It’s been pretty hard to miss over the last few months, but just in case you’ve been sleeping under a rock in the middle of the desert, Arrested Development (Fox 2003–2006, Netflix 2013) is back. Cancelled seven years ago after three critically-acclaimed-but-ratings-poor seasons, the show’s fourth season finally premiered on Netflix Sunday and—in addition to being an extremely funny season of television—it’s probably the best example yet of how Netflix is changing what television looks like.
Even though it originated on Fox and Netflix is billing it as a “semi-original series,” Arrested Development actually feels more like something you’d never watch on television than previous Netflix original series House of Cards and Hemlock Grove, both of which felt like premium cable shows that HBO and Showtime lost the bidding wars for.
Instead of returning with 15 more episodes of the same old Arrested Development, the new season tries out a totally different structure. Each episode centers on a different member of the Bluth clan (adopted kids and Bluth-in-law Tobias get to play too). Part of that was by necessity, as finding a shooting schedule for the entire cast at once proved impossible, but part of it is simply Arrested Development trying to tell a much larger and more complicated story than it attempted in the past.
Even when it was airing on Fox, Arrested Development has always been dense. By which I mean, the number of jokes and references in a single minute of an episode would sometimes outpace entire episodes of other shows. Now, though, the show isn’t just dense, it’s tremendously interconnected from episode to episode. There’s a throw-away joke in an early episode that seems to reference a joke from the new season’s first episode but is actually setting up a running joke in episode 12. And that kind of structure, where the show will sometimes establish a joke you won’t get the punchline to for hours, is surprisingly common.
Most of the disappointment I’ve seen about the new season seems to come from fans saying that the it fails to live up to the first three. Unless you judge the new season on its own terms, its hard to disagree with that assessment. Thanks to the extended run time (Fox episodes generally ran 22 minutes, here they run as long as 38) the pacing often seems slower. Concentrating on one character at a time means fan favorites can sometimes disappear for hours. For instance, Buster (Tony Hale) is almost totally absent for the first half of the season, though his spotlight episode toward the end is a season highlight.
As the season builds up steam, however, it becomes more obvious what the show is trying to do as the episodes start to overlap and reframe what you’ve already seen. In many ways this isn’t 15 new episodes of Arrested Development, but one long, almost eight-hour episode of the show.
That’s why I’m kind of confused by creator Mitch Hurwitz’s suggestion to watch the new season in installments instead of shotgunning the entire season in a weekend, the way many viewers did with previous Netflix original House of Cards.
He might be trying to avoid the fatigue that Cards suffered from when viewed all at once. I watched that entire show in a day for a previous column and a week later, I had trouble remembering which episode major events took place in. It doesn’t seem necessary here however. Since Arrested Development jumps between characters each episode, its easy to remember what happened when.
Rationing out the season also seems unnecessary (despite the fact that, at best, it will be a few years before the next episode) because the new Arrested Development gains even more on a rewatch than the show’s Fox run, which already had amazing staying power. The early episodes of the new run are just as interconnected as the later ones—you just don’t know it yet on your first viewing. Jokes that seemed like wastes of time are now the funniest in the episode.
Of course, you don’t have to watch the new season this way. It’s still perfectly enjoyable without dedicating a third of your day to really trying to pin down the complexities of how episode 14 connects to episode one. It’s just that the downsides to telling one eight-hour story are more obvious this way. And, despite the season’s many high-points there are some problems as well.
Early episodes gain a lot on rewatching but that’s because they’re largely the weakest on a first watch. It’d be hard to blame long-time Arrested Development fans for being disappointed if they watch just the first two episodes and then take a break.
Part of that is just the story taking some time to get rolling. Some of it is a problem with the season’s structure. When given the focus for a full half hour, some members of the Bluth clan simply can’t carry an episode by themselves, relying on guest actors to move the story along for large parts of the run time.
In fact, there are so many guest actors in the new season it can be distracting at times. Less than a minute into the new season, Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen show up as younger versions of Lucile and George Sr., while The Office’s John Krasinski appears for a single (admittedly hilarious) throw away joke. Even literal extras are famous comedians at times. Community creator Dan Harmon appears for a grand total of three seconds in the second episode.
But the new structure also brings some significant advantages, even for viewers taking it slow. Some episodes may feel plodding in isolation, but that also means the occasional episode with 36 straight minutes of GOB (Will Arnett), which I don’t think anybody has a problem with. There’s also an even more complete sense of history in the new season, with almost all of the show’s most famous running jokes getting some sort of reference (though it’s usually more clever than a simple callback).
Mostly, though, the format is a testament to the kind of faith Arrested Development has in its audience, telling a story that’s so complex for a sitcom I can’t think of anyone but Netflix that would air it in the U.S. and saying that kind of storytelling is what fans want. (And the fact that the new episodes were pirated more than 100,000 times in the first 24 hours says something about how much interest there is outside of Netflix subscribers.) It may falter at times in its execution, especially for die-hard fans who wanted more of the same, but there’s no doubt that what Hurwitz and the rest of the Arrested Development team have done with this new season is going to pave the way for a new kind of comedic storytelling online.