‘Come On?!’: Thoughts Before the Return of Arrested Development

arrested-developement cast netflix

IMAGE: Arrested Development cast (Netflix)

It seems a tedious understatement to say that the return of Arrested Development (due to release its entire fourth series in Netflix streaming this very weekend) is creating something of a media frenzy.  Indeed, it’s such a predictable observation to make, it would be like beginning this article with the phrase, ‘Unless you’ve been living under a rock…’ – something I’ve sadly read far too often this past week.

So unless you are in a share-rent arrangement with some sedimentary or igneous housemates (or trying to pay down your mortgage to a scorpion – what do I know about your lifestyle?) you are no doubt well aware that a minor miracle has occurred in the world of television land, and – for better or worse – a spectacular show once cancelled before it’s time is about to lurch back to life, stagger out into the night, and growl ‘Michael!‘ one more time.

For those who are themselves not fans of the show – looking on nonplussed as everyone around them tweets about ‘blueing themselves’, shares awareness PSAs about ‘never-nudes’, references bags of dead doves and seemingly arbitrarily spouts the word ‘Her?‘ – it might appear that a certain slice of the human populace has suddenly been indoctrinated into a manic cult, all staring at a Netflix countdown as if it indicated the return of their Grand Leader, come to whisk them off to a promised land on a low-flying comet.  No doubt those mystified few look forward to the day they can scroll through websites without seeing references to a one armed man preaching ‘And that’s why you don’t [insert subject of internet meme here]…’

Personally, I’m with the crazies.

I too am simply rocking in place repeating the word, ‘Annyong’ to myself while I wait.  After all, watching Arrested Development get choked to death by Fox (who even went so far as to passive aggressively burn off their final episodes months late, scheduled against the opening of the Winter Olympics) was up there with the cancellation of Firefly (also Fox) in the pantheon of Pop-Culture-Outrages-That-Jerks-Like-Me-Drive-Their-Loved-Ones-Insane-Complaining-About.

…Although, if I’m honest, that’s a long list.

I’ve already spoken (did I say ‘spoken’, I meant ‘ranted gleefully’) of my enthusiasm for this upcoming season (here), but I’m by no means alone in my anticipation.

This past week, fans have counting down the hours, revisiting all of the old episodes, swarming promotional Frozen Banana stands the world over (here), trying to reason out how exactly they will watch the episodes given that all fifteen episodes will be available in one immediate glut, no longer restrained by the network schedule.

Forbes contributor Dorothy Pomerantz reasoned that rather than devour them all in one binge, she will restrain herself, watching them one at a time, week by week, reluctant to let the experience end (here).

I know precisely what she means – having lived through those early years of Arrested Development when the show was perpetually teetering on the edge of cancelation, wondering why no one else was watching something so sublime, I too would savour each episode, knowing every week that it could be the last…  However, while I know in theory that I want to follow her lead, and space out my viewing, I know I’m going to hear that little ukulele riff as the end credits roll, and not be able to stop myself firing up the next one…  Truly, I won’t be able to stop.  It’s an addiction.  It was the same sensation I had after each episode ended when they were played live to air: ‘Give me the next one! I just want to see one more, and then I’ll switch it off.  Really, I’ll definitely stop then.  Probably.’

After all, it was that very (slightly obsessive compulsive) moreish longing from fans that allowed the show to live on and resurrect itself so long after its unjust cancellation.  And thankfully Arrested is one of those spectacular shows that actually encourages and rewards multiple repeat viewings, revealing itself all the more hilariously dense and interconnected with each run through.  You can blast through it in one go, but that’s really only a skim-reading.  As the cliché goes, ‘There’s always money in the banana stand’, and if you don’t go back and look for it, you’re missing half the fun.

But just as predictable as all the excitement and frivolity, the return of Arrested Development has also resulted in some cynical critical blowback.  Before even a single episode of the show has been viewed some members of the media are already trying to leap to the front of the hipster naysayer wave and downplay the fun.

On the lower end of the scale, the A.V. Club, after spending literally years fanning the speculation and anticipation of Arrested’s return, recently ran a roundtable discussion with its contributors to somewhat ironically warn against hoping for too much, and opining the culture of hype and fandom that has been gleefully celebrating this event – a fandom that has arguably defined their own editorial ethos for the entire span of their publication (and I say that as a great fan of their site) (here).

