It's been pretty hard to miss over the last few months, but just in case you've been sleeping under a rock in the middle of the desert, Arrested Development (Fox 2003--2006, Netflix 2013) is back. Cancelled seven years ago after three critically-acclaimed-but-ratings-poor seasons, the show's fourth season finally premiered on Netflix Sunday and--in addition to being an extremely funny season of television--it's probably the best example yet of how Netflix is changing what television looks like.
Even though it originated on Fox and Netflix is billing it as a "semi-original series," Arrested Development actually feels more like something you'd never watch on television than previous Netflix original series House of Cards and Hemlock Grove, both of which felt like premium cable shows that HBO and Showtime lost the bidding wars for.
Instead of returning with 15 more episodes of the same old Arrested Development, the new season tries out a totally different structure. Each episode centers on a different member of the Bluth clan (adopted kids and Bluth-in-law Tobias get to play too). Part of that was by necessity, as finding a shooting schedule for the entire cast at once proved impossible, but part of it is simply Arrested Development trying to tell a much larger and more complicated story than it attempted in the past.
Even when it was airing on Fox, Arrested Development has always been dense. By which I mean, the number of jokes and references in a single minute of an episode would sometimes outpace entire episodes of other shows. Now, though, the show isn't just dense, it's tremendously interconnected from episode to episode. There's a throw-away joke in an early episode that seems to reference a joke from the new season's first episode but is actually setting up a running joke in episode 12. And that kind of structure, where the show will sometimes establish a joke you won't get the punchline to for hours, is surprisingly common.
Most of the disappointment I've seen about the new season seems to come from fans saying that the it fails to live up to the first three. Unless you judge the new season on its own terms, its hard to disagree with that assessment. Thanks to the extended run time (Fox episodes generally ran 22 minutes, here they run as long as 38) the pacing often seems slower. Concentrating on one character at a time means fan favorites can sometimes disappear for hours. For instance, Buster (Tony Hale) is almost totally absent for the first half of the season, though his spotlight episode toward the end is a season highlight.
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