When I first heard about the format of Netflix's Arrested Development revival, I was concerned. Each episode is centered on a different character, and it sounded like they would just be a bunch of vignettes leading up to a possible movie. But the latest issue of Wired sheds some light on the structure of the show, and what I feared sounds completely unfounded. So much so that I wonder if Arrested Development could forever change the way episodic TV is made.
In the past, episodic TV has been necessarily linear. Episodes followed one after another, and there was an order in which to watch them. This has been so much the case that fans get outraged when networks air episodes out of order, even on shows that do not contain continuing plotlines. But the revival of Arrested Development sheds that completely, and it seems that the new series - all episodes of which will drop at the same time - can be watched in any order you like. Each episode represents a specific character's point of view on the events of the series, and those points of view can be radically different.
Back on the set of Arrested Development, actress Portia de Rossi, who plays Lindsay Bluth Fünke, says that at one point she had seven scripts splayed across her dressing room floor because it was the only way she could grasp all of the plot’s intricacies. “I did a scene with Jessica [Walter, who plays Lindsay’s mother], where she seemed to be saying the nastiest things, in my mind, because it was so sarcastic,” she says. “But in her episode, you realize that she was being sincere. If you see my episode first, you’re like, ‘That fucking bitch.’ But if you see hers first, I look completely heartless.”
The new Arrested Development is not just a seven-hour movie. It’s something new—a collection of episodes released altogether that can be remixed and recombined and that gain something from each juxtaposition. Right now that’s a framework only Netflix can offer. Asked what the show would have been like had Showtime won its bid, [creator Mitch] Hurwitz says, “I know that storytelling-wise, saner ideas might have prevailed.”
All of a sudden the very format of a television season is called into question. The idea that TV episodes have to be chapters, have to be ordered in some way, is out the window. In some respects this is like the death of the album - lots of care and thought used to go into sequencing albums so they could be enjoyed as a complete aesthetic experience, but the rise of mp3s and shuffle utterly changed that. It's rare that people put on a record and listen to it all the way through in the 'proper' sequence.
Of course it remains to be seen how this experiment works for Arrested Development. There is a 'recommended' viewing order to the episodes, and I suspect most people (myself included) will watch through the first time that way. And not every story is going to lend itself to being told like this. What's important is that the parameters of episodic storytelling are being tested, and the on-demand future of television is beginning to take shape. This isn't just about new delivery systems anymore, this is a whole new medium.