In Defense of Development

It’s been awhile now since the long awaiting release of additional episodes of the cult television show Arrested Development and the massive fanbase has had time to devour the season on Netflix. In the last few days word came down that Netflix is investigating the possibility of another set of episodes, so we know that this new season has been a success so far. However, a number of people have begun allowing their negative opinions to flow. Culture blog Flavorwire published this piece in which the author says she doesn’t think AD deserves another season after this one for a number of reasons. I’m on the other side here.

Arrested Development was a truly amazing show when it aired on Fox years ago. It featured great writing, amazing characters, incredible actors playing those characters and it wasn’t afraid to cater to the few fans that sought the show out even as Fox moved it all over their schedule. Creator Mitch Horowitz established some very funny running gags and made the callbacks very rewarding to the sharp eyed fans. He pushed the characters through many different seasons and manias as he crafted the craziness of life in the Bluth family. His willingness to do all this and make it work is part of what made the fans fall in love with the show. When Fox canceled the program and aired the last four episodes back-to-back opposite the closing ceremonies of the Olympics, fans were devastated and infuriated. Their beacon of creatively crazy sitcoms was gone.

This wasn’t the first time that Fox killed a smart and original show to the outrage of a rabid fanbase. Firefly is often the poster child for such lamentation, though Joss Whedon did manage to get a wrap-up movie made (plus he landed on his feet). But let’s look at Futurama. Fox gave Futurama 4 seasons before casting it off. But when the re-runs on Cartoon Network started to building a major audience (along with Family Guy, which Fox actually brought back), a revival effort got underway with Comedy Central. They decided to try making 4 DVD movies that could be split into episodes for air on Comedy Central. That decision resulted in 4 stilted movies that were still pretty darn good. Good enough that Comedy Central ordered 2 additional seasons and the show was back to playing to its strength of 30 minute episodes. The point is that, in order to get Futurama back in production, the creator (David X. Cohen) had to work with what he had and what he had was an order for 4 movies that were splittable. And it worked.

Back to AD. Horowitz was given a monumental task by Netflix: produce more episodes of a show that’s been off the air for 7 years, bring back the sizable original cast who are all involved with other projects and schedules and command bigger salaries, and make lots of money for Netflix.

What Horowitz did was, again, creatively amazing. He looked at the constrictions of the task at hand and came up with a way of putting the pieces together in a way that was different, but perfect. He realized that there was no way he would be able to film the new season like he had filmed the last four. The actors were all over the place and their schedules were all booked up. He would have to film the entire season piecemeal, which was fine because Netflix wanted to release the whole thing at once anyway! From there, it was a short jump to the biggest creative gamble of all: don’t just film it piecemeal, air it piecemeal. Horowitz decided that, instead of airing the story in a linear fashion, he would center each episode around a different singular character’s storyline and have the rest of the characters pop in and out. The result was a marvel of screenwriting and organization. Storylines spun out slowly and comedic payoff was intentionally delayed as the storyline branched off away from the viewers only to circle back later for a hugely satisfying fulfillment. As the viewers desperately tried to stitch things together in their minds, they found themselves engrossed in every nuance of each episodes, combing the backgrounds and the off-screen sounds looking for clues. And as soon as the season was over, the desire to watch it again to look for more easter eggs was overwhelming (at least for me).

Now, this structural choice had some obvious drawbacks. To me, the biggest drawback was the fact that the first 2-3 episodes were immediately perceived as difficult and dull because those episodes were tasked with re-introducing the show while debuting the new structure as well. It was easy to get lost and feel like this was going nowhere. It was only when the foundation of those episodes was built upon that the joy really began to form.

The other drawback was the fact that the Bluth family could never really all be together except for one scene (which, apparently, had some green screen voodoo to it as well). The scheduling problem made that almost impossible.

In conclusion, I loved the new season and found it to be different but awesome. The fact that Horowitz took an almost impossible goal and met with with such aplomb was commendable. Netflix original content is an almost completely new medium and Horowitz showed what can be done with the freedom that the format allows. With that said, I’m guessing that any further misadventures of the Bluth family will not follow this structure. If Netflix is serious about more episodes (and I think they are), they should be willing to wait for the schedules of their actors to line up so they can all film together.

I think a lesson we have to take from the revival of shows like Firefly, Futurama and Arrested Development is that it’s hard to execute. And if it happens, it might not look the same. But if there is a good creative force behind the show (like Whedon, Cohen or Horowitz), we’ll be in good hands.

Should Netflix attempt to revive another canceled show or lean more heavily on truly original content like House of Cards or Orange is the New Black?


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