One of the more curious (and possibly apocryphal) occurrences in the history of Quentin Tarantino’s landmark of cinematic anthology, Pulp Fiction, occurred when the cans of film were sent to foreign theaters: watching the film as it was labelled, projectionists assumed the film had accidentally been sent out of order, so they reassembled it, leading to a chronological version that didn’t bounce back and forth between the film’s many stories. In this version, the film starts with Jules and Vince making their trip to kill Roger and Brett (and, because it’s chronological, The Guy Who Looks Like Seinfeld), but we don’t get to see Pumpkin and Honey Bunny until our antiheroes have finished picking Marvin’s skull out of the back seat, cleaned themselves up, and called a cab in order to go get breakfast. If Pulp Fiction is about a boxer who doublecrosses a crime boss and then saves him from rapists, then it makes sense to watch the film chronologically; Jules’ conversion is followed by Mia and Vincent’s “date” and her near overdose, all leading up to the story of Bruce Willis’ boxer, the gold watch which symbolizes his honor, and Zed’s bike, which he rides right into the end credits.
This is, by almost any account, a version that’s easier to follow the first time around. But it’s also strangely unsatisfying, which is why Quentin rejiggered the timeline just as he had in his previous film, Reservoir Dogs, a heist film in which the heist itself is never seen. Stories take on different meanings when told in different ways, and the main subject of Fiction is not Willis’ rebellious boxer, it’s Jules’ decision to walk the earth — and Vincent’s death from not recognizing divine intervention when he sees it. Bookending the film with that story props it up.
It’s understandable that even professional critics, who’ve seen all sorts of arthouse movies afflicted with temporal jitteriness, would forget this precept in their haste to register their opinion on Season 4 of Arrested Development. There’s no other cultural event in America, and few in the world, featuring a cult base this large waiting this long for justice. The only comparable previous event is 1979’s Star Trek: The Motion Picture, an idea that was unthinkable one decade before, then, thanks to a growing fandom, slowly realized.
And like that film, ADS4 has been accused of taking itself too seriously — while the first Trek film suffered from its bid to be accepted as as “real” space movie, Mitch Hurwitz’s creation seems to be taking the freedom of its new Netflix resurrection to ridiculous extremes. The timeline is so confusing to critics who’ve only watched the season once (or worse, those in such a rush to get hits that they only sampled a few episodes) that, as always these days, obsessed internet fans stepped in to do their work for them. Reddit user morphinapg finally broke down and assembled a chronological series of episodes, one arguably less pretentious and presumably easier to watch.
It doesn’t really work, either. Watching the new season in order not only has the Fiction effect of breaking up the main storyline — George Michael’s effort to get out from the shadow of the Bluths and be his own man — it also slows the pacing down. Critics and fans both complained that the new season takes a couple episodes to get settled in, but in order it moves even slower, and with less import. Wanna watch a whole episode featuring nothing but the Funke family, or 20 minutes strung out at the Method One Clinic? Here’s your chance.
The correction clears up a few jokes earlier, of course. You’re not left wondering what the hell GOB was going on about when he fed Michael his roofie. And certain subsubplots, like George and Lucille’s fake divorce, don’t go far in any iteration. But chrono robs the jokes that need the space to grow: “Anus tart” is a running gag specifically because of the slow reveal. This was already an AD trademark.
However, the best and most revealing reason for the jumble of events in Season 4 has the least do with creativity, and least directly: the much-vaunted fourth season began its development as a movie, then morphed into ten Netflix episodes released at once. (Then, later, 15.) Turns out Hurwitz had the entire cast available for two days only — no major network meant no season-long contract — and so he used that precious time to create two timeline bookends: the saga of the Bluths picks up just after Gangy gets arrested for stealing the Queen Mary, at which point it moves to her apartment. The wildly disparate individual stories all grow from that meeting, go off on their own, then reassemble for the finale that is Cinco de Quatro (another event, it should be mentioned, organized by Lucille around Balboa Bay).
Mitch’s own solution was to integrate those two bookends into the fabric of the other episodes, providing a sense of continuity, allowing some jokes to build up impact, and most importantly, to end the season on an emotional cliffhanger. Lindsey selling out for Herbert Love doesn’t carry that kind of weight, but Buster’s traumatic attempt to replace Lucille 1 does. Then there’s the duality between Michael and his son: in the correct timeline it doesn’t begin to develop until halfway through the season, then drops out until Rebel Alley appears somewhere around episode 9 (out of 12 — the corrected episodes are also longer). Easier to grasp immediately, but harder to feel deeply.
If all that character analysis seems a little ridiculous for a comedy, especially one that spends a lot of time bouncing its own puns and references off of itself, remember that AD is above all a show about denial, in the same way that its trashier, crazier, younger cousin, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, is an extended thesis on betrayal. Both are character-driven enterprises masquerading under a guise of silly social satire. ADS4 goes down the rabbit hole by introducing a metatheme of reversed identity, then dwelling on each character’s individual journey: GOB is gay, Tobias has a real hetero relationship, Michael clings to family, George Michael learns to lie, Lindsay goes conservative, Lucille shows she’s capable of pain, Maeby goes from player to played, and Oscar and Pop-Pop switch personalities entirely.
And so to showcase that theme — and simultaneously find ways to work around the kind of obstacles that are going to be the hallmark of this digital age — the show morphed. No longer satisfied with season-long story arcs, it exists as a new eight-hour entity unto itself, one which can be broken up into watchable chunks but only reveals itself fully if you take it all in. Repeatedly. As can only be done by a technology which allows constant on-demand access.
In fact, Hurwitz originally toyed with the idea of just presenting the storylines out of any order, letting viewers assemble the pieces to their own satisfaction. And he’s already looking into creating a season full of stories that can be viewed from different character’s POVs within the same scene. Now that’s meta. And you’d actually have to watch every angle before commenting on it. It’s a concept known as a “replay story,” but one technology hasn’t been able to explore until this moment. As has been pointed out, the original AD was a DVR show before DVRs were prominent; in the same way, the new AD is an interactive concept that old media is treating like a DVR show: they watched it exactly once, in the order in which Hurwitz presented it, and judged it. The end.
The great irony in the Bluth saga is that the people who love it for its levels will have to learn to adapt to the new one that’s just been created; breaking the fourth wall is one thing, but a mashup sitcom is something else entirely. The other great irony is that the technology is both disease and cure: the very depth which caused the show to be canceled is what caused it to be resurrected, but the lack of traditional funding forced it to be created in pieces, which then lent itself to endless permutation… and thus greater depth. This is the story of a show that lost its traditional structure, and a director who had no choice after seven years but to integrate it all back together. It’s Arrested Development.