Binge-viewing Arrested Development Season 4: Patience required

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According to Mitch Hurwitz, I’ve made a huge mistake.

Yesterday, in proud binge-viewing tradition, I made good on a long-ago promise and consumed the return of Arrested Development on Netflix: 15 episodes, coming in at an average of 35 minutes or so — it took about 12 hours.

This was counter to advice given by Hurwitz, the show’s creator, in an interview with Vulture:

“You’ll get tired!” says Hurwitz. “One of the producers came by when I was in post-production recently, and he said, ‘Can I see some of them?’ and I said, ‘Yeah, we’ve got seven episodes.’ ‘Great.’ And I heard him in the other room laughing and laughing, and then I heard him laughing a little less, and then a little less, and then later I saw him getting a drink of water and I said, ‘What do you think?’ He goes, ‘I’m just getting a little tired. I love it, it’s great, but you can’t really laugh the whole time. You have to take a break. There’s so much material.’”

However, I wanted the experience of consuming the whole thing at once, because everything that’d been said about the way Hurwitz and his team approached creating the season seemed like it would lend itself well to binge-viewing.

And in fact, the series does in fact function as a complete narrative, one that’s full of surprises.

Some observations:

  • This is as complex and dense a thing as I’ve ever seen, and really does peel back like an onion — conversations stretch across episodes and many reveals are pushed off until nearly the end of the season.
  • The vast majority of your old friends and references are back — often in surprising ways. (No spoilers, except to say that there was an awful lot more of Liza Minelli than I was expecting.)
  • There is plenty of new stuff, though, and new cast members including Terry Crews, Chris Diamantopoulos, Maria Bamford, Seth Rogan, Isla Fisher and Kristen Wiig.
  • The structure is loosely tied to a few key events which bring together all the stories; if things are unclear the first time you see a party or show, don’t worry — it’s by design. (To quote the show: It’s like it gets off on being withholding.)
  • This demands a great deal of patience from the viewers, especially when it takes a surprisingly long time for certain characters to get their time in the spotlight. Like, George-Michael doesn’t get his full episode until Episode 13.
  • Because of said complexity, there are no shortage of flashbacks and plenty of exposition used to hook things together.
  • This is actually openly mocked at a couple of points, by both Ron Howard in his capacity as narrator and the characters on screen.
  • That said, there is still an awful lot of all that. Drinking game suggestion — anytime an entire episode’s worth of plot is condensed down to a quick narrated montage, drink. (And then maybe don’t drive anywhere.)
  • One touch I really liked that serves the binge-viewing experience well — the opening credits for each episode are altered to reflect which character is the focus of that episode (the music is slightly different as well each time). When watching 15 episodes of a thing, that kind of variation goes a long way towards diffusing the repetition.

The approach has been compared to a novel, though it’s a novel that is constantly jumping around in time, challenging you to keep up.

I enjoyed the challenge, and the in-jokes — I didn’t so much enjoy the pacing, as the show, freed from network requirements of episode length, did drag here or there. So far, the reaction I’ve seen online has been relatively mixed, but it was unlike anything I’ve ever seen before, and it’ll be fascinating to see how Season 4 ages with time. For there’s plenty to unpack and discover; I’m looking forward to rewatching Season 4. Maybe a little more slowly, though, next time.

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