I couldn’t have been more excited when Mitch Hurwitz (and I assume Ron Howard and Brian Grazer) announced the return of Arrested Development, and I confess that at the time I imagined Netflix as a perfect partner for the series. Perhaps my memory betrays me, but I recall Arrested as being inherently watchable and re-watchable; on the surface the show presents itself this way, too, because you won’t get all the jokes without multiple viewings, and even then you’re guaranteed to have still missed some. And therein lies the source of my early disappointment (I’ve seen four so far) with the new, ready-to-stream fourth season of Arrested Development; I just can’t figure out if it’s me (and the seven years between iterations), if it’s the show, or a little bit of both. This latest batch of episodes are longer—my understanding is that most are over thirty minutes—but more importantly they feel longer, as the crush of the mental exercise the show forces you to engage in bears down on you for ten minutes longer than your network sitcom. I’ve never found Arrested to be a subtle show: I don’t think we should confuse its jokes’ sophistication and the sheer rapidity with which they fly at you with subtlety. The result, for me, and the show, is a certain exhaustion, those extra ten minutes the equivalent of forcing yourself to run an extra mile or do a few more pushups. But by the end of the first episodes, I’m not yet seeing much of a payoff for my workout and I’m already searching for excuses to avoid exercising more.
As I tried to indicate above, Arrested Development is famous for the quality of its metafiction and the cultural awareness contained in its many references, but those references are so numerous as to weed out any casual fan. I had hoped to run through the whole series in anticipation of the series’ return, but because of school only plowed through a handful of first-season episodes. Consequently, during the episodes I’ve seen, I’m always asking myself is that a joke? is THAT a joke? That HAD TO BE A JOKE BUT I DON’T GET IT. I’m familiar with the vagaries and quirks of the show with the most staying power—analrapist, the banana stand, the Cornballer, I blue myself, tricks/illusions, Franklin Delano Bluth—and they’re pretty fucking hysterical, and I had the handy NPR chart at the ready. Arrested Development earned its revered cult status for a reason. The problem is that it’s almost impossible to watch the show casually, and as someone who loves the series but doesn’t have every joke or line on the tip of my tongue I likely fall in that camp.
There’s die-hards, and there’s everyone else. And I don’t find a lot wrong with that, either; hell, that’s basically the definition of cult appeal. But I do think it a little weird when a show only looks to its fans in hopes of shoring up its appeal rather than broadening it. One of my worries with Season Four is that Hurwitz is just trying to give the die-hards what they want. Part of that has to do with how the show is written; unlike a like some other prominent series there’s really only on way to watch Arrested.
For example, you can watch The Wire as a cop drama, or you could watch it as a profound commentary on America. You can take Mad Men as an interesting story about one man’s rise and fall, or you can parse every line for deeper psychological meaning. The triumph of The Wire and Mad Men is that they are great at both. Those shows work beautifully on the surface and subliminally; I love Bunk and McNulty drunk just as much as a rabble rousing anti-Drug War screed from David Simon couched in the Hamsterdam experiment. But Arrested risks conflating the surface and the sublime, to the point where everything is sublime, and the only way to properly view the show is to refrain from zoning out.
That’s great, and it’s extremely satisfying when a show rewards your close attention and patience. As someone who watches a lot of dreck and weird shit, though, I still reserve some wish that other people could find the stuff I love appealing. It’s cool to be in the cult and in the know, but why limit your reach to the insular group? Accessibility should probably be a criterion by which we judge art and entertainment, but by now Arrested might have intimidated a lot people who have been out of the loop. I’m having a hard enough time keeping up—this coming from someone who’s seen every previous episode, so I imagine someone with less working knowledge of the show than me is without a paddle. I fear that Season Four might be little more than a trophy to Herculean mental loyalty. A show should pat you on the back, but it shouldn’t only pat you on the back.
If I have my own frustrations with Arrested so far, it seems like Mitch Hurwitz does, too. Remember after he announced the return that supposedly you would be able to watch the show in any order, then backtracked right before the release? Not only that, but Hurwitz explicitly pleaded with viewers to not binge-watch, on the grounds that doing so can grow tiresome. Hurwitz may have written himself into a hole; when the scripts of your show are so littered with allusions and slyness, there has to be at least some pressure to one-up yourself. If Arrested makes viewers weary, then Hurwitz probably drinks more coffee per day than Sammy Farha did at the 2003 World Series of Poker. The strain of being consumed by his show and characters must do some damage, and when you have to clarify for people how to watch your show that’s a bad sign and, again, limits accessibility.
This is not to say that even this season of Arrested Development is substandard (though I haven’t laughed much in the two hours I’ve committed) or that streaming is a poor model. On the whole, Arrested is the opposite of substandard, and even a disappointing final season won’t detract too much from the glorious whimsy of the whole. And streaming works, too; I took down House of Cards in a weekend and the entirety of Friday Night Lights (even its second season) in like a week. I don’t think either of those shows are anywhere near as dense as Arrested, which might make for easier Netflix/HBO Go splurges (I think the density of Deadwood has prevented me from getting very far streaming-wise with that show, for instance.) Or, it could be that analyzing whether a show is amenable to streaming and binge-watching serves as just a poor proxy for how good or bad a show is. I’ll leave my final judgment on Arrested Development‘s fourth season for a later date, but I hope I don’t have to feel like I’ve busted my ass to get to the end.