Extended Development?

So it’s finally here. Cancelled in 2006 due to low audience figures, Arrested Development has been given a new lease on life by the online streaming giant Netflix. For the past couple of years, we have had slow trickles of information, endless fan speculation and the promise of a new format for Arrested Development. By teaming up with Netflix, Mitch Hurwitz, the show’s creator, was able to announce that the show’s fourth season would be released in a way never done before: fifteen episodes all at once. Arrested Development’s followers are known for being particularly fanatical so this is nothing but a welcome bonus. I’m sure that on Monday there were many “AD marathons” occurring worldwide.

Taking the opportunity to deliver episodes en masse was not just a way for the writing team to play up to their fans relentless thirst however. Hurwitz really ran with the change of format from TV to internet streaming and decide to alter the entire format of the show. In its previous incarnation, episodes were 20 minutes long and jumped between the antics of its madcap cast of characters, bearing some similarities to the structure of a standard sitcom although the complex in-jokes and amphetamine pacing marked it out as something truly unique. Season four has hyped up Arrested Development’s audaciousness to a whole new level however. Each of the fifteen new episodes follows just one of the beloved cast of characters, and centres around three or four shared ‘scenes’. These communal scenes are revealed piecemeal episode-by-episode, from differing perspectives until we (kind of) have the whole story. Imagine Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying only with a Mongol Horde crashing an invented Mexican holiday (Cinco de cuatro!) and you’re almost there.

So how does this affect the show? Take the first episode for example: Michael Bluth, the ‘straight-guy’ character, is given 35 minutes of screen time charting the 7 years’ worth of events since the show was cancelled. Michael is a strong central character, but mainly because he acts as a foil against the insane antics of his failed magician brother, G.O.B., as well as his Oedipally-challenged brother, Buster. An episode (with a newly-extended length) devoted purely to Michael was seen as a disappointment by both critics and avid fans alike. Arrested Development is prided for its snappy dialogue and situations that play out at such a rapid speed so as to be almost confusing. The new season slurches onto screens and actually gives an impression never before felt by an AD-watcher: that scenes and dialogue are actually being dragged out. And furthermore, the jokes being less densely delivered are not even particularly funny.

This impression stayed with me for the first couple of episodes: what has happened!? Arrested Development was one of the only shows that I felt could actually survive such a long hiatus because the writers poured so much love and attention-to-detail into it.…and then, at around the 5th or 6th episode mark (Tobias and G.O.B.’s) it all started to click together.

It makes perfect sense that the season should have a tipping point, considering the way that it is revealing the overall story in dribs and drabs. Not only this, but it’s actually revealing the in-jokes and references in this way too. So George Michael simply mentioning that he has created a cool new utility called ‘Fakeblock’ in episode one becomes absolutely hilarious when further backstory is revealed in episode thirteen.

This has its pros and cons. The reason that the show seems to flop in the first couple of episodes is that we don’t even know that half of the lines are jokes, and this is because they aren’t yet really: they are punchlines with no set-ups. We also do not often know why characters end up in a certain situations (see Tobias’ ‘To Catch a Predator’ fate) or why certain objects have significance (the martinis laid out on the dining room table). So our reaction as an audience (especially an audience versed in AD-humour) is to be intrigued and keep it in mind for later, but it is not immediately funny.

This kind of delayed significance humour has been used in older seasons, but only over a twenty minute period, whereas now it is over a 15 episode, 7.5 hour span. It’s as if the most complex episode imaginable was stretched over a gigantic canvas and revealed incrementally. This requires a great deal of patience and scuppers the famed pace of the show, but unlike some reviewers, I do actually feel that this pays off… in some ways. The question is, are you really prepared to wait so long for a punchline? Mitch Hurwitz knows his audience, and I think that the die-hard fans will certainly reward this inaccessible, high-investment humour.

So, Arrested Development’s latest season is not exactly what all expected it to be. But let’s look at it like this: the creators were given a freer reign than they could ever have been granted on a television network. Given this opportunity, rather than continue with the fan-familiar sitcom-esque format, Hurwitz created something that we have never really seen before… again. Shows should be allowed to evolve at their creators’ whim, and if this changes the way we have to watch it, we either say, “so be it” or stop watching.

Season four has managed to do something fresh and innovative and has definitely kept the same brand of AD-humour. But the structure is the point that is dividing the critics here, for it indisputably gives the show at least the feeling of being diluted. The main question is: is it still funny? My answer would be: “yes, but not necessarily enjoyable at all times.” But, as any Arrested Development fan will tell you, it is all about the re-watching. Once privy to all the in-jokes and initially hidden storylines, I have a feeling that all that felt like driftwood on first viewing, will spring into life.

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