Like a somewhat-dead dove thawing in the California sun, Arrested Development returned on Sunday, a little worse for wear, but still pretty funny. By the time Lucille Bluth starts plotting her way out of a white-collar prison in Episode 10, the show has hit its stride.
If the Bluths seem less lovable (and they do), it may only be because I’ve forgotten how awful they were in the first place. Series creator Mitchell Hurwitz has done a terrific job of making them just as horrible (if not more so) than they were before Michael tried to keep them all together in the first three seasons. Netflix wants to replicate this success with a fifth season, but the actors’ schedules could permanently waylay that dream. However, with enough positive energy behind one series revival, will Netflix pursue this route with other popular (and late) television shows?
Number-crunchers are declaring Arrested Development Season 4 to be a major success for Netflix: Viewership is up over its last original release House of Cards and, more importantly, it seems that viewers are binge-watching the entire series. Netflix managed to create destination television at the moment when critics are busy declaring destination television to be dead. It’s not that everyone had to watch Arrested Development on Sunday in one glorious binge session, but die-hard fans didn’t want to miss a beat. A Netflix reboot is a way to continue engaging fans long after a popular show disappears from traditional TV. In the future, we might hear about “six seasons and a run on Netflix,” not “six seasons and a movie.”
Arrested Development did have a few advantages in its reboot that other shows do not. First, the show is so camp already, so full of cheap stunts and cheaper scenery, that it didn’t feel quite so awkward when someone was obviously green-screened into the background, or when particular sets and costumes felt flimsily put together. The show even made fun of itself by throwing a watermark up on any old clips from the first three seasons. Every flashback appears with the words “Showstealer Pro Trial Version.” In watching Season 4, it becomes quickly apparent that the entire season is going to be about artifice, fakery and doing things on the cheap.
A shoestring budget probably wouldn’t work for every show I’d like to see on Netflix. Firefly requires an ungodly number of special effects. Veronica Mars needs the now-famous Kristen Bell. Don’t Trust the B—- needs New York City as a backdrop. However, half of the jokes on Arrested Development could have been shot with a camera phone in someone’s backyard and uploaded to YouTube. The joy of the show was never in production values, it was all in the acting and the writing. Goofball ensemble series, like Better Off Ted and Happy Endings, could make the leap to Netflix. Both are binge-worthy shows that work exceptionally well on a small screen. More importantly, they have cult-like followings that will come back again and again for more content. Even if those fans aren’t plentiful enough to garner national network ratings — they are eager enough to have an impact on Netflix’s metrics.
In the coming years, Netflix is looking to be an entertainment destination, not just a last resort when there are no more episodes in the Toddlers and Tiaras marathon. Unlike the major networks, Netflix doesn’t have to adhere to a clock. No one at Netflix has to worry whether the majority of men 18-49 will choose NCIS over going out with their girlfriends. Hurwitz, in this run of Arrested Development, could make his show cerebral and meta and all the other words that I’m sure network TV executives dread. It didn’t have to be for everyone — it just had to be really good for some people. Hopefully, this heralds a new era for streaming content, marked by creativity and innovation — and hope for weird little brainy shows about one family … and their ostrich.