TV Club

Arrested Development “Flight of the Phoenix” recap: Season 4 premiere.

Michael joins George Michael’s anti-social network.

Courtesy of Netflix

In Slate’s Arrested Development TV Club, two fans will IM about each episode of Season 4 once they finish watching it. Today, “Brow Beat” editor David Haglund and editorial assistant Emma Roller recap Episode 1, “Flight of the Phoenix.”

David Haglund: So, you and I have both watched much more than just the first episode, yes?

Emma Roller: Of course. I’m half-proud and half-embarrassed to say I finished the entire season in a day.

Haglund: Well done! I still have a few to go. Nonetheless, I thought maybe we could begin with first impressions of the first episode, before we get to our more considered, 24-hours-later reflections. At the beginning of Season 4, we learn that following the boat party fiasco that ended Season 3, Michael traded his shares in the family company to Lucille Austero, so that she could take it over; then he borrowed money to finish the Sudden Valley development, which sits entirely unoccupied, since there are no roads connecting it to the outside world. (Also: no Internet.) Finally, nearly a broken man, he moved into his son George Michael’s dorm room. Fun stuff! On first viewing, what did you think?

Roller: I don’t know what I expected. I liked the role reversal of Michael/George Michael, especially the switching of a line from the show’s pilot: “What have we always said is the most important thing?” And unlike Michael’s smartphone calendar, the show isn’t stuck in 2003. I enjoyed the jab at the Bluths receiving stimulus money, only for George Sr. to spend it on land where he can build a border fence. The plot lagged as the episode went on, though—they spent the last third of the episode on voting Michael out of George Michael’s dorm room, which I thought was a bit overstretched. But it’s the poor carpenter who blames his shoddy tools, after all. What did you think?

Haglund: My reaction was similar. That vote-Michael-out-of-the-dorm-room storyline took forever! Even if it paid off in a couple of good gags at the airport. (“Well, of course P-Hound’s going to vote you out,” says the guy X-raying Michael’s luggage.) The freedom of the Netflix format mostly seems like a good thing, but … maybe if they’d had to cut this down to 22 minutes, they would have edited it a bit more ruthlessly. I was encouraged, though, by both the stimulus-funded-anti-immigration-wall scheme (these episodes are indeed taking place in Obama’s—or Boehner’s—America) and the bringing low of Michael Bluth. There were some amusing callbacks to the first three seasons, but they didn’t overwhelm the show. Kristen Wiig was delightful as a young Lucille, but Seth Rogen was inert as a young George Sr. Poor casting there, I thought. And the episode highlighted the challenge of working around everyone’s schedules. These characters are funniest when they’re bouncing off one another, but we necessarily got much less of that.

Finally, is it just me, or are jokes about Michael Cera-Jesse Eisenberg confusion rather old hat? Granted, “anti-social network” is pretty funny.

Roller: Huh. I like Kristen Wiig as much as the next tiny-handed person, but her Lucille portrayal didn’t do it for me—although that probably speaks more to the stubbornness of my love for Jessica Walter. And before I figured out that they were mocking The Social Network, I kept thinking, “Man, why is George Michael such a jerk now?” And I definitely agree that the biggest problem—scheduling the old cast together—is an intractable one. That said, is it selfish that I don’t particularly care to meet any new characters?

Haglund: I don’t know if it’s selfish or just overly nostalgic. The hair-trigger online response to these episodes seemed to be disappointment—people I follow on Twitter were taking general potshots because of all the unpleasantness: “Why isn’t it immediately as good as the first three seasons!” But the form pretty much requires it to be different, and Mitch Hurwitz clearly didn’t shy away from that. (Also, I really like some of the new characters we meet later on in the season.) And there were enough good moments in this first one—the whole bit about not tipping African-Americans, that ostrich tackle at the end—that I was happy to keep watching.

Roller: Well, I don’t care about ostriches. Actually, I do—I just wonder if the ostrich plot is intended as karmic payback for that Season 1 remark of Lindsay’s. And to tell you the truth, I’ve been avoiding Twitter like Barry avoids paying with a credit card. But if fans are disappointed that the show didn’t pick up exactly where Season 3 left off, they need to get over their—fine, our—nostalgia. It’s a different show: The jokes have more breathing room, the strong have become the weak, etc. But Hurwitz has a few more illusions up his sleeve.

Haglund: Agreed. Before we wrap up, let’s confess a few jokes we didn’t get on first viewing and lay on the table anything we’re still trying to puzzle out. I didn’t notice the Showstealer Pro Trial Version watermark on the flashback sequences the first time—possibly the geekiest joke a sitcom has ever made (it apparently confused some people). I also failed to spot all the in-jokes on the airport mural Michael passes in Phoenix on the moving walkway. As for things that puzzled me: Is Cinco de Quatro somehow a joke on Star Wars Day (“May the Fourth be with you”)?

Roller: Upon first viewing, I didn’t notice the Vertigo theme playing when Michael tries to kiss Lucille 2.

Haglund: Was it? Cut to two minutes later. Having relistened, I think that was pseudo-Herrmann—but definitely meant to allude to the Hitchcock classic, at least.

Roller: I did pick out the loose seal in the mural at the Phoenix airport, but I missed the Mexican church and other Easter eggs. I fully plan on watching the episodes again with a Talmudic scholar’s patience. I’m a scholar. I enjoy scholarly pursuits.

Haglund:  I look forward to chatting again a little further down the line.

Roller: Adios, brothiero. 

Read more in Slate about Arrested Development.