Further into Arrested Development, I’m interested to see how reaction to the season will break down. A consensus is forming that the first two episodes are the slowest, and that the show improves as it goes along and we start to see how set-ups in one episode pay off in other episodes. The rave reviews, like Tim Goodman’s, really place this at the centre of the new season; you have to “suss out the jokes” and see how the brilliance of the season’s construction reveals itself. I don’t find this is working for me so far, because while I recognize the payoffs, I don’t usually find them funny. They were never the funniest part of the show at its best, anyway; they were window dressing.
Now, deprived of actor chemistry, and determined to make the whole season one big setup for a movie (which eliminates the possibility of satisfying, funny single-character vignettes), Hurwitz and Jim Vallely almost seem to be building an entire season around asking us to see what they did there. Besides, the original series rarely made a setup without paying it off then and there; sometimes it would additionally turn out to be the setup for a joke to come in a later episode, but it still had to follow the basic rule of making sure the jokes were funny, which in turn meant that every episode should be comprehensible as a story. Here they’ve taken to tossing out things that just seem weird and unsatisfying, for the purpose of paying them off later on – but that doesn’t change the experience of finding them weird and unsatisfying the first time around. There was an old comedy bit, which you can see in old cartoons and the like, where something unfunny happens twice, and you don’t know why it’s happening, but the third time it pays off. I never liked that bit, because the payoff was never worth the unfunniness of the first two times it happened. But imagine if all you got was the setup, and the payoff came in the theatre next door. That’s not a new paradigm, that’s just less-than-great writing.
So one of the things that defines your reaction to this season may be just how funny you find these delayed punchlines or cross-references. Another thing that will probably split fan and critical reaction is just how much you think a new medium requires a new storytelling format. The fans of the season are arguing, as Mitch Hurwitz probably would, that the old paradigm of having one episode that tells a more-or-less complete story is a relic of once-a-week broadcast television, and making a TV season one big movie in 15 interlocking parts is one way of doing something new. (The fact that this format only came about because of time and money problems is not, in itself, an argument against it. A lot of great innovations have been inspired in part by financial necessity.) Since I think the broadcast network form of one episode a week, with a complete setup and resolution, is a pretty good form, I’m not inclined to consider this an advance, even if it had been done for purely artistic reasons. It encourages some of the more problematic tendencies of TV today, particularly a focus on plot above all, where you watch an episode for the story connection to the other episodes, and other things like theme and characterization take a back seat. Again, this may have been the only way to go, given that characterization comes from interaction, and they didn’t have the characters together. It had to be a plot show because there’s nothing else for it to be.
In the end, the biggest split may be between people who are willing to get through the entire series to see how the jokes pay off, and those who bail because the storytelling is slow. And that may depend in part on how much you trust Mitch Hurwitz. Arguably, on the basis of the original series, he’s earned our indulgence to try something else, or to be forgiven for the low budget and the lack of the complete cast. It’s a bit like a late, low-budget work by a great filmmaker: The auteur theory is not that a bad film is good if a good director made it, but that a film gains extra richness if we evaluate it in the context of a director’s work, and therefore it has extra resonance for those who have seen his other work. The same may apply to TV. The interest of Arrested Development season 4 may in part be seeing what Hurwitz is up to, what he’s doing with the new format. If you don’t have that willingness to follow Hurwitz – if, like me, you think Arrested Development probably benefited from the constraints of being a broadcast network show – it may be harder going, because you don’t have that faith that this is going somewhere.
Though Hurwitz isn’t an auteur with the clearly defined personality of a David Milch, it’s almost like this Netflix season is Hurwitz’s John From Cincinnati, a show where you have to believe the creator knows what he’s doing or you won’t enjoy it.
And since that post got a little heavy, let’s end it with the opening of another revival show that created a whole new paradigm for bringing back beloved characters, and working around the absence of at least one important actor. Though I think Sid and Marty Krofft never left definitive word on whether the episodes need to be watched in order or not.