I had one of those surreal moments recently. Not surreal in the sense that I ate way over-left leftovers and the walls started melting. But surreal in that for once in my life, in fact the only time in my life, did a wish come true.* I sat down in front of my TV, surrounded myself with happysnacks (savoury on the left, sweet on the right) and watched brand freaking new episodes of Arrested Development. Yes, let that sink in like the floor of a shoddily built model home. As it was on May 26, thanks to Netflix, Arrested Development triumphantly beat Jesus’ record by seven years, three months and 13 days when it rolled the rock aside from its untimely tomb and was sensationally resurrected. It was such a momentous occasion that I’m afraid I just blue myself.
For those who haven’t heard of it, or haven’t seen it, do it. Do it now. Because it is the best comedy program ever. Arrested Development, the brainchild of producer Ron Howard and writer Mitch Hurwitz, was a brilliantly scripted, superbly acted and delightfully narrated breath of fresh air in a television schedule polluted with the likes of Two and a Half Men, According to Jim and god knows how many cancerous celebrity reality shows. It was not what audiences had come to expect from a weekly serialised 30-minute comedy series on Fox. The narrative was complex and at times intentionally confusing, there was no laugh track, the characters were completely unrelatable and ridiculous, the attention-to-detail insane and the gags were elegant strokes of masterful satire, allusion, wordplay, self-referential metaphor and absurdity. The shit was meta as fuck and funny as hell. I simply adored it, and that love has not faded with age, in fact, it greatly intensified when after only two-and-a-half seasons, it was cruelly taken away.
Of course I was not alone, but such was the magnetic charm of this show that you felt intimately attached to it. You weren’t just a bit miffed or disappointed… but outwardly devastated, jilted, shattered. The baffling decision by Fox to can it despite its obvious brilliance (it raked in six Emmys and dozens of other critical accolades) was simply unacceptable to anyone so blessed with the gifts of logic and reason. Of course, poor ratings were the cited cause of death, not the more glaringly apparent fact that the network completely mishandled its delivery. It was frustrating for the fans, the creators and even the actors, that a project so unique and special was allowed to wither and die on the vine of outdated network broadcasting conventions. I sensed injustice, and given that I was a university student at the time, studying media culture no less – I did what anyone in that situation would do and took matters into my own hands. I hired a one-armed man to teach them a lesson. And when that didn’t work, I wrote an essay about it.
When I sat down, fuming, ready to bash some epic, world-changing wisdom into the keyboard, my approach was simple: point out how stupid America is and how evil giant media corporations are and how Rupert Murdoch kicks puppies in their faces. But, this wasn’t for a politics subject, it was media cultures – so I took American stupidity as a universal constant and instead identified the key variables in play: the tension between the creative and the lucrative; audience types; ratings methods; technology; content; viewing habits; fandom and past cases of unpopular cancellations . I investigated and researched and postulated my pants off – all the way down to the cut-offs. Simply, I crushed it (as demonstrated by this dope extract).
‘Shows like Arrested Development win audience appeal with a ‘comedy verite’ approach. That is, making full use of unconventional techniques to create whole new aesthetic, and defining true uniqueness to increase the perceived quality of the show… the audience was rewarded for its devotion, and a sense of mutual respect between creator and viewer was formed… this was not a program for a casual viewer nor casual viewing.‘
Beaumont, C. (2006) How audience habits and technology will affect traditional television methodology. pg 4.
With paragraph after paragraph of intellectual gold, including brilliant insights from experts such as Brook Barnes, P Waugh and E Thompson (yes, I had sufficient citations), I soundly proved the point that Arrested Development arrived in the world too early. The reasons why were numerous: the show wasn’t really suited to weekly airings; using Nielson ratings as the prime measure of a show’s worth was fundamentally flawed; and there was a stalemate between the network heads who wanted the show to flatten out and appeal to traditional TV sensibilities, and the creators who didn’t want to spoil their work for their fans and their personal creativity. But most critically, what caused its demise was that the shining copper-plated knight of the digital revolution was too late to gallop to the show’s rescue. Seven years, three months and 13 days too late, evidently.
