Arrested Development Season 4, Episode 2 - “Borderline Personalities”
Some quick thoughts on the second episode as the dust settles on the early binging, after the break…
"Borderline Personalities" works a bit better than the pilot, having to do a little bit less gymnastics to get itself settled and tell its story. It still suffers from having to establish back story and the whole in medias res setup is only further contributing to that pacing issue, but there’s a simplicity to the setup—George and Oscar switching places—which makes the episode a more discrete entity than the first half-hour; that’s it’s also a few minutes shorter is another reason why the incomplete nature of the story feels like less of a burden.
What it’s confirming for me, though, is that the season has yet to establish any kind of actual stakes outside of a very broad definition of financial survival. The show was always built around the notion of the Bluth Company’s financial troubles, but part of the charm of the show was how the characters more or less kept functioning as though they weren’t in a financial crisis. That they went on with their daily lives in the midst of this peril is what forced Michael to manage them so carefully, and which structured the series as a show about family first and foremost.
While the separation of characters—necessary to enable the show’s cast to participate given their busy schedules—immediately created an issue of recreating the flow of the previous series, it’s also turned the central narrative thrust of the show into “money” in a way that the first three seasons tended to spin into a more interesting question of relationships and duty. As much as I resent a show like Modern Family for ending so many episodes on saccharine voiceovers about the meaning of family, one of Arrested Development's charms was how it could pull off similar endings but as a dire note for Michael's future as the caretaker of this odious group of people who happened to be his family. With that no longer central to the series, the stakes in each episode feel like a perfunctory way to tie the character arcs together while nonetheless making them individual (hence George Sr.'s seminar vs. Michael's attempt at an online law degree, each trying to relive their own pasts while the show itself struggles to do the same).
Of course, one presumes the first few episodes are setting up stakes that will hopefully evolve in future episodes, and I’m certainly willing to reserve final judgment until that point. However, to recall a scene in episode one, it’s clear that “family” is no longer the most important thing in the world within Arrested Development, and whether by necessity or by choice it’s creating early episodes that coast on the idea of returning to these characters without the space to delve into the ideas of the show itself.