The VICE Channels

    How the Internet Ruined 'Arrested Development'

    Written by

    Brian Merchant

    Senior Editor

    Image: Promo materials

    I've made a huge mistake. I woke up on Sunday jacked like a Christmas morning kid, grabbed coffee and a bagel, and expected to spend the next seven hours or so laughing my ass off in concert with the tweets of my generation. There were millions of people ready to do exactly the same thing, after all; millions of people who loved Arrested Development so much they'd turned its in-jokes into cultural currency, who'd spent the years since college identifying fellow purveyors of good taste by spotting orange DVD boxed sets on apartment shelves.

    Arrested Development is pretty much the crown jewel of our media-consuming generation. Maybe nothing since the fall 2007 period of the first Obama campaign so surely united this peer group—white, urbane, educated, upper-middle-class youth—like the announcement that the frenetic ensemble comedy was coming back for another season. It was also of course exhaustively marketed to all of the above, across every imaginable platform—5% of Netflix's bandwith, which is already a third of the entire internet's, was going to get sucked down by Arrested Development watchers.

    So Sunday morning bristled with the palpable, status-updated excitement of an entire demographic; that of all our high school and college buddies, ex-and-current workmates, and all of their friends, and all of their friends. We know this now, because Facebook. Because Twitter. "arrested development!!!! :)" 55 likes. "#TearsofJoy." 25 RTs. (If you're of a certain socio-economic background, and you didn't like Arrested Development in 2003-06, then you've certainly been brow-beaten into liking by now. Nobody wants to be the guy at the party not laughing at that blue myself reference.)

    But halfway through the day, I noticed something weird. All of the people who'd filled their feeds with Bluth references for the last seven years were strangely quiet. I'd gotten a late start—my friends on the west coast had certainly watched at least a few of the episodes, and my fellow east coasters had hours to dig in. There was no social networked elation here—it was more like awkward silence. Douche chills, as Tobias would say.

    That's probably because the new season of Arrested Development is not all that good. It's just not. It's still reasonably funny, and more interesting than most things on TV, but the frantic, diabolically plotted comedy of the 00s is MIA. Instead of ensemble madness we get plodding single character-led episodes, some of which—especially the Lindsay episodes—are downright tedious. And no one ever expected to associate Arrested Development with tedium—over-stimulation, maybe, schizophrenia, sure—but not boredom. I was actually bored watching some of these episodes.

    And nobody really knew how to deal with it. Sure, some spurned fans bashed it, and diehards offered over-generous defenses, but there was no tidal wave of commentary and immediate dissection to match the massive pre-release media swell. There was no show-ruining online criticism heedlessly flying in, as has happened in the past, and has nearly destroyed other cultural products. But I still think the internet ruined Arrested Development. The culprits were not, this time, the tweeting critical masses who populate the internet, but the expectations inherent in the internet's architecture itself.

    When Arrested premiered in 2003, there was no Hulu. No on-demand streaming. There was no Twitter, no Google+, no Instagram. Facebook was still an invite-only MySpace for college kids. We discussed and consumed media in a vastly different way. Farhad Manjoo argues that Arrested Development was ahead of its time in that it anticipated the importance of replay technologies like the DVR in gag-rich future comedy—but failed to garner an audience partly because mass adoption of the tech hadn't yet occurred. And much has been made of Arrested's meme-creation powers, allegedly doing so before that was even a buzz word. The show seems like a futuristic breed of uber-comedy.

    But I'm not buying it. Arrested Development was just really good. It was TV comedy on steroids; jokes built into jokes built into jokes. It was absurdly well-written, absurdly well-acted, and shot and edited with near-perfection. There are plenty of tweet-able quotes and meme-worthy moments in Seinfeld, say, but that just still feels too much like a traditional sitcom to credit with being the future of internet-distributed comedy. Arrested was just faster, savvier, and sexier.

    Unfortunately, it seems like Mitchell Hurwitz and co. have mined their own mythology a bit too deeply. The Arrested Development creator planned to structure the season so that the episodes could be viewed in any order—a super-ambitious ploy designed expressly for the era of online, stream-on-demand viewing. You'd watch one, laugh at the gags, be confused by the plot, and slowly piece it all together. It'd be rewarding and funny and totally unique. Of course, it'd also mean tons of mundane retreadings of the same plot points and a surfeit of dull exposition, so it's no surprise that the idea was eventually shelved.

    Its vestiges remain. Each episode still covers much the same ground as its predecessors, and plot points and gags are cleverly revealed as we see a plot point for the third and fourth time—but clever doesn't always mean funny. Or fun. If there were in fact a way to write fifteen simultaneous story lines for ten or eleven of the most beloved characters in sitcom history without making the overlap seem tedious, filling each with fresh jokes, it would indeed be heralded as an act of comedic genius.

    But there isn't. Still, it's not hard to imagine why Hurwitz, who's been draped in such honors for years now, decided to go for it. (There are also rumors abound that the structure results in part thanks to rampant scheduling conflicts—guess it was more important that the world get 'The Change-Up' and 'Running Wilde' than a full-throttle season of Arrested Development)

    The feat would have been innovative, to say the least. Interchangeable episodes! Made-for-Netflix-binge-watching! It would be A New Way to Watch TV—something that the Arrested Development 1.0 had been breathlessly extolled as having already accomplished. Hurwitz no doubt felt the weight of the expectations—the generational love-fest that's been directed at Arrested is far beyond that of a merely adored cancelled sitcom—he wanted to give those fans something to really tweet about Sunday morning. He wanted to Disrupt the conventional model of TV-watching, which, as we good internet denizens know, is the best way to get your product to really stand out, to be remembered. He was envisioning his show as a cutting edge internet product, not just good comedy.

    But it didn't pan out. It was an impossible task for a season-length undertaking, and not long before the series was launched, Hurwitz had to write a statement informing viewers that episodes had to be watched in order. 

    The season we're left with is the awkward middle ground between the best network sitcom ever built and a lofty vision of the future of streamed feature-length comedy itself. It's a pretty powerful argument that sometimes those expectant tweeting masses and the internet's interminable call to progress are best left ignored—the best way to make people laugh is still simply to get a bunch of talented people in the same room with well-written jokes. I mean, it's just common sense. Come on.