Janet H. Murray

Arrested Development’s Major Meet-Ups

Serial TV dramas (daytime soap operas, prime time drama) have long used the convention of the Major Meet-Up — a party,  holiday gathering, public announcement, wedding, funeral, or  some other staged event with a set time and place — to bring together multiple characters and multiple story threads for some heightened dramatic encounters.

The Netflix-based Season 4 of  the dysfunctional family sitcom Arrested Development, which I have already described as an example of a Multiple Point of View Replay Story makes significant use of this technique  with such classic dramatic Meet-Up situations such as

In fact, Hurwitz doubles down on this technique by aggregating some of these Major Meet-Ups into Mega-Meet-Ups — e.g. a holiday celebration that is also a political rally, a start-up announcement, an amateur theatrical, and a terrorist bombing.

This strategy of aggregrating plot events around the same time and place, and creating physical narrative spaces in which multiple dramatic encounters can happen, including simultaneously, is very promising for the emerging practice of digital Replay Stories. Meet-Up story structures can populate virtual spaces that the interactor can move through by clicking on interactive elements.  Hurwitz has taken us one step closer to combining the rich storytelling of episodic TV with the immersive experience of a navigable gameworld.

Three major meet-ups in one

In an interactive environment the Meet-Up structure could be used to allow people to choose story paths by choosing which room to enter. For example, Hurwitz has place three major meetups in the same hotel, and created the framework of three juxtaposed posters.  In the video stream of conventional video play they go by quickly. In the DVR/DVD digital playback  model of the original series,the quick glimpse of the posters is an invitation to press the pause button, and intensify the immersion in the story by seeing how detailed they are.  But in an interactive version, suggested by Netflix as a web carrier, the posters for these three simultaneous events could serve as a menu, offering the interactor/viewer a choice of one event per timestep and motivating replay.

The empty chairs for family members serving as character witnesses and alibis at Lucille’s trial

Lucille’s trial is a kind of anti-Meet-Up, since all her family members fail to show up to help her, and she winds up convicted. But as an organizing event, it serves an important structural purpose, creating a parallelism among the divergent stories, and also serving to align the stories in time, so we can see which divergent actions are simultaneous.  Again the visual presentation suggests a menu inviting an interactor to explore each of the separate character’s stories within the framework of the failed trial appearance.

Tobias twirls and sings a strange song.

Bringing multiple characters into the same physical space can also creates an opportunity for multiple simultaneous dramatic vignettes, some of which would only be partially observed. Each vignette can set up the interactor’s curiosity for going back into the scene from another point of view. Hurwitz sets up such moments in several of the Meet-Up scenes. For example, at one event Tobias is seen twirling ridiculously in the background; only when we see the same moment from another point of view do we hear the ridiculous song he is singing, find out why he likes it, and what his off-camera daughter thinks of it. At the same event, Gob rushes past his Lindsay and Tobias exclaiming, “I got my yes!” which is not  fully explained until we see it again from Gob’s point of view  and that of the off-camera person he is talking to.

Gob is mysteriously celebrating an off-screen conversation, later revealed to be with George Michael.

Showing the same scene from multiple perspectives can be risky, and some reviewers have found it to be irritatingly repetitive.  Hurwitz has addressed this by extending the show’s signature voice-over convention with the use of video quotations on a split white-background screen.  In effect he has offered a new convention for the presentation of repeated dramatic action within a variation-based Replay Story.

Summarizing part of a conversation between Gob and Michael that is fully viewable in an (earlier) episode.

This new television convention is similar to the prose shorthand expressions (like repeating chapter titles and formulaic phrases for the approach of death)  that Kate Atkinson invented to  solve a similar problem with potentially tedious repetition in Life After Life,  the novel structured like a videogame that I discussed in some some earlier posts. Hurwitz’s formal experimentation is equally inventive and all the more exciting for its merger of the storytelling conventions of episodic television, one of our most widely shared and immediately pleasurable storytelling forms, with the new affordances of digital representation.