We’re now less than a week away from a fourth season of Arrested Development, a whole brand new season of the cult classic brought to us by the wonderful people over at Netflix. And, as is the Netflix way, they are going to release the entire 15-episode fourth season all at once. That’s seven and a half hours of new Bluth family dysfunction to devour. I’m afraid I just blue myself.
If you’re like me, you didn’t watch Arrested Development when it originally aired. Don’t worry, not many of us did. But when I did finally watch it, I watched it all. I made up for lost time and watched all three seasons in marathon sessions. And seven and a half hours after it’s released, I’ll have watched the fourth season.
There are many ways in which Arrested Development was ahead of its time, but one of the major ways is that it was basically made for binge viewing. It’s packed to the brim with running jokes and it is so self referential that to watch it from week-to-week means missing a lot of the subtle nods and call backs that make it so enjoyable. They hinted at plotlines as early as in the first season that didn’t have pay off until the third, making it infinitely rewatchable as you hunt for these references. The “On the next.. Arrested Development” never actually contained footage from the next episode but was just a way to both tie up loose ends and keep the jokes going. There’s no doubt that it was a groundbreaking series and while it never found its footing on network television, it had a huge impact on the industry. For one, it marked the beginning of the end of appointment television.
The principle of appointment television dictated TV scheduling since its inception as networks tried to figure out ways to keep viewers glued to their station. Hoping to prevent their viewers from ever changing the channel, they tried to maximize flow by packing line-ups with similar content (Fox’s Animation Domination, NBC’s Must See TV) and having the next show start while the last show’s credits are still rolling. Notice you’ll almost never see commercials between programs because that’s when you’re most likely to see what else is on. But now, not much really qualifies as Must See TV. DVR and streaming services like Netflix and Hulu have freed us from the need to schedule our lives based on when our favorite shows air but instead lets us watch at our leisure.
If Arrested Development started ringing the death bells for appointment TV, it was shows like Lost and 24 that put the nails in the coffin. These were two blockbuster shows that were filled with high-octane action and complicated storylines. To watch them as they aired, waiting week in and week out, took you out of the pacing and drew out the action of the shows. In Lost, they were originally on that island for 108 days but that played out over six seasons and six years. Keeping track of all the characters and their backstories was enough work but then you throw in all the crazy twists and turns and mysteries that surrounded the island and it became nearly impossible to stay on top of it all.
However, if you watch them now, it’s so easy to fly through several episodes in a single sitting. The cliffhangers at the end of episodes, instead of leaving you in a suspenseful moment, propel you to keep watching and to find out what happens next. Lost becomes a lot less confusing and you can actually watch 24 in 24 hours.
Binge viewing and these marathon sessions have become more and more commonplace and Netflix’s new model of putting out their original shows all at once only add to it. While Arrested Development didn’t make it on Fox, it’s going to be exciting to see how the show is made differently for this new season. Although it was basically made for binge viewing before, it is actually being made for it now. The writers who crafted such incredibly intricate stories and jokes the first time around can now embrace the format and really let it flow. And, even though they are experimenting with a new form where each character gets their own episodes, Mitch Hurwitz has still acknowledged that you need to watch them in order.
While there are still vestiges of appointment TV that remain, shows like Game of Thrones, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad where, if you watch them, you have to watch them when they air or you have to work really hard to avoid the spoiler plagued internet until you have the time to catch up. But these are now the exceptions, not the rule. More and more shows understand that their audience might not be tuning in at the original broadcast, and networks are starting to realize that the plummeting ratings doesn’t necessarily mean viewership is disappearing but that they’re watching in new ways. Ten years after Arrested Development originally premiered, the show is changing the industry yet again by embracing the Netflix model. After the Arrested Development marathons next weekend all we’ll be able to ask is well, what’s next?
Guest post by Alex Smith of The Fresh Funk Gazette.