An 'Arrested Development' Post-Mortem

What went wrong with “Arrested Development”?  Why was one of the most widely anticipated shows of the year such a dud -- its inexplicable Emmy nominations notwithstanding?  And what does this have to say about making good television shows?

A low-rated black comedy about a dysfunctional family that ran on Fox from 2003 to 2006, “Arrested Development” developed a cult following in the years after it went off the air.  Thanks to the Internet, it eventually became more popular than it ever had been when it was actually on the air, and in a world of remakes and second chances, fans clamored for new shows. 

These dreams seemed to become a reality with the announcement that Netflix would fund and distribute a new season.  But when the show finally premiered three months ago, all the talk about binging and viewing parties soon faded.   Netflix doesn’t release viewing numbers, so it’s hard to tell for sure, but anecdotal evidence suggests that the drop-off from the first to 14th episodes was a lot more dramatic than anyone had expected.  Somehow, a show that was fresh and mordantly funny ten years ago had become relentlessly sour. I found myself watching out of obligation, not pleasure, and felt like I was taking my medicine every time I tuned in.



Part of the problem was that showrunner Mitch Hurwitz changed the very premise of the series.  The original “Arrested Development” explicitly told the story of a regular guy and competent businessman named Michael Bluth, played by Jason Bateman, who tried desperately to hold his misfit family together. His parents and siblings were so selfish, greedy and lacking in self-awareness that you wondered why he bothered, but as long as he cared, the show had a certain internal logic, and this gave it a classic sitcom format: a sane central character surrounded by a zany cast.

But in the new episodes, loyal, normal Michael abandoned his quest to keep the family together.  They are now living apart and have minimal contact with each other.  Michael himself, once the center of the show, became just another self-deluded character in a menagerie of losers. 

The new approach apparently became necessary because, as the cast had gone on to greater heights of stardom, their busy schedules didn’t permit them to be available at the same time.  This forced Hurwitz to write an intensely elaborate script and shoot scenes out of sequence according to the availability of the actors. He then edited this enormous amount of footage into 15 episodes, each revolving around one of the nine main characters. The action in these episodes occurs during the same timeframe as the other 14 episodes. We thus have a giant “Roshomon” effect, with the same events viewed from nine different perspectives.

In some ways, this is an ingenious solution and the puzzle Hurwitz built is impressive. However, the problem with focusing on the characters one by one is that their individual self-delusions and selfishness, which can be funny and absurd in small doses, are actually pathetic and depressing when laid out in gruesome detail.

My guess is that if Hurwitz had made the series the normal way – producing one episode at a time and putting it through the weekly crucible of the writers’ room rewrites and show rehearsals – he would have noticed and fixed this.  But there’s no fixing a show in which one massive script is written ahead of time and shot out of sequence.

Then there’s the odd decision to lengthen each individual show.  The old episodes, slaves to the network format, were all 22 minutes – but the new episodes are of irregular length, between 29 and 36 minutes.   Consequently, the individual scenes are longer and the show lacks the manic density of scene cuts that made the original series such a wonder to behold.

Is it possible that the problem with this season is that there weren’t enough network hacks giving dopey notes and forcing the show to fit certain arbitrary guidelines?  It’s just a guess, but it seems that the people who make great television work better when they are cosseted by network standards and don’t have a free hand.  Hurwitz certainly faced a lot of obstacles in putting the show together, but it doesn’t look like anyone second-guessed him once he started filming.  The fact that the shows are different lengths suggests a lack of discipline and narrative rigor.

Critical disapproval aside, it appears that NetFlix was happy enough with the result to fund another season.  I still have enough lingering affection for the series to hope Hurwitz learns from his mistakes and insists that the entire cast appears together to shoot a traditional series. AND that he limit each episode to 22-25 minutes. I don’t have the energy or psychological resources to sit through another season like this.  It’s just too sad.

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