I typically don’t review sitcoms (even very good ones), but Arrested Development is a little bit of a special case. Not because of it’s popularity amongst the digital denizens or it’s uncanny ability to generate memes and quotable catch-phrases. It is undeniable that the three seasons of this show had a tremendous, long lasting impact on internet culture – greater than any other TV series that not written/directed by Joss Whedon or set in Star Trek universe.
Season 4 of Arrested Development is special because it is the first ever attempt to resurrect a series that was cancelled at the height of it’s popularity, on a purely digital platform. As it is right now, the new season is only available through Netflix which is more or less ground breaking for several different reasons.
In the recent years online distribution services such as Netflix and Hulu have seen their business falter. Before that they have enjoyed a steady growth and all but killed the brick and mortar movie rental business. Blockbuster simply could not compete with a company that could deliver movies into your living room instantly at the fraction of the price and with almost no expense on their end other than the flat overhead of monthly bandwidth and server maintenance. Digital distribution won and it seemed it was destined to all but replace traditional channels… Until of course studio execs noticed how little money companies like Netflix had to spend to operate their business and decided they could technically set up bunch of their own servers, and this way they wouldn’t need to share steaming profits with anyone.
And so, motivated by greed major studios started pulling out their big, recognizable films and series from all of the popular distribution services and creating their own, limited streaming services. Of course most of these digital initiatives failed, because the executives failed to realize what made Netflix so popular in the first place. A service to which you can subscribe and get access to all the latest movies and TV series has a tremendous amount of value to an end user – a studio specific services that offer only a narrow selection of moivies does not. No one wants to subscribe to seven or fifteen different streaming sites just so they can keep up with all the latest releases.
So greed and hubris of content producers shook the digital distribution platform. Profits of Netflix and their competitors took a dive. The dedicated streaming platforms studios planned to put together either never saw the light of day, or were rolled up soon after they were put online due to a dire lack of subscribers. The only people who profited from this shake-up were companies like RedBox who figured out a loophole in the Hollywood digital distribution strategy: they found a way to run a brick-and-mortar distribution network while offering rentals at digital distribution prices by using vending machines.
The problem Netflix had was that their business model was basically that of a middle man. This has worked well for them when the physical distribution channels were relevant. Middle men could always find business in the brick and mortar world because content creators typically never had the reach or resources to sell their products directly to their customers. Digital distribution is much less resource intensive because you don’t actually need a lot of man power (save for a few network admins) or geographical coverage. And so, sooner or later people start trying to cut the middle-man out to decrease their overhead. For Netflix and Hulu this meant that the people who hired them to distribute their wares became their competitors almost overnight. That’s a rather shitty position to be in.
So what do you do when you are a content distributor with a rapidly shrinking library and subscriber base? Well, there is a few things you can do: you can close shop, you can refocus or… You can start creating your own content.
This is really why most people subscribe to premium TV channels such as HBO or Showtime isn’t it? Yes, the movies are really great, but the real selling point of these networks is not their movie catalog but their original series. It’s Sopranos, Game of Thrones, Dexter and etc.. So if Netflix could start producing exclusive series that would only be available to their subscribers they essentially could become the online version of HBO. They could retain and increase their user base, and eventually content providers who pulled their movies from their service to prop up their own failing steaming initiatives would come crawling back.
And what better series to produce than a critically acclaimed, internet darling sitcom that has a huge (if not fanatical) built in audience and a cast that is ready and willing, ready and able to make it happen. It sounds like a slam dunk on paper…
Unfortunately, the execution is a little flawed. Part of it is the format of the series which diverges from what fans knew from previous seasons. It is partly driven by production problems. As it usually happens when a popular series wraps up, the cast of Arrested Development has moved on with their own careers. Almost everyone who was involved with the show has had a more or less successful career. There were a lot of scheduling conflicts for the cast and it was impossible to have the whole gang there for the full duration of the shoot.
The show creators figured out a rather brilliant way to make it work: they essentially wrote the entire season’s story arc around the conflicting schedules. The inability of all the actors to be in a single room became an integral part of the plot: it influences both the events that happen in the series and also how they are presented.
Arrested Development has always been one of the very few shows that borrowed a literary mechanic known as the omnipotent narrator and used it with a great deal of success. In Season 4 Ron Howard returns as the narrator but the series borrows another literary mechanic: subjective point of view storytelling. Each episode of the new season is told from the perspective of one of the characters. Instead of cutting away to other members of the Bluth family, episodes tend to follow one or two key characters rather closely. While the narrator is still all-knowing and still provides necessary exposition and info-dumps, this time around he has a much narrower focus and doesn’t tell the viewers everything.
