The Return of the Bluths

05.27.13

‘Arrested Development’: Why Netflix’s Revival Failed

Fans eagerly awaited the return of ‘Arrested Development,’ brought back from the TV graveyard by Netflix. Jace Lacob on why the show’s fourth season revival falls flat.

If you have an Internet connection, you know Arrested Development returned from the dead on Sunday, with all 15 episodes of the show’s fourth season available on Netflix on the same day.

This strategy falls in line with the other original series rollouts that the streaming platform has launched this year, from House of Cards to the abysmal Hemlock Grove, given the belief that Netflix wants to offer the viewer “choice” as to how it consumes content: will you watch just one episode or will you binge on the entire season, watching anywhere from eight to 13 hours of television in a single day or weekend?

There’s something to be said for choice, but there’s also something to be said for restraint on the part of the viewer. The to-binge-or-not-to-binge internal conversation may be happening only in social media-obsessed households, where FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) trumps the time commitment necessary to stay ahead of everyone else you know. I previously compared binge-viewing to eating a bag of potato chips, but I also think that there’s an unintended consequence of such behavior: the viewing purge. This doesn’t happen with typical episodic television, where there is time between installments to consider, analyze, and evangelize about the show you’re watching. Typically, there is time to engage in conversation with fellow viewers, whether that be at that perpetual cliché of office conversation, the water cooler, or a virtual one on Twitter or Facebook. Television, after all, is meant to be a communal activity, an experience that is shared and ongoing, whose conversation twists and bends as the season goes on.

That’s not the case with Netflix shows, which—thanks to the binge-viewing phenomenon—the conversation around appears limited to a narrow timeframe immediately after the release of the full season. Sure, there will be people who will watch weeks or months down the line, but the volume of the conversation is highest during those first few days, where people take to Twitter to share quotes, discuss plot elements, or share their progress.

So when Netflix released all 15 episodes of Arrested Development on the same day, the company clearly intended to have the show follow the same patterns as its previously released fare, knowing that the diehards would devour all 15 episodes while others would look at Netflix as a time-released delivery system, choosing when and where to watch an episode.

The show may prove to be a ratings success for Netflix (though the company will never disclose viewing figures), being was one of the most highly anticipated television events of the year, but the problem is, creatively, Season 4 of Arrested Development isn’t very good.

That’s difficult to swallow, particularly as an obsessed fan of the first three seasons who proselytized on behalf of the show while it was on the air, urging people to watch this wildly inventive, endearingly quirky, oddball comedy. Arrested Development was cleverly biting and bitingly clever, offering its viewers a deeply layered narrative that utilized inside jokes, callbacks, and a lexicon that valued word play and malapropisms. It was not an accessible show, per se, but one that demanded intense dedication on the part of its devoted viewers, who would rattle off quotes said by members of the Bluth clan at any chance they got.

But Season 4 of Arrested Development, once again helmed by creator Mitch Hurwitz, is an entirely different kettle of fish (or pot of hot ham water) than the original. Whereas the first three seasons were subtle, there is a decided lack of finesse here. Season 4 feels like an anvil being dropped on the heads of the viewers, one with a note attached that reads, “LOVE ME. PLEASE LOVE ME. LOVE ME,” all in caps. The humor feels broader and more overtly self-conscious. It trades far too easily on callbacks to the early seasons, a sort of unpleasant fan service that is depressing to watch.

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Missing the old 'Arrested Development?' Watch our mashup of the best f&%^*** bleeps from the first three seasons.

The revival catches up with the Bluths after the cliffhanger ending of the cult show’s low-rated third season, when Lucille (Jessica Walter) commandeered the Queen Mary after being revealed as the true mastermind behind the real estate empire’s most dastardly plots, and follows them through the housing market crash and their attempts at economic (or personal) “recovery.”

