Arrested Development: Talking About Television in the Digital Age.

Well, the early results are in: Arrested Development has been a huge hit that has also totally decimated the value of Netflix stock. The Associated Press (here) has made the unsubstantiated claim that the recent, significant drop in Netflix ‘s stock is directly linked to the mixed critical reception of the new season of Arrested Development.  This piece at the AV Club (and I’m sure elsewhere too) points out that the new episodes were actually a huge boon, making up 36% of Netflix traffic on Sunday, the debut of the episodes. But the AP has engaged in a logical fallacy, that two events happening simultaneously must therefore be directly related; the kind of logic that lead Homer Simpson to buy Lisa’s tiger-proof rock.



There are other forces seemingly at work in the Netflix stock tumble, but the misreading by the AP seems rooted in a problem many of us are having with new models of television distribution–how to judge success and failure. For film, it’s a bit easier; the opening box office weekend tells us a lot about the success of a film, especially if we are focusing on mainstream releases with major studio distribution. If a film flops its first weekend out, odds are that it won’t be a success. Studios then look to international markets to recoup the profits for such films–this is the narrative one can find for almost any Hollywood blockbuster that underperforms. Television used to be (and to some extent still is) a genre that grows in value over time.  In the 90s, Seinfeld was given more than one stay of execution by executives who saw its possibilities and ended up being one of the most successful and profitable sitcoms of all time.  If the show had been judged by its first few episodes, it would be seen only as a failure.  But AD (and House of Cards and others) are now dropping whole seasons at once, which leads to the false assumption that they can only be judged by their immediacy. And though AD’s second life is in large part the result of people binging on the show through DVDs and streaming, creator Mitchell Hurwitz has encouraged audiences not to binge on the show and to let it unfold for them more organically.  Hurwitz wants us to slow down to appreciate the new season, while the AP judges its success and its consequences for Netflix as a company based on 24 hours worth of critical and audience response. How are we to proceed?

Beyond the critical reception one finds in the media, there are also the informal networks of criticism–posting about the show on Facebook, watching with friends, discussing episodes with colleagues, etc.  For me, this has lead to some interesting consequences. On Sunday evening a group of friends and I gathered to watch the new episodes.  One wanted to cap our viewing at three episodes maximum. Another wanted to pull an all-nighter.  We ended up watching four, a compromise borne out as much out of our disappointment as it was out of diplomacy. By the end of episode two, everyone looked about awkwardly, hesitant to admit how unhappy we were with those opening episodes and pouring ourselves Lucille-glasses of white wine to bolster our reserves. My boyfriend even decamped for the bar, uninterested in watching anymore.  On Facebook, people mainly registered polite disappointment and general observations about the quality of the humor, the aging of the cast, etc. Some friends had finished the show while others had only watched a couple of episodes.  This kept the conversation tentative and spoiler free.

I’m now about two-thirds of the way through the season and I agree with some of the critical response that says the show grows over time. Certain jokes do become funnier and as the intricacies of the plot reveal themselves and characters interact a bit more, I’m having a better time.  I have a lot more to say about the show; the structure is well worth discussing at length, as is the frequent reliance on some downright racist humor (sorry Asian Americans!).  I want to save that until I have had a chance to watch all the way through and maybe even re-watch. Admittedly, I wouldn’t give very many shows such leniency. I doubt many House of Cards viewers did (even with its estimable pedigree) and I can’t imagine anyone felt that way with Hemlock Grove (with its far less estimable pedigree). So the hesitation I see among my friends to say too much too soon seems to be the wiser path for us, particularly with a show as deserving of patience as AD. The digital age provides us levels of instant gratification that are great and I wouldn’t want to go back to a time where I didn’t have streaming options, downloadability, or my DVR.  But the immediacy of delivery shouldn’t rush our critical faculties–I’m not particularly interested in those reviews produced by people who watched the show in one day so that they could meet a publishing deadline.  Instead, that immediacy allows us to watch shows more conveniently and then potentially rewatch them, returning to moments we liked or found interesting. That seems to be the greatest benefit of our new television age.


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