Welcome to Crosstalk, wherein A.V. Club writers discuss their varied (or unvaried, as the case may be) perspectives on a pop-culture topic. This time, Erik Adams and Josh Modell chat about the high expectations surrounding the new Arrested Development episodes.
Josh Modell: Erik, I’ve been very careful to keep my expectations about the upcoming Arrested Development episodes pretty low, for obvious reasons. Our own Sean O’Neal has kept me grounded with his AD posts, which have frequently posited that the entire thing is actually an elaborate ruse being played on breathless fans. But those same posts obviously feed the fever, and maybe even do the entire enterprise a disservice: Even though The A.V. Club hasn’t taken the “Oh my God, of course it’s going to be the best thing ever!” tone, we’re still a little bit guilty of building up the hype machine to unreasonable proportions. On the other hand, it’s our job to report on the stuff that we’re excited about, and that our audience wants to know about. Erik, are we doing anything wrong by contributing to this hype? (Acknowledgement up front: The Arrested Development Netflix episodes/season four/whatever we’re calling it mean very little to the world at large. We realize this.)
Erik Adams: Ha! That disclaimer is crucial to this discussion: I care deeply about how these episodes came out and whether they’ll add to or detract from the legacy of one of TV comedy’s crowning achievements—but it won’t be the end of the world if they’re duds. Similarly, cancer will not be cured if 15 “¡Amigos!”-quality episodes turn up in our Netflix queues on May 26. The seven years between new episodes essentially rendered Arrested Development into a brand new show, and it ought to be treated as such, as something that may have to take its time to find its feet and locate its voice. The Netflix version of Arrested Development comes to us with a three-season head start, so it should have fewer wobbly steps than the average freshman series. Then again, you can supposedly watch the new episodes in any order you want, so maybe this is all moot.
To answer your question, Josh: No, I don’t think we’re doing anything “wrong,” or harmful by adding to the e-tide of digital ink (iNk?) spilled over the revival. For an ad-supported pop-culture publication operating in 2013 to ignore the buildup to new episodes of Arrested Development would be downright reckless. It wouldn’t be right to join one camp (“Arrested Development can do no wrong!”) or the other (“This is going to suck!”), largely because we haven’t seen all of the episodes. In fact, 99.9 percent of The A.V. Club staff hasn’t even seen the single half-hour Netflix made available for members of the press who’ve spoken with the show’s stars. To act as if we know how this is going to play out would be the illegitimate choice; instead the tone of our coverage has been cautious, indulging our affection for the first three seasons while maintaining a level head and a dose of skepticism.
Intention be damned, it’s difficult to refrain from adding to the mountain of hype because the prevailing conversation around the series has been nothing but hype for nearly a decade. We’ve seen an echo of this in the heir to Arrested Development’s “much loved, little watched” throne: Community, which, in a bit of portent that means absolutely nothing, just wrapped its own divisive fourth season. But since there’s no middle ground when it comes to talking about Community, it was not enough to stick with the show during its awkward season-four adolescence: Community had to be “defended” or “saved,” and that led to a lot of un-nuanced bickering beneath Todd VanDerWerff’s reviews and across the Internet at large. Radical factions of the fandom pilloried Todd for arguing that a disappointing season finale wasn’t up to the series’ typically lofty standards; suggestions that the series may never return to its peak form were interpreted as an attack on the show and an effort to sabotage a fifth-season renewal. (This in spite of the fact that none of the parties in that particular discussion had any real say in NBC’s decision about season five.) There’s no such thing as “talking about Community”—you’re either contributing to the hype or trying to burn the thing down.
With regard to Arrested Development, there’s been a lot more of the former, to the point where I’m sure some other publication is working up an “Arrested Development isn’t all that” bit of clickbait to counter more breathless forms of preview coverage. (This sort of contrarian revisionism won’t ever die; New York magazine just ran a cover whose skybox screamed “Why Gatsby Is Actually A Terrible Book.”) And I almost comprehend the motivation, because while Arrested Development was on hiatus, the efforts to keep its spirit alive bordered on exhausting. I get it: It’s fun to like things, and cross-stitched Bluth quotes and screen-printed chicken-dance diagrams fill a void left behind by the lack of a fourth season. But 53 episodes isn’t a lot of real estate to strip mine for every last running joke, double entendre, and Easter egg. At a certain point, a glut is created, and all that’s left is a din of people shouting “Her?” at each other over and over.
