This blog does not hold any spoilers for the fourth season ofArrested Development.
Plenty’s already been said about the return of Arrested Development to Netflix. I’ve seen just as many blogs and tweets applauding the new season as those tearing it down and calling it a stain on the integrity of the show’s previous three seasons.
In my opinion, what Mitchell Hurwitz has managed to achieve with the fourth season of his remarkable comedy is nothing less than sheer brilliant innovation.
It’s been almost a decade now since television viewing fundamentally changed. So few people, especially in the Arrested Development demographic, watch television the way it was originally designed to be viewed: in sittings of half hours, live to air, with commercials interrupting them. Most television is now consumed, in bulk, through DVD, catch-up services like iView or streaming services like Netflix. (This has, in turn, meant a delivery on far more accurate and informative ratings, thereby creating the diverse range of television audiences are now enjoying. This data trend was outlined in last month’s issue of Wired magazine.)
Family Guy helped bridge some of the gap by throwing caution to the wind when it came to their character’s swearing or espousing jokes that would normally have the television network censors running for the beep button. The writers just held the off-cuts over for the DVD, where fans could enjoy the infantile crudeness without fear of censorship.
But apart from that, little has changed inside the writer’s room that reflects viewer’s change of habit. In Arrested Development‘s first three seasons, we had a little taste – the show became known for its love of continuity and call-backs, encouraging viewers to watch the material multiple times and find new layers of comedy gold. The same can be said for many episodes of Community, which Dan Harmon made ambitiously rich in content. It’s difficult to argue that Harmon was not directly influence by Arrested Development. Both take the contemporary television comedy and completely upturn it. These two shows, almost entirely in isolation, are pioneering a brand new genre of television.
As a sideline, it occurs to me that science-fiction shows such as Doctor Who are also abundantly aware of the viewing habits of their audience. It’s hard to believe that you understand all of Steven Moffatt’s time-travel nonsense by just watching one episode at a time, a week apart. The same is to be said, in some respects, for the Marvel films, which are growing in complexity and layers. Having only very recently watched Thor for example, I now want to re-watch The Avengers to better understand the Loki/Thor back story. A probable comparison is also to be made with Game Of Thrones, whose large ensemble cast and rich family tree is only growing in sophistication. The writers don’t strictly feel the need to stop and explain every week, however, as they’re aware that most of the audience will be either watching the show in bulk on DVD, or will be able to do a quick wikipedia search for the character they’re confused about, or, of course, go to the books. Writers are finally beginning to understand the freedom they now have with the new technological landscape. The 22/42 minute episode, split into five acts, wrap-everything-up-neatly forumla will die within a generation.
And Arrested Development is leading the way. Season four is ingeniously and bizarrely connected. All fifteen episodes take place overthe same block of time, with each episode focussing on one of the ensemble’s casts experience of that block of time. The plot twists unexpectedly. Narrative questions that were posed three episodes ago are summed up in a satisfying moment when you least suspect. As such, the episodes don’t feel like they ever really end, or start, they just keep on going. The plot and characters exist on a continuum. Characters travel in almost parallel – colliding in ways that are structurally inventive, often comical, and unlike any other show I’ve ever seen. It’s an act of bravery from Hurwitz, but it’s a completely refreshing break from the tired forumla of ordinary half-hour comedies.
And it’s a gift to comedy, it has to be said. Running gags are given new life – small props or passing posters hung on the wall behind the main action can be a subtle punchline…to a joke that was told a few episodes ago. Or even, a few episodes in the future. If you get it, it’s a rewarding treat. If you don’t, you don’t feel like you’re missing out on anything.
More please Hurwitz. And comedy writers, pay attention.