel are only a few that come to mind.  By far the worst is the unending (and painfully unfunny) debate about which roommate should move out.  “Shoot me if I’m 86 and still living in my grandson’s dorm room,” Michael says to George Michael, a line whose dramatic irony begs for laughter but instead makes Michael’s character look absurd to the point of unbelief.  Michael has gone from a caring yet selfish parent to a total farce.

This is amplified by the curious decision to torpedo Michael’s success and remove his position of authority from the first three seasons.  Michael’s character was so well developed because of the way in which he influenced and affected everyone in the show.  The resulting dynamic created the rich relations between Michael and each other character, often a function of jockeying for power in the family hierarchy.  Michael’s role as both president and nominal patriarch was constantly challenged throughout the first three seasons, and the fruits of these challenges gave the show its wild plot and entertaining character juxtapositions.

Now Michael has nothing.  He’s no longer the center, the president, the patriarch, or even a major player in the family’s fortunes.  Instead, he’s convinced an in-flight magazine article will restore the family’s prestige; drives a Google car around for a job; and only visits his family members to get their signatures for the proposed film.  These roles are simple, uninteresting, and reinforce Michael’s new characterization as tone-deaf to the point of delusion.  The character is in many ways totally wasted by the new format, with the signature collection bit becoming a dull gimmick whose resolution is predictable almost from the get-go.   It’s a little shocking to see the center of earlier seasons become a plot device to collect various MacGuffins that have minimal influence on the main narrative.

Michael’s self-centeredness has also grown by leaps and bounds.   His decision to avoid telling George Michael about dating Rebel is not inconsistent with his characterization in the first three seasons, but it’s disturbing how far he’s now going to get what he wants, especially when it concerns the most important person in his life.  It’s possible to argue that the new Michael was a natural evolution of the character’s selfish tendencies from earlier seasons, especially given the new plot scenarios in which he’s put.  But the extent and rapidity of Michael’s shift, especially when he was the bedrock of the earlier episodes, feels too jarring to seem right.  Michael has become a pathetic character, which wouldn’t be a problem if there was a fuller explanation for how he fell so far from the first three seasons.  Going to live with his son because he doesn’t have internet access doesn’t cut it.  The fundamental personality shifts, coupled with mediocre plot devices, have made Michael a disappointing non-entity this go-around.

Michael’s abrupt character shift matters for the rest of the show because of the fallout from his previous role as the main player in the family-business hierarchy.  Now that Michael is no longer the center, both professionally and personally, each family member has swung off the axis into full-on insanity.  The production limitations of the cast’s schedules necessitated the format change, but from a narrative perspective, the changes in Michael’s character have thrown off the power / hierarchy dynamic that drove the story before.  This has resulted in a host of new scenarios that sometimes stumble since we lose the brilliant interactions that resulted from Michael’s influence on everyone.  Each character is in his or her own orbit; rarely more than two major characters share the screen at the same point.

Beyond the narrative itself, though, the new Michael makes us question what we knew about the earlier seasons and how well we knew the characters at all.  This is the first time in watching the series where I thought there was disjointedness between the story the writers were telling and what it seemed like the characters should be doing based on their histories and established personalities.  In some cases, this disjointedness was only minor and a logical extension of the character.  G.O.B.’s addition to Forget-Me-Nows and downward spiral was surprisingly dark but made sense given his established penchants.  Other decisions, however, were surprisingly bold, unexpected, or strange.  Maeby acting as Lindsay’s pimp was pretty damn eerie and George Sr.’s apparent transformation into a woman was also a complete sea change from his cold, tough businessman persona when the series began.

These shifts were all somewhat justified by each character’s respective history or earlier choices.  Michael’s, however, was more pronounced and more fundamental than everyone else.  Such a substantial change to the show’s bedrock raises questions about how we viewed each character in the past and how we understand them now.  The punch that ends the season is entirely justified for this new Michael, but it also feels unearned, especially since Michael had previously been the “straight man” whom audiences identified with.  This isn’t as severe a case as the final Seinfeld episode, but the punch does somewhat recalibrate how we view the entire series.  Michael’s stark transition to unequivocal jerk alters the show from one man trying to do the right thing amid a sea of harmless insanity to a carnival of jackasses who have few redeeming qualities.  Which is to say that in many ways, this isn’t even Arrested Development at all.

Again, that’s not a bad thing.  Despite this lengthy critique, I do believe the final product did a fine job of freshly adapting Arrested Development for 2013.  It is indeed unfair to argue that this season isn’t Arrested Development, since many of the same dynamics are still in play, just in a different format.  We already knew most of the Bluths were terrible people, and while it is somewhat unnerving to see just how deep their insalubriousness, it’s not anything we can’t handle.  Many of the season’s moments rank as some of the best in the series, and even though the new format reduces the ensemble’s screen time, the brilliant performances of the actors ably filled the gap.  (I particularly loved the Fantastic 4 play rehersals and the entire G.O.B. – Ann wedding sequence).  The interlocking plot sometimes stumbled from all of its twists and turns, but the end result is so stuffed with gags, references, and ingenious links that it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen.  It was a marvel to watch everything unfold.

But Michael’s revamped character is to my mind the fundamental basis for the show’s non-production-derived narrative missteps, and I hope we’ll see the character rebalanced for the subsequent film or season.  Re-setting the cornerstone will facilitate whatever crazy new format Mitch Hurwitz graces us with next.

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