At 3 AM EST this past Saturday, Arrested Development‘s fourth season debuted…all at once… on Netflix streaming… after an almost ten year absence. All across America, the show’s cult of diehard fans were waiting like coiled cobras, at premiere parties, gussied up as their favorite characters, or just trying vainly to stay awake. Now that the show has been ‘live’ on Netflix for a few days, it’s the quiet after the storm, except on the web, where so many of the show’s fans live and breathe.
Arrested Development‘s three season run (2003-2006) earned a snowball cult following only in the years after its cancellation on Fox, and the slowness to catch on is understandable. The show is hard to like at first: it moves too fast; the characters are too unsympathetic; the lead ‘good guy’ Michael (Jason Bateman) is too passive-aggressive and shallow; his son George-Michael (Michael Cera) is too reticent. But on repeat viewings, all these faults become strengths and the myriad embedded details come out in ways Andre Bazin would approve of. Repeat viewing finds ‘good guy’ Michael’s moral hypocrisy less revolting (it helps to realize he’s really the most destructive all the family members) and eases the frustration at all the bad decision making among his rich, under investigation for ‘light treason’ family, the Bluths of Newport Beach, CA.
While this new season has its fair share of groaning puns and lame gags, the details mount up and overlap like a sprawling comic novel, and the freedom of episode length allows for the show to work more as a dozen or so chapters to an 8 1/2 hour movie, one that moves at lightning speed and makes normal film viewing almost impossible afterwards. I’ve tried to switch over after a few episodes to some other indie choice on Netflix, but there are so many options that it’s hard to stick with anything unless it grabs me in the first few minutes, which are usually bogged up with a dozen indie film company animated tags, followed by their names repeated in the opening credits, until you’re fidgeting with the remote and its back to scrolling the cue. I don’t blame the films, each indie has to do so much to earn its keep — make you laugh, cry, set up its characters and move them through a circumscribed Robert McKee arc, give everyone a chance to turn in award-worthy acting and art design — but it adds up to a lot of repetition, like enduring a packed Sundance script workshop. By contrast, laugh-track free comedies like The Office and Arrested Development can layer their characters with more alacrity and less ostentation, explore termite moments and not have to listen to worried producers who feel the story is losing its ‘heart’ if they even know what that is.
Netflix has housed a few new series by now, like House of Cards, starring Kevin as a slippery political wheeler and dealer, and Hemlock Grove, a series from Eli Roth about a community of sexy werewolves. But Arrested Development is different since it arrives like a comedy fan’s dream come true, not an original series but a revived cult favorite, with the entire cast alive and intact, if someone spread out due to their conflicting schedules. So just imagine what might be next, a second season of Freaks and Geeks, or My So-Called Life? Since the online series no longer needs to compete for and fit into a time slot or earn Nielsens, it becomes an ideal crucible for melting the structure of film and ‘shows’ into one new, indestructible viewing format, one demanded and controlled by fans instead of ratings and bottom-lining executives.
An added bonus is the surety of cultishness. Knowing the minute scrutiny fans have paid to every last detail of the first three seasons, Arrested Development‘s art directors, writers, and cast have packed each scene with enough overlapping coincidence to keep fans happy for dozens of repeat viewings, and in the process illuminate a breakthrough in the way film and media is delivered, introducing the full season ‘back-to-back’ marathon as the new ideal form of immersive simulacratic experience. With the full season repeat-viewing layered stream our escape is prolonged and the return to reality only a brief panicked gasp between the end credits of one arbitrary-length episode and the beginning credits of the next. We are now totally, willingly, and maybe forever, able to live completely inside the rush of the stream, far past the speed of our own corrupt, distracted thought, and the sinister repetitions of network advertising. Losing our ability to write, talk, and get to the kitchen for another drink while our friends are over is nothing compared to the promise of such prolonged escape.