Tuesday, May 28, 2013

TV Reflections: Arrested Development Season 4

Sometimes, for whatever reason, great shows with big cult followings (Futurama, Arrested Development, Firefly) get canceled. Sometimes, a different network brings the show back (Futurama).  Sometimes, they don’t (Firefly).  But for the first time, the network that brought a show back (Arrested Development) isn’t really a traditional TV network at all but a paid streaming service. It’s called Netflix and there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve probably heard of it.  Netflix released the entire fifteen-episode season all at once on May 26th, allowing people to watch the whole thing at once if they so chose, or bit by bit (also if they so chose).

Yes, Netflix funded a fourth season of Arrested Development, years after it was taken off air.  I was a bit apprehensive going in, since it’d been a while and shows that get uncancelled tend to not be as good.

After a marathon of all fifteen new episodes, I came to the conclusion that the fourth season was, at very least, just as good as the first three.  It was different, but still very good.  But different.  And that’s what I’m going to be talking about: how it was different, how it was the same, and what Netflix’s “season-at-a-time” approach might change the television medium as we know it.

Arrested Development has always been built on running gags.  Anyone who’s seen the show will recognize a lot of phrases (I’ve made a huge mistake, there’s always money in the banana stand, that’s a freebie, illusion, no touching, etc.), and they’re part of what makes the show so great. Running gags are a tricky business since they risk getting really old really quickly, but Arrested Development absolutely nailed them.  So of course, running gags were a big part of the fourth season.

Here’s the kicker, though: they didn’t coast on them. They had enough running gags that and callbacks from the first three seasons that drinking every time one showed up in season four would put you in the hospital by the third episode, but they still had solid jokes and added their own running gags.  It didn’t coast off of the jokes; it built off of them. The humor remained largely the same, and it didn’t feel like I was watching a different show. One of the issues I had with the Futurama reboot was that the episodes were hit-and-miss in style, with some (like “The Late Phillip J. Fry” and “The Prisoner of Benda”) feeling like an episode from any other season and others (like “Attack of the Killer App” and “Proposition Infinity”) departing too far from formula. Every episode in the fourth season of Arrested Development felt like an episode of Arrested Development.

At the same time, the season itself was set up very differently. The biggest notable difference was the anachronic order (hey, look, a thing that I’ve talked about before!) that the season was based around. The episodes are character-centric, showing how each character gets to where they are at the end of the however many years it’s been between seasons (in-universe).  As a result, a lot of the new callbacks are not even necessarily callbacks to the past, but to the present—which we’ve seen from another perspective.  In fact, you could almost watch the episodes in any order (as long as you watch the ones about the same characters in the right order).

The callbacks also tended to be a lot denser because of that. A lot of that is because of Netflix releasing an entire season at once. I know they’ve done that with other original series (like House of Cards), but I’ve never seen any of them.  With this, I can also see the difference between seasons designed with network TV in mind, and a season designed with online streaming in mind. The episodes could afford to be denser because they could be watched all at once, could be rewatched easily, and could be paused.  I’ll admit, it was honestly legitimately hard to follow at times, but it was still easier to follow than it ever could have been by airing once a week on TV.

It really made me wonder just how shows are going to change in the future. Television is on its way out. That much is pretty obvious to me. People can legally stream tons of shows online for free (broadcasting stations, Hulu, Crunchyroll) and have watched and are more than willing to shell out some cash to choose what to watch when they want to (Netflix, Hulu+). People don’t want to be told “You see the show you want to watch? Come, sit, stay.” Like trained animals. 

Broadcasting companies have complete control over schedules and programming, and if you want to get cable or satellite, the service providers have control over what channels you get. I could pay $30-50 a month to get a few channels I want for a few shows I want and a lot of channels that I will never watch, or I could watch any episode of a range of specific shows as many times as I want for under $10 a month. Selection may not be great for either type of service, but at least with the latter it’s both cheaper and I have control over what and when I watch.

In a class this past semester, we talked about the concepts of “zappers” and “loyals” in terms of viewing television. A zapper will sit down in front of a TV and flip through channels, finding whatever is on. A loyal will sit down in front of the TV the same time every week, turn on a specific show, watch it, and then turn it off. Some people watch TV to watch TV, and some people watch TV because they’re invested in a show. There are different types of shows that cater to these people. I can sit down and watch any episode of Jeopardy or The Price is Right and it’s not like I’ve missed anything. That’s a “zapper” game show. But if I miss an episode of Survivor or American Idol, someone I’ve potentially grown attached to has been ousted and I’ve missed it.  That’s a “loyal” game show.  If I missed last week’s episode of The Fairly Oddparents, I won’t know I’ve missed anything. Zapper cartoon. However, if I missed last week’s episode of Avatar: the Last Airbender, I’m probably going to need that “previously on” bit.  Loyal cartoon.  I can watch any episode of CSI (zapper) and I won’t need a forensics team to figure out that there’s probably going to be two murder cases that may or may not be connected and I’ll get closure at the end of the episode, but if I miss an episode of LOST (loyal) I’ll probably miss a vital plot point and later on might find myself a bit lo—uncomprehending of the storyline.

A lot of these cult TV shows have something in common: they’re shows that “loyals” like more than zappers.  Futurama and Arrested Development have tons of continuity nods to former episodes. Doctor Who builds story arcs slowly and subtly.  Firefly only gives little bits and pieces of key backstory and development here and there.  Game of Thrones has a complex political narrative and tons of characters that need to be kept track of. The key component in all of this is “rewatchability.”  Many of these become and are referred to as “cult classics,” since they’re unable to gain mainstream popularity with the people who don’t have the time to sit down every week to keep up with them—or just don’t quite care enough. However, fans will recommend, rewatch, discuss. I didn’t start LOST until the final season had almost started. I only watched Firefly, Futurama, and Arrested Development after they had gone off the air. I started watching the new Doctor Who series seven years after it began. These are shows that are continuing to bring new viewers long after they’ve gone off the air, to the point that people are still clamoring for new seasons of Firefly. These are shows that still have an audience and are finding new life on the internet—because they’re shows that are better watched as a whole and not bit-by-bit.  They’re designed for loyals, and streaming makes them easily available to watch and rewatch.

This is why so many people pirate episodes of Game of Thrones and Doctor Who: because they attract a hugely loyal base, but HBO and BBC aren’t channels everyone has access to (outside of Britain for BBC at least), and streaming isn’t as easily available. They’re creating cult shows but not making them accessible to the cults.  And with that long tangent out of the way, this is where I come back to Arrested Development.

Arrested Development is proving that there is an audience for these cult shows, and there are streaming services offering the best possible way to watch them. Maybe producers will start noticing that market—people who will sit down and watch their show from beginning to end.  People who chose that show, so they won’t change the channel. There’s still a TV audience, and probably always will be, just because some people like playing roulette with what they watch and could probably spend a Sunday afternoon watching four hours of people baking cakes. But that’s a completely different audience.  Arrested Development’s season four release on Netflix might start tipping people off to that.  Maybe then we won’t start losing promising shows so that network execs can air yet another show about a quirky snarky protagonist who solves a new mystery every episode.

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