‘I’ve Made a Huge Mistake’: How Critics Failed Arrested Development

Michael Bluth and Vultures

IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

After a brief wait before being able to dive into the Phoenix-like return of Arrested Development, which two weeks ago released its fourth season over the streaming service Netflix, I have now finally made my way through the labyrinthine genius of this wondrous, multifaceted behemoth, and have been scrambling to try and unpack its splendour in words.

In the next couple of days I hope to inflict my sprawling (admittedly happy-ranting) take on this unprecedented marvel, but before I even get started trying to pick apart its every nuance and ramification (spoiler alert: it does involve me droning on and on about how much I love this new gift of a season), I have decided to add to my already punishingly long treatise by speaking briefly to the mystifying backlash this season seems to have received from a selection of critics in the first few days after its release.

To those who actually did bother to watch each of the new episodes, who got to see what the show was intricately building, experienced its breadth, but nonetheless felt that the show was lacklustre: well to them I will say that although I respectfully (vehemently) disagree, at least they were diligent in their duty as critics. (…But I cannot restrain myself from suggesting that they might want to give it another watch without the press of a crushing, arbitrary review deadline hanging over them – just to give the show space to breathe a little).

However.

To all of the ‘professional’ critics that stayed up until three in the morning on the day the show went live, who watched only a handful of episodes and then hurriedly bashed out snide copy that dismissed the show as a poor shadow of its former glory in order to fish for search hits on the morning of release (I’m looking specifically at you, New York Times television reviewer Mike Hale*), they have every right – indeed, if they take their occupation seriously, the responsibility – to feel ashamed of themselves.

To those critics, who despite now having plenty of time to familiarise themselves with the whole series, still write speculation about the entire season based on only slivers of the tale, they too continue to embarrass themselves.  To take but one example, Sydney Morning Herald commentator Giles Hardy wrote his review for the whole season (in which he declared the show only ‘semi-familiar’, ‘disappointing’, and lacking the ‘reflexes’ it once sported) weeks after release – but clearly after having only viewed the first episode.  His observations about the ‘strange’ new relationship between father and son Michael and George Michael revealed that he had utterly failed to even glean the context of this one moment in the greater narrative (the nature of that ‘new’ relationship is central to the entire season’s conceit), but he was still comfortable pompously deriding the entire exercise as a failure.**

Because even though these reviewers tried to justify their flippant invective, claiming that as this new version of Arrested is still technically labelled a ‘television show’ it can thus be reviewed like any other episodic text, one-at-a-time, with no idea of its place within the larger season’s arc, in reality it is cheap excuses such as this that reveal just how negligent critics like Hale and Hardy have been in their duty.

Firstly, most obviously: this is not a regular season of television.

It was devised and written as a single, cohesive piece, filmed altogether, and released into the world simultaneously.  Hurwitz and company did not take the Netflix model lightly.  They built it into the very DNA of their storytelling and humour.  As a consequence, they have created one of the most intricate, interlocking narratives ever crafted (in all of serialised fiction, let alone the sitcom form); and have offered one of the most inspired commentaries upon comedy, narrative universe-building, and audience investment, ever put to film.

Picking and choosing singular episodes to judge isolated from the whole defeats the very purpose of this viewing experience.  Despite what these critics might claim in order to justify their laziness, it literally is like watching part of a movie, reading half a book, or listening to a couple of tracks off an album, and then scampering back over to their computer to bash out a complaint that the whole work didn’t feel ‘finished’.  The failing is not in the text – it is in the overt hypocrisy of critics who presume they can get by only doing half of their job.

Similarly, it is asinine it is to condemn the show for no longer slavishly sticking to the 22 minute, commercially-oriented-act break format to which it was once forced to abide in its days as a product of broadcast television.  To happily, blatantly condemn a text for what they fantasise it should be, or what they have unjustly presupposed in their heads – rather than actually addressing the form in which it currently presents itself – is embarrassing.  It is the most fundamental mistake that any critic can make.

And secondly: have critics really become this petulant and cynical an audience?

Have they legitimately become so arrogant and eager to voice their opinion that they cannot even be bothered to fully form one before opening their mouths?  In the desperate need to be the first person to speak – to say something before everyone else – do they really have to scramble up to the podium of hyperbole to declare something dead (literally describing it as murdered in the example of Hale) before properly experiencing what it is that they are tearing down?

