The Spectacle Blog

“Arrested Development”: A Great American Masterpiece?

By on 6.4.13 | 3:31PM

What do a limousine full of bees, a methadone clinic, maritime law, and an ostrich farm have in common?  That’s right, it’s the fourth season of Arrested Development.

One week after the sitcom’s Netflix release date, Mitch Hurwitz’s foray into the new instant-watch medium has raised important questions about the future of original programming, the consequences of binge-watching, and the success of a nonlinear storytelling structure worthy of a great American novel.

Though Netflix refused to release viewership statistics, CEO Reed Hastings announced that the numbers exceeded expectations. According to Procera, three times the number of viewers watched Arrested Development last Sunday than House of Cards on its February release date. Furthermore, 10 percent of viewers completed the entire season by Monday morning, suggesting that many elected to binge-watch.

Hurwitz predicted that most viewers would employ a version of “modified binge watching, just like the majority of novel readers […] you know, you don’t read it all at once, but you are in control of when you feel like going back to it.”

Internet hype surrounding the season’s release has revitalized the binge-watching debate. According to Slate, binge-watching destroys the “integrity of the artform,” preventing the viewer from identifying with the main characters and compressing the narrative arc to a meaningless minutia.

Excessive binge-watching may have contributed to early mixed reviews, which resulted in a 6 percent drop in Netflix’s stock last Tuesday. “The previous seasons had seven years to sink into peoples' psyche, to allow all the jokes and subplots to be processed. I think a few more views will help, although I don't think it will ever be on par with the previous seasons,” long-time fan Vivi Machi told TAS

Die-hard Arrested Development enthusiast Jessica Phippen reflected that, given seven years of high expectations from fans, the impossibility of having all the actors in one place at one time, and the challenge of balancing references to running jokes with planting new ones, Hurwitz’s fourth season was successful.

“I think he did his series proud. He consciously left out some of the series' biggest running jokes that have been gif-ed and youtube-remixed to death by now,” Phippen said in an interview with TAS. “In its place we were introduced to face-blindness, Heartfire, and a disgraced anesthesiologist. I'm not upset.”

Unlike with previous Arrested Development on network television, the new online medium allows the viewer complete control of viewing speed and order. “A new medium requires a new format," Hurwitz said. Netflix’s lack of restrictions on episode length, its absence of commercial breaks, and the customizability of the online viewing experience allowed Hurwitz to take creative advantage of his new stylistic freedom. 

Reminiscent of William Faulkner’s great American novel The Sound and the Fury, Arrested Development boasts divergent yet concurrent storylines, with each episode focused on a single character. In The Sound and the Fury, Faulkner’s interweaving and nonlinear plot structure necessitates a close reading and re-reading. Other novels that famously followed the same format include Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying and Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five.

Hurwitz likewise embedded layers of complexity that he believes requires careful viewing and perhaps, re-watching:

“On television [it] was basically like publishing a short story in the Saturday Evening Post every week. [Season four] is more like a novel where you presume the reader is interested enough they’ll go back and reread a section and go, “Oh that’s what that’s about, I see.” Hurwitz told Wired.

Even Hurwitz’s copious casting of ostriches (he admits the fourth season is “bird-heavy”) reflects multiple layers of meaning. In season one, Lindsey remarked, "I don’t care about ostriches." Naturally in the fourth season, the ostriches get their revenge.

Arrested Development is unique in its woven complexity. Its novel structure is well suited to online streaming services like Netflix, which provide a lot more creative liberty to directors and viewers alike.  Once fans have had time to sort through rich references and untangle the plot, I think that Hurwitz’s creation will be appreciated in a manner befitting of a great American masterpiece.

For those of us left wishing for more Bluth blunders, there is hope. Netflix CEO Hastings has expressed interest in doing more seasons of Arrested Development. Moreover, Netflix plans to increase its budget for original programming from 5 percent to 15 percent, and double its original content over the next 18 months.

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