On the higher end, one of the worst reactions to the return of the show has been from critics like Mary McNamara, television writer for The Los Angeles Times, who has gone on the offensive in an article titled ‘Arrested Development kicks critics in the teeth at its own peril’, openly decrying Netflix and the creators of the show for what she considers to be the arrogance of refusing to send out preview discs of the first couple of episodes to reviewers (here).

In one of the most extraordinary and petulant screeds I’ve seen published in a newspaper, a critic throwing a hissy fit because they feel that their role as bastion of critical discourse has been usurped by the lowly rabble, McNamara declared that she felt personally slighted to be left out of the traditional exchange of textual dispersal.  See, traditionally, the creators send the critics previews, they give their interpretations, and the audience take their cues from them, deciding whether or not to watch on the day of release based upon what they have written.

Netflix was violating this tradition, she felt, and so, in perhaps the most ineffectual of boycotts ever, McNamara declared that perhaps all critics should just start reviewing show ‘whenever the heck we get around to it.’

Sure, the show is a love note to the fans who brought it back to life, and so it was a stated priority that fans should see it first; sure, it is no longer dependent upon the advertising and timeslot constraints of its network brethren, so it does not actually require critics to applaud it and direct people to watch it; sure Mitch Hurwitz has already called this fourth ‘season’ a 700 minute movie, and slicing a couple of episodes out to put on a critic taster plate defeats the whole purpose of devising the show in that way…  McNamara wants to watch her free show early, and it is a moral issue that she has been denied.

I mean, I agree with her that history has not shown un-previewed material to have a great track record – there is a reason no one got a glimpse of The Adventures of Pluto Nash before it opened – but this is a uniquely, fundamentally ensemble work, that is said to truly require this all-encompassing format.  Asking it to bend to her will because she is a critic and must be satisfied is a little asinine.  And I acknowledge that, as she says, there is a purpose for critics and reviewers, that in some cases, their writing has helped keep shows like Arrested Development on air even in the face of low viewing numbers – but they are not gods.  It is not their responsibility to help audiences form into lines and nod or shake their heads in the way they dictate is appropriate.

Thinking such things – that it was solely critics who helped save this program, injured little bird that it was, from death; that it is critics who should sit at the adults table of analytical discourse while the regular folk squabble and fight for the scraps at the kiddies bench – is not only demeaning to the virtues of the program itself, but disrespectful of the program’s creators and their devoted audience, all of whom were actually responsible for keeping interest in this project alive.  As a critic who should be able to discern when their ego has clouded their vision, McNamara might well have failed at her duty this time around.

In any case, Arrested Development is once again upon us.  Perhaps not in its familiar form.  Perhaps not through familiar channels.  Perhaps not at the whim of critics who demand more devotion.  All I know is that on the brief teaser I let myself glimpse I saw GOB call himself a ‘gentleman honey farmer’, and watched his father get attacked by a swarm bees from a limo.  I have no context for any of it.  It all remains an exquisite mystery.  And yet I am all in.

I’m still rocking in place.  Still waiting.

Annyong.

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

EDIT:

It’s now only hours after the episodes went live, and already some of the knives are out.  The New York Times reviewer Mike Hale, despite admitting that he has not actually watched all of the episodes yet, has declared the new season a dud (here).  Plodding, interminable, an exercise in plot at the sacrifice of comedy, he went so far as to literally declare the show ‘dead’:

‘Chalk one up for the internet: It has killed Arrested Development.

Yikes.

The internet ‘killed’ Arrested Development?  Good thing the internet doesn’t encourage ludicrous hyperbole.

He pronounced the show dead, while admitting that he had only seen eight of the fifteen episodes, and had already written off the intricacies of an entirely new narrative style – specifically designed for this format – without even having seen how it all plays out.

Gee, I wonder why Netflix didn’t want to release screeners to reviewers ahead of the show’s launch?  With such level-headed and fair critique awaiting them as is on display here, I bet they feel like fools now.

Personally, I don’t feel the need to stay locked into the expectation of what once was.  Arrested is a show that has always been experimental, and ahead of its time.  If it wants to expand its potential in such a way, to take risks with the format and perhaps revolutionise the way television program and narrative is consumed, I look forward to taking the ride with them.

If it fails, so be it.  But – unlike the professional reviewers at The New York Times who are apparently paid to do this for a living – I’ll wait until I’ve seen all fifteen episodes before I call time of death.

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