I mean, no doubt it is fun to shout, ‘Hey guys: that thing you like… it sucks now’ (after all, most every adolescent wallows for a time in that kind of reactionary scepticism), but in this case, actually taking the time to watch the show immediately proves just how inept such a statement is.

Yes, the show is different – that cannot be denied.  The program itself repeatedly leaves the viewer with no illusions that this is a new format, now capable of exploring new themes, a new tone, and new depth.  The necessities of wrangling a group of very talented actors who are all now in high demand (and under other contractual obligations), the need to work at a reduced budget, and the duty to the story itself, mindful of where we left these characters several years ago, required an entirely different method of presenting this season – and creator Mitch Hurwitz, his actors and crew, have found an innovative, creatively inspired, and thematically resonant means through which to do so.

Arrested could so easily have come back as some kind of anodyne reunion special – a three episode ‘mini-movie’ rehash of the old show’s format, shamelessly serving as a taster for a proposed movie.  It could have been a lazy regurgitation of the old, shouting ‘Hey, look at us!  Getting the team back together again!  Remember these gags?  Remember back when we were funny?’

Instead it chose to answer the faith of its audience by providing a season long arc that captures the spirit of the original, but one that has grown, that actually alludes to its potential going forward, one that deepens its characters in unique and legitimised ways, and that performs what is inarguably (whether you agree that it worked or not – and I am going to argue strenuously in the coming days that I thought it worked stunningly well) the most revolutionary leap in the production and delivery of television that has ever been conceived.

By getting cancelled from broadcast television, spending years in production limbo, working around budgetary constraints and a production schedule that must have looked at times like a disassembled Lego set, Arrested Development returned on an entirely new broadcast format and has managed to evolve the whole medium of episodic narrative in heretofore unseen ways.  The Bluth family might make crappy homes (both figuratively and literally), but as this season shows, they make hilariously bulletproof experimental television.

And while this article may all just read like the predictable screed of a die-hard fan who feels that something he loves has been jilted, I do want to reiterate that my indignation does not stem from people disliking the show – they are of course free to think whatever they like.  My issue is with those critics who contemptuously believe that they have the right to fundamentally refuse to respect what a text is asking of them as a viewer, and yet still consider themselves justified in condemning it as having ‘failed’ their fantasised requirements.

The petty part of me hopes that someone is cataloguing all of the negative reviews that have been spilling out over the past two weeks.***  I will enjoy watching those nay-sayers, so eager to leap ahead of their predicted ‘I liked it when it was cool’ clichéd backlash, scrambling as the success of this season and its gathering critical acclaim leave them behind.  Because there will be a certain kind of (admittedly petty) schadenfreude in watching these critics – who claim to seek out and foster the innovative and new, who presume to eschew the predictable and stale – have their reactionary, knee-jerk responses revealed for the lazy pessimism it was.

Indeed I will be curious to see how many of them, in the build up to what I hope will be a season five (please, universe, please…) try to swing back around to the ‘Hey, I always loved it too…’ catch-cry, casually sweeping aside their own words as if they had never been spoken.

Because when those commentators can finally put their egos aside and actually finish the job they were presumably paid to do, they will no doubt find something original and utterly revolutionary awaiting them.  And for a group that likes to bleat on about how they once bravely defended Arrested Development when no one else was watching, it will surely sting for them to realise that a more savvy, evolved audience than they has left their tired conventional thinking behind.

 arrested characters thumb

 IMAGE: Arrested Development (Netflix)

* Indeed, I notice that Hale’s review is nonetheless still being counted on the Arrested Development (season 4) Metacritic page, despite the fact that he himself admits to having not watched the whole season, and as of this writing, has not amended his initial, un-contextualised thoughts.

** Giles’ review, although included in their paper edition, is conspicuously absent from the Sydney Morning Herald’s online review section – one hopes indicating that perhaps even his editors knew it to be an insufficiently considered response to the season.

*** At least Ted Sarandos, Chief Content Officer of Netflix is willing to call them out and keep their inattentive response in context, even if he only means it playfully (http://variety.com/2013/digital/news/netflix-chief-rips-new-york-times-over-negative-arrested-development-review-1200489764/).

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