Just finished watching Arrested Development and give the new season an enthusiastic thumbs up. The fact that it's on the air at all is a gift I truly have enjoyed, so even if it was below my expectations I wouldn't necessarily have complained that much, but I found quite a lot to like about the new format and felt much of the humor was just as sharp.
What was generally lacking in the humor department was what I call the medium range jokes. The long-term jokes-- running gags, jokes emanating from serial arcs (generally called brick jokes), and character beats-- short-range jokes (witty lines of dialogue) were both there in fine form, but Arrested Development had little interest in form-fitting any of its Season 4 episodes into a Seinfeldesque plot.
The show chose instead to tell one large arc and while the payoffs were satisfying throughout, the anticlimactic nature of the season finale felt a little disappointing and brings me to two big questions: Is the Bluth clan going to move in any direction along the success-failure dichotomy? Does the show need its characters to grow or does it work best when they're in purgatory?
I earlier referenced Seinfeld which had another famously anticlimactic finale that placed its protagonists squarely in purgatory as they were sent to prison for being complacent people
Seinfeld is famously a "show about nothing" which was obviously a misnomer. One explanation is that as the Cougartown name fiasco demonstrated, showrunners are pressured to create a gimmick to sell the show and Seinfeld satirized that with his show-within-a-show that was pitched as being about nothing (co-creator Larry David had been through the ringer as a showrunner/writer for at least a couple decades by this point).
Another explanation is that "being about nothing" refers to the lack of substance in the characters. It could also mean the lack of moral development within the four main characters which the finale confirms.
I've always felt that Arrested Development is a far superior show to Seinfeld to the degree that the two could be compared. What I might not have realized until Season 4 was that Mitch Hurwitz might see the end game of the show in the same vein as Seinfeld (or for that matter, It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia).
One key difference is that Arrested Development has more pathos to its characters. AD borrows some of its conventions from family sitcoms which have a long tradition of tugging at your heart strings. I'd also make the case that the actors are so on top of their game and their chemistry off-screen is so famously good that it carries over to a love of their characters themselves. It makes it that much easier for AD to pull the wool over our eyes and think that our favorite real estate family is headed for self-improvement.
At the same time, the characters' fates go up and down so much, they're almost like live-action Looney Tunes. Anyone who's watched more than one Road Runner cartoon is desensitized to the site of Wile-E-Coyote falling off a cliff because we know he'll get back up again. There's a saying that comedy is watching someone get hurt but that when pain is involved it's no longer comedy (OK, you got me, that's a very sloppy paraphrase of something I heard about eight years ago). If we saw a shot of the coyote's innards being crushed courtesy of 16 feet per second per second of gravity, we probably would be taken out of that comic mood pretty quickly.
The combination of non-sequitor "On the next arrested development" end sequences and the slight gaps in the timeline have desensitized us to the bad endings of AD. In episodes like "The One Where They Build a House" or "Public Relations" the Bluth Company's plans backfire 100% and the family suffers horrible publicity but the exact damage is never revealed. It also helps to curb excessive empathy for the Bluths when one considers that they were much richer than the average American before suffering a great loss. The equivalent to the coyote analogy above is that ultimately we never know how much the Bluths lose or win in exact dollars or consequences of any nature.
The greatest series on TV today-- Breaking Bad, The Americans, Damages, Homeland, Nurse Jackie, even American Horror Story -- derive much of their awesomeness from taking the downfall of a person, town or organization and stretching it from what might normally be an episode on a procedural to several episodes or seasons. With a drama, it works wonderfully because it creates lots of suspense. At any given point, it makes complete sense for Walter White or Elizabeth and Phillip Jennings to be caught, murdered, or slowly mutilated in a horrific way dreamed up by a James Bond villain.
Arrested Development has a similar sense of suspense, especially in Season 4, where the arcs of characters were stretched over several episodes. What do we as viewers expect at the end of those episodes? Suspense for the sake of suspense is great in drama, but in comedy, does it need to work towards a satisfying payoff?