It’s difficult to imagine, but six years ago ‘social media’ was still an emerging phenomenon. Twitter was but an infant hatchling and nobody knew what to do with it. Digital TV was still developing, Netflix itself was merely an online DVD rental service and ‘streaming’ was more widely known then as the act of streaking with streamers tied to your body rather than the currently popular method for watching TV and movies via the internet. Arrested Development was a victim of timing, caught in the fidgety awkward period when traditional TV broadcasting and ratings models was known to be flawed, but the digital revolution we all knew was coming, wasn’t quite there yet. The audience was certainly there, a passionate and fiercely loyal mob, but relatively voiceless without today’s social web – and their value was underestimated by the TV executives who were devout believers in the old traditions of advertising, prime time and ratings.
I ended my essay with this prophetic nugget of wisdom.
‘A. Stanley writes, “In this Balkanized media landscape, viewers seek and jealously guard their discoveries wherever they can find them.” This is the attitude typical of the fans of Arrested Development and Family Guy. Both shows offered a different viewing experience to the conventional comedy formula, and connected more intimately with their respective audiences. Along with this came extensive use of trademark allusional humour – be it Family Guy’s broad spectrum of cultural references, or Arrested Development’s rich catalogue of inside-jokes. But, despite being cancelled by Fox for poor network ratings, strong DVD sales and loud online support from fans might trigger the industry to rethink and re-evaluate what makes a television program truly valuable. It helped lead to a resurrection for Family Guy, and with the support for Arrested Development still burning bright, its conceivable such an extraordinary event could reoccur.’
ibid, pg 12
Note that this paradigm-shifting parchment of genius essay was written in the brisk autumn of 2007. I remember the unseasonable chill that laced the winds. As far as the world was concerned, the Bluth family were as dead as a dodo that was killed by a doornail. But I knew better than to say never. And I was right. So, given that I was right and a good few years ahead of the game, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I was given a lovely big 100%, double-tick and smiley face when I received this (rather important, might I add) essay back. But, no. my Principia of the modern age received the insulting score of… 83. Eighty-three! An unnecessarily frustrating two little marks off a high-distinction! It’s as if the tutor really liked my essay, but didn’t like-like it. I was so shocked I could do nothing but Charlie Brown-walk home and eat a whole thing of candy beans.
I know my tutor was an Arrested Development fan, he said so himself. And as a scholar of television media, he’d no doubt have found the story of its revival a fascinating and exciting study in the changing media landscape. Well, Mr mark-stingy tutor, does all this seem familiar?! Do you vaguely remember reading about this somewhere some time ago?! It was ME, dammit! MEEEE!!!
So, the new episodes? I decided to watch four a night. After watching six the first night, my seven-year itch was scratched. I still remember the very first time I watched Arrested Development, my cousin loaned me the series one DVD, promising me I’d enjoy it. “I dunno,” I said. “Is it better than Scrubs?” “Ha! You’ll see,” was his matter-of-fact reply. Unconvinced anything could better JD’s zany non-sequiturs, I finally got around to checking it out one morning when I was sick to go to uni (I sneezed twice before 10am, qualifying me as desperately bedridden sick). It took no time to fall in love. It was an unspeakably beautiful moment – I was, like so many unfortunate items in the path of Buster Bluth, hooked.
And now, miraculously that moment has returned – despite the odds. While nothing can ever match that first exhilarating thrill of discovery, this new second life for my favourite ever show did not disappoint. Despite the time and expectations, the new Arrested Development had no trouble making my banana stand. It’s a testimony to the brilliance of the show’s cast, creators and crew, and a glorious reward for the fans who kept the faith.
So all’s well that ends well, so they say. Well, almost.
I want my HD, you bastard!
*There was the time when I was 7 and I was given the massive fighter jet Transformers toy for Christmas. But it was the baby-spew green one and not the super-awesome black one, so it didn’t completely count.