After a seven year absence, the cult comedy hit Arrested Development released a 4th season this week, not as a network TV show like the first 3, but as a Netflix series. The first three seasons inspired obsessive fan attention in part because of many subtle sight gags and references to minutiae of earlier episodes. It was a good match for the switch from the time-shifting of the analog VCR era to the freeze-frame, instant replay, and season-binging of the digital era of DVRs and DVDs, as the creator Mitchell Hurwitz commented on at the time: “In a funny way we feel like we’re making a show for the new technology” of TiVO and DVDs (from Fresh Air 2005 interview as quoted by Farhad Manjoo in Slate).
The new season is equally influenced by its new Netflix platform which differs from broadcast/cable models in offering simultaneous release of all 15 episodes. This platform constraint was reinforced by the very different production environment which brought the full cast together for only a few days. Hurwitz responded by experimenting with the episodic narrative structure, focusing each installment around a single character, while creating many intersecting scenes that occur in multiple instantiations, changing their meaning when seen from different points of view.
In other words, he saw the new season as a potential Replay Story, of the Multiple Points of View variety. Although he did not use those terms to describe it, he did underline the special potential of the digital platform for a different kind of narrative structure. From the Slate article:
Because the entire season would be going up at the same time, he [Hurwitz] toyed with making the episodes unordered, letting audiences choose how to watch. But he eventually went back on that plan. Instead, all the events in the season are occurring concurrently, and you’ll sometimes see the same scene in different episodes from different perspectives.
In the conference call, he explained that ideally viewers would be able to jump from one episode to another at the push of a button when that happens. But once again, he’s ahead of his time: “We have things in the show that the technology isn’t quite able to handle, just like we did in the first show,” he said during the press call.
Although I tend to agree with the reviewers who find this new season less focused and satisfying than the best of the original episodes, I also think that Hurwitz’s inventiveness in structuring these interconnected stories makes it a milestone in the evolution of digital narrative formats, building on but going well beyond the easter egg pleasures of the original series. I will be offering some examples in later posts.