Even the stars of Netflix's 'Arrested Development' revival aren't sure how fans should watch online
It’s the most-anticipated TV series salvage attempt in recent history, with the added possibility of reshaping how we all watch television.
Indeed, Sunday’s debut of a new season from cult comedy Arrested Development on Netflix – which will unveil all 15 episodes in a rush at 3:01 a.m. eastern time – is so unorthodox, even creator and executive producer Mitch Hurwitz has no idea what he’ll do when the show finally hits the public.
“I’m going to wake up Sunday morning, and I won’t know anything,” said Hurwitz, a creature of network TV, where viewership and ratings reports flood the industry the day after a show airs. “I thought at first I could do a live Twitter thing (for the debut). But then, people would just register their complaints with me. Why should I offer them that opportunity?”
In a conference call with reporters Thursday, Hurwitz was joined by co-stars Jeffrey Tambor and Jessica Walter to talk about the most unlikely resuscitation in television; Netflix’s decision to exhume a show canceled by Fox more than six years ago after drawing less viewers than an average episode of COPS.
The show, focused on the supremely dysfunctional and once wealthy Bluth family, features a passel of stars including Larry Sanders alum Tambor and showbiz legend Walter as felonious parents George Sr. and Lucille Bluth. There's also Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Portia de Rossi and Tony Hale as siblings Michael, George Oscar (or G.O.B.), Lindsay and Buster Bluth, respectively. Michael Cera (Superbad, Juno) is Michael’s son George Michael and David Cross (Men in Black, Modern Family) is Lindsay’s sexually confused husband Tobias Funke.
When it aired on Fox, it had the pace of a live-action Simpsons episode, filled with convoluted, intersecting storylines and sight gags so complex it might take two or three viewings to get them all (click here to see an amazing page by NPR tracking all the various jokes). Fan love for the show kept growing after its 2006 cancellation, thanks to DVD box sets and Netflix, which cut a deal for new episodes after seeing how subscribers flocked to the archived stuff.
The Netflix version takes even more chances, telling stories focused on each of nine major characters in hopes of setting up an Arrested Development movie (the castmembers were so busy on other projects, there’s only two scenes featuring them all together). Episodes run long as 35 minutes with no commercials, with guest stars such as Kristen Wiig and Seth Rogen popping up and Ron Howard returning as the show’s narrator.
Here’s a few points which emerged from the call:
Even Hurwitz doesn’t know how fans should watch the show. “If you (binge) watch all of the episodes back-to-back, you’ll gain something and you’ll lose something,” he said. “What’s you’ll gain is the macro story; you’ll see how it unfolds. What you might lose is some of the fun…I joked that 30 seconds a day for three years is the best way.” (He may also have to school Tambor, who admitted he doesn’t even have a computer to watch Netflix yet.)
It may be tough for non-Arrested Development fans to jump in. Critics on the conference call got to watch the show’s first episode, after agreeing not to fully review it until Sunday’s debut (Otherwise, the service hasn't allowed critics an advance look at the new episodes, which is often a troubling sign). In general terms, it often moves quicker than the network TV version, shifting in time and space to pack an amazing amount of jokes and plot into one 30-minute span. Fortunately, ambitious pop culture junkies can bone up ahead of time with the old episodes on Netflix or Saturday on the IFC channel, which will air the show's first three seasons in a marathon beginning at 6 a.m (click here to see four special videos with footage from the new season, hidden Easter-egg style).
Netflix likely won’t say publicly how many people watch the show, and it may not matter. “This biggest question, is do they care (about viewer numbers)?” Hurwitz added. “Is the fact that we’re doing this conference call enough to boost the profile of the company? Do they (think) it’s already established Netflix as a place where you can get premium content? It’s a whole new world.”
Despite airing online, just one castmember apears nude and profanity is still bleeped. “I think we embrace the notion that the story is being filtered by this unseen narrator, who is a pretty nice guy,” said Hurwitz, referencing Hollywood nice guy Howard. “It’s become part of the personality of the show that we leave some things unsaid, we cover up some things.” Walters, 72, joked she isn’t the one castmember appearing nude, because “they wouldn’t let me do it.”
Hurwitz still doesn't think TV technology has kept up with his storytelling style. "we knew that we had an audience that wouldbeinterested in the details, (but) in many ways we have things in the show that the technology isn't quite there to handle." he said, noting that events in different episodes actually occur at the same moment in the overall storyline. "I think we're a year from the audience bing able to skip from one moment to another effortlessly."
They just finished up work on the episodes last week. “Do you know that (late as) five days ago, I recorded one line on my iPhone (for the show)?” Tambor said, incredulously.
Hurwitz, who had asked for that line reading from Tambor while sitting in a distant recording studio, was equally amazed. “I don’t think there’s ever in the history of entertainment been a project that has had as much expectation, has had as much money spent on it, and has had absolutely no (focus group) testing,” the producer said.