It’s great to be connected to people through shared interests, but what happened to Arrested Development while it was away was something different, and something distinct to the Internet age: A complicated, death-defying high-wire act of a television show was distilled down to a few easily identifiable tricks (or “illusions,” in the sense that repeating the show’s punchlines gives off the illusion of creativity—something I’m certainly guilty of). It’s the GIF-ification of the sitcom, and the contributing factor to my greatest fear about the new episodes: That, rather than continuing and improving upon the derring-do of Original Flavor Arrested Development, the Netflix episodes will be one long parade of fan service, a constant pat on the back for remembering jokes the Internet wouldn’t let me forget. Josh, are you similarly worried that the series will end up eating its own tail? In a personal bit of looping back: Can part of our apprehension about approaching the new episodes be blamed on the tremendous stakes and hyperbolic language that’s already being applied to them? Will the surrounding factors make it possible to simply enjoy or not enjoy reconnecting with the Bluths?
JM: The easy answer, for me anyway, is that these outside forces won’t affect what I think about the episodes. I’ll admit something here that I admitted to you the other day: I’ve only watched the entire series twice through, once as it was airing, and then again a couple of years later. I will not get every reference that you throw at me (though I’ll get my share). And honestly, I think that actually makes me a more typical fan of Arrested Development than the Internet-inflated picture of an absolute obsessive, who’s trolling Etsy for every new piece of AD-inspired kitsch. I love the show, but I’m not so invested in it that I can’t go into it with a hopeful but relatively blank opinion-slate. (If it’s sub-par, I won’t make the same mistake that the entire world did when we watched The Phantom Menace.)
That said, my hopes are high: These are the same people and the same characters, and in a way it would be pretty difficult to fuck it up completely. (A talking Gungan is unlikely to be introduced, but you never know.) I really can’t imagine it being all “fan service” jokes—I’m sure there will be plenty, but you have to keep in mind that that’s an inaccurate description anyway. What we might think of as fan service was really self-service on the part of Hurwitz and friends. The really lasting Arrested Development jokes seemed to be the deep cuts. Sure, those were the ones the fans latched on to, but they were also the ones that seemed hidden for the purposes of amusing each other. And if these episodes are funny to the people who made them, I can’t imagine them being not funny to the rest of us, unless they all had a major sense-of-humor adjustment in the last few years.
I have to disagree a bit that season four of Arrested Development should be treated as a new show, though—that’s just unrealistic. What I hope is that the new episodes can serve as a gateway for people who haven’t seen the original seasons to go and check them out, though that seems unlikely, doesn’t it? Actually, what I hope more than that is that Arrested Development can somehow surprise us—the diehards, the regular fans, and the newcomers. If it does that, it will have succeeded. And I imagine that surprising people—themselves and fans—has to be pretty important to the cast and creators. It was a cornerstone of the original universe—and it didn’t always work!—so I hope it follows through here. Now I’m just blindly speculating; damn you, Internet, for making me do that!
EA: It’s fitting that you bring up The Phantom Menace, Josh: The utter disappointment of waiting 16 years for that movie still colors our expectations for the result of any revived franchise nearly a decade after the final Star Wars prequel hit theaters. We all got burned by trade-federation squabbling and what Jake Lloyd believes is pod racing, and that breeds a (somewhat understandable) knee-jerk reaction to enterprises like the new Arrested Development episodes, J.J. Abrams’ forthcoming Star Wars sequel, or the Veronica Mars movie. The Phantom Menace isn’t patient zero in this phenomenon, but it’s certainly the example that sent the deepest, most upsetting shockwaves through the culture at large. The only reasonable comparison in terms of reach might be the “new” Beatles recordings that were released alongside the The Beatles Anthology, but those were mostly greeted with a worldwide shrug. Whereas wanting one more episode, one more album, one more movie from a beloved institution was once a wish of pure, innocent affection, it’s now tainted by a sort of Pet Sematary/“The Monkey’s Paw” hindsight. The dead and the canceled should remain that way, the logic goes, so that the rest of us can carry on—and maybe make or discover something great that isn’t predicated on a known quantity.
Perhaps, then, the key to enjoying these new episodes without prejudice or doubt lies in another point you make above. New Arrested Development episodes are an unexpected supply meeting an unprecedented demand, but that demand isn’t the only reason a staggering (considering the show’s been off the air for seven years) number of the original players signed on for 15 more episodes. They also made gobs of money. They did it because they believe in the project, and wanted to see it to a more satisfying conclusion than the one they rushed toward in 2006. Such closure seems way outside the priorities of the Bluth family, but that’s beside the point: The people behind Arrested Development so loved the world and the characters they created that they wanted to return to them—but it’s not as if that affection blinded them to the fact that they’d set some sky-high standards for themselves the first time around. Getting the most from your surprise bonus Arrested Development involves reminding yourself that the responsible parties didn’t want to fuck up as much as we wanted them not to fuck up. If they’ve made a huge mistake, they didn’t do so on purpose.
JM: Well then let’s just cross our fingers and hope that if the parties involved made any mistakes, they’re in the spirit of the show. And let’s have another crosstalk as soon as the Arrested Development movie is officially greenlit.