Due to necessity, the format is different for Arrested’s fourth season; each episode focuses on a specific Bluth (Michael, Lucille, Tobias, etc.) as locking down the schedules for all of the actors for the entire production was impossible. Instead, an episode doesn’t have a B- or C-storyline, but just a single arc, shuttling backwards and forwards in time, to bring the audience up to date on the efforts of George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) to build (or not build) a wall on the U.S./Mexican border or whatever new depravity GOB (Will Arnett) has embraced. (Bees, limos, and Christian magic are all on the table.)

This new format relies on all of its characters being able to carry an episode on their own (though a few other characters often do turn up throughout), and I’ll be honest here: they’re not always able to. The season opener, which focused on comedic straight man Michael (Jason Bateman)—who loses everything and goes to live in the dorm room occupied by his son, George Michael (Michael Cera), at college—was painful, partially because it showed a lack of understanding of why the original show worked with Michael at its center. (It also lacked the shrewd sense of humor that defined the show’s original run.) Initially, Bateman’s Michael managed to keep the dysfunctional Bluth family together at the cost of his own desires or needs; he was the magnetic north keeping the Bluths on track. But scattered, the Bluths here aren’t a family, they’re strangers who occasionally cross paths and that’s a tricky proposition for a show whose focus is a single family.

It all feels like prologue for the planned Arrested Development film that Hurwitz has been trying to make since the show went off the air in 2006. In fact, there is so much narration—used here as a crutch rather than the comedic tool it was during the show’s Fox run—that the entire 15-episode season feels like a “Previously on Arrested Development” segment told over eight hours. (The narration is one of the revival’s huge missteps. While Ron Howard’s voiceover previously provided some of the show’s smartest cutaways and gags, here it feels belabored and cheap, a way to inject even more exposition into a show that is largely just that.)

These episodes are meant to be interlocking, to bend inwards and reveal new dimensions of scenes we’ve seen before from new perspectives, teasing mysteries that will be solved down the line—Who is GOB sleeping with at the model home? Why is there an ostrich in Lucille’s penthouse? What is going on between George Michael and Maeby (Alia Shawkat)? Why is no one at Lucille’s trial?—but being forced to watch dull scenes again and again is a form of torture rather than narrative ingenuity.

That’s especially true because these episodes feel interminably long. The Fox show had to clock in at 22 minutes or thereabouts because of ad breaks, but with no commercials on Netflix, the show isn’t organized around act breaks or indeed acts. Without this necessary structure, these episodes drag on, sometimes running at 35 minutes long. Which would be fine, if they were brimming with humor, but these episodes often felt plodding and rudderless, in need of significantly tighter editing. The original Arrested Development had to be inventive in order to get past network censors, wary advertisers, and indeed the format of a half-hour broadcast network comedy. But without those limitations, it feels like Season 4 has run amok, with Hurwitz being able to put seemingly everything on the page into each episode. There’s power to be found in having to choose, and any writer will tell you of the Sophie’s Choice that follows when a story—or episode—runs too long, but tightening most often does strengthen the material.

That sort of scrupulousness would have served Season 4 of Arrested Development well. Instead, the plot meanders and drags out. Unfunny jokes—Michael being voted out from the dorm room, Survivor-style—are revisited, while “reveals” are glimpsed way ahead of the narrator confirming viewer suspicions. (If you’re not going to make me laugh, at least surprise me in some way.) The proliferation of actor cameos adds to the uneasy feeling of self-awareness, though there are a few moments that made me chuckle (The “and Jeremy Piven” nightclub shout-out to the title credits of HBO’s Entourage being one), but these moments feel few and far between.

It makes financial sense why Netflix would want to bring back canceled-too-soon Arrested Development and I understand why fans—and I still count myself among their number, despite my reaction to the revival—wanted to take another trip into the world of the Bluths. But, as the song says, you can’t always get what you want. Scripted television, regardless of the platform by which it’s delivered—is meant to be about satisfying what the viewer needs rather than what it wants, a distinct difference that Hurwitz should have embraced. Unfortunately, for Arrested Development, it’s impossible to shake the feeling that they’ve made a huge mistake.