The first time I watched the debut of the "new" Arrested Development, I had problems.
I'd already been waiting years for the show to return, having eagerly accepted the first news of a movie as an indication that we'd eventually get another little taste of the defunct series... and then my hopes and dreams were dashed against the rocks by baseless rumors and empty promises. So by the time Netflix announced that it'd be producing new episodes, I was a jaded old man, shouting from the street corners that it couldn't be trusted. Even in an age when off-broadcast media companies have taken up castoffs with cult followings (Comedy Central with Futurama, DirecTV with Friday Night Lights, TBS with Cougar Town, etc.), it seemed too good to be true that Arrested Development would be one of those. It felt like a fool's game.
But it did happen and it's finally here. I settled in to watch the first episode, my expectations managed. Nostalgia, exposure, and years of anticipation threatened to ruin the experience; the magic was sure to have been lost over the years, the show tarnished by its imprisonment in the recesses of our collective fandom. So I knew I had to expect it not to be the same, especially since nearly every bit of media coverage the project has received has made sure to mention that the show won't be the same.
But even with all that preparation, I still had problems. "Flight of the Phoenix" (good title) was laden with so many nods to the rest of the series—past and future—that it distracted from the flow of the episode. Because this new season is being told from different characters' perspectives (this first episode focused on Michael's), the tendency to drop in small bits that will become important later began immediately; sometimes, the easter eggs were so obvious, so strangely phrased, that I felt forced to understand that they were something to remember for later. Basically, "Flight of the Phoenix" teetered on making other episodes too dependent on it, to the point where it couldn't be fully enjoyable on its own.
With that said, it's not quite correct to say I was underwhelmed by my first viewing of the episode. I laughed like the good ol' days at the jokes. The cast's delivery is still there, the writing is still sharp, and there were enough mentions of running gags ("loose seal," the Charlie Brown walk, the door handle in Phoenix being hot like the Cornballer) to blend with the Arrested Development of old. But at first glance, I felt like even those gags were pulling focus from the rest of the episode, like everyone was trying too hard to get us to remember.
The second time I watched it, however, it was a different experience. After actually re-watching some episodes from Season 3, including "Development Arrested," "Flight of the Phoenix" felt more cohesive, more directed, and less distracted. I was able to forgive some of the blatant "take note of this!" moments I mentioned above, especially when you consider that it's fitting for Michael's episode to have to set up the rest of the series and support the other characters' episodes. He's the one who has to hold everything together, so it makes sense that his episode is the terminus through which so many must cross.
So even though I was slightly turned off by the episode's disjointedness on my first pass, I ultimately embraced it. This is still Arrested Development, after all. Mitch Hurwitz has banked enough credit that we can roll through some early unevenness. And "Flight of the Phoenix" was a fine introduction to a season full of multi-layered punchlines. Fitting for the show's straight man.
OTHER THINGS AMONG THE ASHES
– Shut up, Sally. But you're right. You really did dodge a bullet.
– That the narrator would only describe what Michael did as unthinkable leads me to believe we'll only find out what happened during a Lucille 2 episode.
– The "unpleasantness" between Gob and Michael is distracting. And who is Gob squirreling away upstairs? Egg? Marta? Marta 2? Lupe? Sally? I want to know!
– We're not even a full episode in and they kill Pete the Mailman? Poor fella. He was so beloved. Who's Pete the Mailman?
– It would be neglectful to not mention the guest-stars. Kristen Wiig was perfect as a young Lucille Bluth. Seth Rogen wavered too much between being a dead-on impersonation of George Bluth Sr. and being Seth Rogen, but he was only around for a few minutes so I think it was fine. The Workaholics cast was an interesting cameo at the airport. Also the product placement for University of Phoenix. And the vulture outside the model home. At the press conference Netflix held a few weeks ago, Jason Bateman insisted that the vulture was a fine actor, hit all its marks, and smelled wonderful.
– If you're still wary on the resurrection of Arrested Development, you should watch the scene where Michael has to leave the dorm room silently (P-Hound and George Michael putting their fingers to their lips) as it dovetails into the Charlie Brown walk-off. If that doesn't prove the series can still produce witty comedy, there may not be basically there's no hope for you.
– There are so many different things to pick up on with this show that I might be seeing ghosts when I don't need to. Like, I'm curious about who went into the Forget-Me-Now shop after Gob left and why Michael pointed out the "musician" on his way up from the showers. And why there was a camera crew behind George Michael and Michael as they walked to the cafeteria? Probably nothing, but is Arrested Development going to become the Lost of sitcoms? The answer to the show's riddle better not be magic. I'll accept illusions.
Note: We're gonna review each new episode of AD individually, so even if you've already binged and watched all 15 of 'em, keep checking back to discuss them one by one (and please, be mindful of spoilers!). Look for a writeup of Episode 2 either later tonight or tomorrow, and then a new review every couple days after that.