Arrested Development – what the Hell happened?

When Community went down the tubes into a truly horrendous fourth season, it was widely seen as a case of Big Evil Studio Destroys Genius Creator-itis (a well-established malady, which for brevity’s sake we can call “Whedon’s Syndrome”). In that case everybody won – the studio gets to nudge an ailing show into syndication and make a fat pile of cash, while die-hard fans get to blame all its ailments on the studio.

So what do we call it when a show suffers the exact opposite fate? I hereby propose “The Hurwitz Maneuver”. The struggles of Arrested Development against Fox’s corporate tyranny are as well known to fans as the show’s actual plot. But now its creator has been given the chance to present a fourth season entirely under his own authority, independent not only from its original network but from the whole apparatus of broadcast television. No scheduling. No interference. Nothing but his own unfettered creative instincts to bind him. And, oddly, not many laughs.

I don’t feel it’s worth going over exactly in what ways it doesn’t work, because if you don’t agree now you never will, and if you do you’ll already know exactly what I mean. The interminable stretches of forced ‘wacky’ dialogue. The indiscriminate quotation of seven-year-old gags funnier than any of the new ones. The sour farts of sub-Sandler “ethnic humour”. The really, really cheap art direction. I mean, seriously, how long do you think they spent Photoshopping those fake yearbook pages? Jesus.

Before

Before

After

After

As I was saying, it’s not worth doing that thing I was just doing because, as I was saying beforehand, the interesting question isn’t how the new season doesn’t work but why it doesn’t work. The answer I propose is simple: Mitch Hurwitz didn’t create the show I like called Arrested Development. He created a new one I don’t, called Arrested Development.

Of the 17-odd other writers who contributed to prior seasons, only three returned for the fourth. Let that sink in. None of the legion of directors who took turns crafting those earlier shows was asked back, Hurwitz taking on their duties himself for every single episode. A quick scan of IMDB finds that the show’s Production Design, Art Direction (Jesus!), and Editing have also changed hands for the reboot. But so what! The Creator is still at the helm, so we’ve lost nothing important, right?

In interviews, Hurwitz kindly spells out exactly what once made the show crackle with such hysterical energy, and why his newfound freedom was the worst thing that could have happened to it: “The old show had to be something like 20 minutes and 45 seconds… a crazy short amount of time so it really honed my skills at the concentration process. You just – distill and distill and distill the material, and I’d look at those old shows and think, “Oh, my God. I can’t believe we did that in 20 minutes”.

Give me my life back!

Give me my life back!

No such restrictions for the new season, which Hurwitz regards as one huge episode “longer than the first season was altogether”. The patronage of Netflix freed him from all that pesky concentration and distillation, which may explain how he ended up still trying to get the half-formed mass of episodes in order just weeks before its release date: “constantly reworking the story until the last minute…and realizing, ‘You know what? We haven’t locked this one yet. Let’s take the scene out of that and put it in this’”.

The new lack of discipline also spread to the most fundamental element of the show – its cast, who were “contractually” unable to appear together due to their newfound popularity. Now, if you were making an ensemble comedy show for a network, and found it impossible to get your actors together at the same time, you would presumably have two options – wait for their schedules to align, or make a different show.

Not so in the magical world of TV 2.0! Here you can just book each actor for random time slots, and then structure your story into a convoluted mess according to when and where each of them is available. The episodes each focus around one character, with the others occasionally flitting past on their own trajectory. This gives us way, way too much of a good thing. When they appear in the intense little snapshots we used to get, Hurwitz’s characters gave us an intense sense of rich inner lives, and obscure motivations we could never quite fathom. Here those depths are plumbed out of existence, their every quirk and catchphrase scraped flat across over a gruelling half-hour which feels at least three times that.

It’s true that complexity and surreal self-reflection were always part of what made AD so much fun, but Hurwitz seems to think they were the only things. Practically every line and sound effect in a scene now recurs in a different light somewhere else. The thing is that, previously, the cutesy cleverness  was really just dressing for a show that was relentlessly hilarious in and of itself. After loving the episodes once on a purely surface level, you could squeeze still more enjoyment out of them by going back to spot the playful extras you missed. Sitting through any of season 4 again at this point is unthinkable.

I can’t say the last couple didn’t make me chuckle, but you can’t say the half dozen or so before that didn’t make me want to cry. Around the halfway point I was even starting to question my enjoyment of the original seasons but, thankfully, the brilliance of Netflix means a quick rewatch can swiftly put such fears to rest. The inescapable conclusion remains that if there’s one thing the new Arrested Development needed (apart from Franklyn), it was exactly the kind of externally-imposed discipline Hurwitz has managed to completely remove himself from.

tumblr_kyjiz64Sfi1qzi1sgo1_500

Dramatic reaction shots from any inanimate objects would have done, to be honest

Auteur theory is attractive on many levels, both to audiences as well as artists. In complex mediums like film or television, with dozens of people collaborating on one work at every level, it keeps things nice and simple. No need to even try teasing out the contributions of each elusive individual – we can simply put a poster of Stanley Kubrick up on our wall and stare at it late, late into the night. Safe in the knowledge that he loves us as much as we love him.

It’s clear that Hurwitz is a big fan of the notion (he has made no secret of the fact that the new season only exists as an attempt to lever himself into the director’s chair of “a big movie version”). The trouble is that, with rare exceptions, it’s bullshit. One person can write a novel, or paint a picture – they can’t make a TV show. What they can do is act as a guiding influence, providing an overall vision while mediating between the influences of other individuals – or, dare I say it, organisations. Which is to say that, while it’s very exciting that Netflix is producing original programmes, maybe our image of how TV creatives and traditional networks interact needs to be a little more nuanced than this.

Hurwitz himself unwittingly hit the nail on the head, while describing the awesomeness of his own writing process: “It’s almost like the more constraints you put on something, the more likely you are to find a way to express yourself. As opposed to just having a blank slate”.

If only he hadn’t said “almost”.

Tim Kelleher

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