Now the story of a great television show that got cancelled and the diehard viewers who had no choice but to keep yelling and screaming until Netflix brought it back for another season, seven years later. It’s the Arrested Development Season Four Recap-A-Thon, Episode 1: “Flight of the Phoenix,” which catches us up with a Michael who is, it seems, at the end of his rope.
The first new episode of Arrested Development begins with narrator Ron Howard clearing his throat, and there’s a sense of that throat-clearing throughout the episode; it’s been a little while since we’ve spent time with the Bluths, and the show doesn’t find its footing right away. Writer/co-director Mitch Hurwitz comes into it sideways; we open with a description of “Cinco de Cuatro,” a pre-emptive holiday devised by young Lucille and George (Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen, spot on) to use up all the party supplies in advance of Cinco de Mayo.
At this year’s celebration, we find Michael at his lowest point. Drunk, desperate, and $700,000 in debt, he offers himself to Lucille 2, who is the primary shareholder of what is now the Austero-Bluth Company (Stan Sitwell sold her his shares after the SEC went after Lucille 1 at the end of season three). Michael, depressed, drops in on the model home, where he and G.O.B. have an awkward encounter; they’ve been estranged due to what is only referred to as a “recent unpleasantness”; the crux of that, and the shocking identity of the woman G.O.B. has just had relations with, are presumably the kind of mentioned-now, explained-later storytelling that will be completed in his episodes later on. (Hopefully, the weird stuff about tipping, which isn’t funny yet, will pay off in the same way.)
There’s a bit of awkwardness to the episode, a sense of putting on an old suit that doesn’t fit exactly the same way any more, but to Hurwitz’s credit, there’s a lot of purposeful—and enjoyable—weirdness as well. There would certainly be more predictable ways to jump back in to this world than with a sideways parody of How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and the watermark of “Showstealer Pro Trial Version” on all the clips from the old seasons (the kind of thing you see on amateur YouTube compilations of the show all the time) is exactly the kind of deeply obscure joke that the show has always done well; it’s the episode’s oddest gag, but maybe my favorite. (The riff about being “stuck in 2003” isn’t quite so clever, but it’s a good bit of meta-storytelling nonetheless.)
What’s most refreshing and encouraging about the episode is that we’re already getting signs that the show’s not afraid to get a little darker. We’re seeing new depths to Michael’s desperation here, in his terrified “listen, hey, look” jag (Bateman sells that beautifully) and his endless planning of the big vote (George Michael’s pained expression there is the best of the many provided thus far). Mention is made of “the great dark period” between when we last saw the Bluths and now; if this first episode is any indication, that may be more than just a sly indication of their years off the air.
- Lucille 2 and Sally Sitwell—though not much is done with the latter (here’s hoping she’ll be back)
- Forget-me-nows (“It was almost as if he’d find a way to simulate amnesia.”)
- Trisha Thoon, reliable field reporter for FOX 6
- John Beard, local anchor—a job he no longer has in real life, but thankfully maintains on the show.
- Barry (“Well, I missed the hearing.”)
- The Peter Pan play from Michael’s youth (now with a young Lucille cutaway)
- Banners! (“Your future starts now, George Michael”) (“We have cable /paved roads right to your door!”)
- The Charlie Brown walk
- “I didn’t hope to help, I was hoping to rub it in. Because of the unpleasantness.”
- The most important thing is family? “No! Privacy!”
- “You’ve made that point.” “Have I?”
- “Watch for the seal!”
- “Oh, your one year of law school is better than Barry’s three?”
- George Michael’s response to Maeby saying she’s not attracted to him: “Why is that even…an issue…”
- “Did you mean to write George Michael?”
- “Oh yeah sure, we just let people walk on the plane all the time. Do you want a boxcutter?”