Maybe it’s my pre-pubescent sense of humor, but the funniest aspect of the fourth season of Arrested Development is Tobias’ new license plate which reads “ANUSTART.” In his bizarro world, that’s supposed to be plate-speak for “A New Start.” The schtick pops up again in a later episode when Lucille 1 encounters Tobias in rehab, greeting him not by his name, but instead as “Anus Tart” (without even knowing about his new plate). This moment made me laugh out loud, but was unfortunately one of only a few that did in the 15 episodes I watched over the course of a week.
As I feared in my last Tube column, the current season of Arrested Development streaming on Netflix is bloated with details, is narratively repetitive and generally doesn’t meet the standards set by preceding seasons—although as the episodes progressed they did become increasingly enjoyable. But what could we realistically expect? Part of what made Arrested Development great was the interactions between characters, but due to ensemble cast scheduling conflicts, each character stars in his or her own episode with the others appearing only for a scene or not at all. Ron Howard, the show’s executive producer, seems to get more screen time than anyone.
In all fairness, the day after its Memorial Day release, it received some positive feedback. The San Francisco Chronicle said, “The new season is not only as smart and absurdly funny as ever, but also reflects the rapid changes in how we watch television.” The Hollywood Reporter praised the show, “Its structure revealed its glorious ambition and the combination of absurdity and intelligence meshed as well or better than you might have remembered from the original three seasons.” More in line with my cynical view, however, was the The Wall Street Journal, which called the show a “shaky imitation of itself” and Variety compared this season to a “reunion special” that was “more interesting on paper.”
Beyond the debate over whether the show is still good (as I’m sure many of you enjoyed the hell out of it, and that’s okay!), I’m interested in what this show means in terms of the relationship between traditional television and that other medium to which we often attribute revolutionary and utopian potential: the internet.
What everyone seemed to be excited about in regard to Arrested Development was not only that a beloved show was coming back in streaming form, but also that the episodes could be marathoned (or binge-watched) at once. Internet streaming via companies like Netflix has become a potential rescuer of quality, niche programming that the dinosaur broadcast networks have deemed unprofitable. It’s also a method of viewing that puts viewers in control of their own schedules. The internet has basically been positioned as TV’s savior, as its revolutionizer and future, but even this claim isn’t new. Remote controls, VHS tapes, DVRs and even channels like HBO have all been framed similarly.
Following these hyperbolic proclamations and shortly after Arrested Development’s season four debut, The New York Times melodramatically published, “Chalk one up for the Internet: It has killed Arrested Development.” So, the heralded savior of TV turned around and killed TV? This article and others firstly blamed the experience of marathoning as part of the problem, or part of why these new episodes are less impressive than the originals. Viewed back-to-back we are more likely to notice plot inconsistencies and character deficiencies. I wonder, though, if that’s a problem inherent in the show itself or the method of watching? If a show is truly on par the opposite would be true, too, and we’d also notice so many more complexities and subtle bits of humor. The internet, a lot like buying DVD box sets not so long ago, gives us all the episodes at once, but some critics are suggesting that maybe there is something to be said about delayed satisfaction, or the enjoyment that can come from anticipating an episode and thinking about a show after it airs week after week after painstaking week.
Netflix streaming was also positioned as revolutionizing TV by breaking down time constraints imposed by strict programming schedules and commercial breaks. When Arrested Development aired on FOX, episodes averaged 21 or 22 minutes long, but now the times vary, with many of the commercial-free episodes extending over half an hour in length. The overdramatic New York Times article referenced earlier discussed this difference, calling the original, shorter episodes “tight” and “bright,” and the new, non-time-constrained episodes “slowed down” and “dragged out.” So did the old and allegedly creativity-constraining broadcast television model actually lead to a better product? Maybe so, at least in the case of Arrested Development.
Arrested Development is just another example of the way we tend to hype the internet—or companies like Netflix or Hulu or HBO—as completely challenging current television models and programming trends. We are promised that X, Y or Z will revolutionize EVERYTHING, but really we are just experiencing a series of small shifts that are sometimes new and exciting, and other times rooted in past technologies or practices. Of course, the television industry is in flux, and what “television” even means anymore is not entirely clear. At the very least, amid incessant claims that TV is looking a lot more like the internet, I think it could just as easily be claimed that the internet is also looking a lot more like TV, with its ever broadening amount of entertainment options, original programming ventures and show-resurrections like Arrested Development.
Melissa Zimdars wishes Netflix would bring back the early ’90s anthropomorphic dinosaur sitcom, Dinosaurs.