The storytelling is not linear, but rather jumps back and forward in time revealing what happened to the Bluths in the five years since the events of season 3 finale. Since every family member gets one or two episodes from their POV, the viewers get to revisit a number of big plot events numerous time. The fun part is that each time we have more knowledge of what happened before and after and frequently rather innocent conversations or mundane events turn to hilarious misunderstandings or big gotcha moments.
The main problem with the season is that it starts very slow. The first five episodes do most of the heavy lifting establishing the basic timeline framework over which the remaining 10 episodes will be looping around. Unfortunately, in an effort not to tip their hand too early they exercised a lot of restraint with these. The jokes are a little sparse, the plot is a little thin and editing seems a bit less snappy. Some jokes simply drag on far too long, whereas the original seasons have always had implacable timing cutting away right after the punchline, or letting the audience figure out the funny bit. The early episodes also rely a little bit too heavily on Ron Howard’s narration to provide exposition, framing and keep the convoluted timeline straight. There were times I genuinely wished he would shut up and let the characters talk for themselves.
Most of these problems are resolved in the later episodes which build on top of the initial frameworks and fill in the blank spots. What seemed like a joke that has overstayed it’s welcome now becomes twice as funny now that we know characters are having one of the classic, convoluted misunderstandings that the series was famous for. What might have seemed like a missed opportunity for a funny joke turns out to be a conscious omission – the second or third time around through the scene the anticipated punchline not only arrives, but is delivered from the direction you didn’t necessarily expect.
The real payoffs do not come until the much anticipated Maeby’s and George Michael’s episodes and the season finale which actually fill out a lot of missing pieces and tie the story together. In the end the season is full of the same kind of hilarious clusterfucks, misunderstandings, betrayals and absurd satire as before.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Social Network riff they did with George Michael’s story. Especially the conclusion and the payoff near the end of the season that reveals that for all of his innocence and strong moral convictions the young Bluth is his father’s son plagued with almost the exact same set of character flaws and same propensity to lie, scheme and cheat as the rest of the family. I loved seeing Michael somehow find himself in the middle of another love triangle train-wreck. I liked the unexpected twists in Gob’s story and the fact that Tobias who still can’t utter a single sentence which is not a homosexual innuendo was actually not the gayest Bluth in this season. There are a lot of laughs to be had, and a few heartfelt, poignant moments in there – the problem is that they are almost all near the end. The series is bottom heavy with very little to show in it’s opening act.
After watching all 15 episodes back to back, I can honestly say it was a very decent effort. It works well as a whole, but individually the episodes can be weak at times – especially the second episode featuring George Sr. and Oscar running cons employing a sweat lodge and trying to build a wall on the border between US and Mexico. While structurally important to the story this was likely the weakest episode of the entire series. But it does get better. If you give it a chance the ending is rather satisfying, and open ended leaving some story-lines open so that they could lead into a theoretical season 5 which Netflix said they would be interested in funding if the cast and crew have any jokes still left in them.
It is definitely not the same series anymore – everyone is older, the jokes are subtly different and the format feels nothing like the past seasons. Still, you have to give the series creators credit for working with a hard schedule, and yet still striving to keep the series fresh and innovate. They could have easily revived the series by simply re-hashing old jokes and creating 15 episodes of self-referential circlejerk but they decided to do something else. They decided to tell a new story that is markedly different from anything they have done before, and yet at the same time very familiar and very Arrested Development. I think the series as a whole is better for it, and for one I hope they will make another season.
Protip: re-watch the first five or six episodes after you’re done with season finale – they are suddenly 50% more funny. Also, pay attention to the way characters phrase their lines sometimes. There is an incredible amount of foreshadowing and forward referencing in the places where you least expect it.
One thing is certain: for Netflix the project was a success and also a small victory they can rub into content providers faces. According to the same kind of unreliable estimates Hollywood studios use to show how many sales they lose when people pirate their shows and movies, there were actually more people who paid to see Arrested Development in the first week than who pirated it. This is something virtually unheard – none of the TV shows currently aired on cable, network and premium channels had ever even came close to such low piracy numbers. Why is that? Well, the truth is that if you give people an affordable, easy and hassle-free way to access the shows they like they will be more than willing to pay for it. Netflicks can deliver original shows directly to their customer, whereas content producers such as HBO do not have a direct relationship with the consumer but must rely on Cable companies to negotiate that relationship for them.