Corporate America owes Netflix some gratitude. Sort of. At midnight on Memorial Day eve, the video-streaming platform will unveil 15 new episodes of the rabidly beloved sitcom, Arrested Development, after a seven-year drought. If most employees didn’t have the day off, productivity might plummet, due to mass-marathoning. Unfortunately for those companies, creator Mitch Hurwitz designed the show to keep fans busy for the long haul–an extended period of house arrest that Netflix both supports and welcomes.
Some television series serve as mere background; audiovisual wallpaper viewers can take in while attending to real life or the Internet. Arrested Development is more of a playground. Watching the deeply layered sitcom is an immersive experience, impossible to fully enjoy in just one visit. Not enough fans stopped by each week, though, when Arrested aired on Fox 10 years ago. The show was shut down in its third season. But new waves of viewers discovered it on DVD and rallied online–demanding more episodes, a movie, something. Only after the show began streaming on Netflix, however, did their ardor crystallize and become impossible to ignore. If Arrested Development DVDs were season passes to the playground, having the entire series to stream was like moving the playground into one’s home.
It’s a viewing mode Hurwitz understands well. “I like being in control of it,” the professed House of Cards fan says. “I like knowing I can watch another episode tonight. I like not having to wait a week, only to be disappointed that the episode didn’t soar as high as I wanted it to, and then being able to watch another episode right after that.”
It wasn’t more episodes of his cancelled series, though, that Hurwitz originally wanted to give fans, but rather a movie. Years ago, he started preliminary efforts at cowriting an Arrested Development screenplay with James Vallely, who’d previously written for the show. In a bit of fortuitous timing, the two began flirting with the idea of a miniseries instead–right when Netflix’s chief content officer, Ted Sarandos, made overtures about new episodes on his platform. Hurwitz decided to steer toward a different direction: an anthology series as prequel to a potential movie.
“The original idea was, what if I did kind of nine pilots, each starring another one of our characters on the show,” Hurwitz says. “Then, as I got into it more with Netflix, I realized that these episodes are happening at the same time, because they’re catching people up on where we left off with the series. So the shows somehow influence each other, the way maybe a book of short stories is all in service of a theme. These episodes form the basis of the other episodes whether they realize it or not, and whether the audience realizes it or not. The stories are connected in all these invisible ways that become visible to the audience over the course of the season.”
Plenty of traits made Arrested Development particularly suited to viewing on Netflix before–the zippy pace, self-referential touches, and sheer density of jokes, for starters. Adding multiple timelines, though, is what will greatly serve viewers’ ability to jump around to any moment in the new episodes. All the stories unfold concurrently and are glimpsed from multiple perspectives. (Think Faulkner–with 100% more Never Nudes.)
“Michael and George-Michael will be having a conversation, and you’re watching it in Michael’s episode, and several episodes later, you get to George-Michael’s episode, and see that moment again,” Hurwitz says. “I think people will be interested in revisiting how we showed it originally, and see if it’s consistent, and what’s being misunderstood in this scene.” He adds: “The idea is to create a lot of places for audiences to have fun and interact with it. I really wanted to give the fans something to play with, something they wouldn’t get tired of right away.”
The ambition of the budding new episodes grew as Hurwitz got deeper into developing them. He considered the idea that each could be watched in any order and tell a different version of the story, like a choose-your-own adventure.
“In a perfect world, there’d be some sort of pop-up, or another connective technology that allows the ability to look at what’s happening chronologically at, say, 3 p.m. on Thursday of 2011, in the backstory of this family–and then tap on the red button, and it takes you to what’s happening with other family members at the same time,” Hurwitz says.
Pursuing this viewing experience seemed like a technological dead end, and perhaps a creative one. It was subsequently abandoned. As other ideas for the new shows expanded, though, and characters kept weaving in and out of other characters’ episodes, it became difficult to conceive of how this shoot would be logistically possible–even without revolutionary technology.
Since all nine principal actors on the series now enjoy heightened Hollywood profiles and the attendant crazed schedules, their limited availability was a liability. Hurwitz had the unenviable task of convincing 20th Century Fox, which owned the rights, to greenlight his project without any of the cast yet officially on board. The director assured the powers that be, though, that if they relented, the actors would be there on the day. He would find a way to work around their diverse schedules. If you build it, he essentially promised, they will come.
Both 20th Century Fox and Netflix ultimately took the leap of faith and allowed Hurwitz to conduct his bold experiment in time management. What followed is easily one of the most labyrinthine production schedules of all time.
“I could no longer say, ‘I need Jason Bateman for one week in August,'” Hurwitz says. “I would have to also say, ‘I need him for two days during Portia’s story, and for one day during Jeffrey Tambor’s story,’ and on and on. So it became really difficult to get a plan of how we would do this in writing–even from my side.”
Because the production entailed shooting wildly out of order–any given day might involve scenes for six different episodes–there was no efficient way to bring in outside directors. Hurwitz ended up helming it all himself, along with friend and producing partner, Troy Miller, of Mr. Show fame. Additionally, two other veteran Arrested writers were brought on to work with Hurwitz and Vellaly, who’d stayed on after Netflix got involved. Later, the actor Michael Cera, who plays frequently befuddled George-Michael Bluth on the show, also pitched in with writing.
Usually, the way series television works is that the show runner and writers predetermine the overall arc at the dawn of the season and then break stories for three or four episodes. After writing those scripts, the team prepares to shoot, and then breaks more stories–and perpetuates this cycle throughout the season. In this instance, however, with giant question marks hanging over the actors’ call times, it was unclear when certain scenes could be shot. Hurwitz had to know every single scene required of every episode, in order to be able to think on his feet and film those scenes on the fly.
“If on day three, I found out we’re suddenly forced to shoot something for the last episode, the writers and I could hustle and put something together quickly for that day,” Hurwitz says. “The problem with that, of course, is that it’s even more creative restraints. You can’t do the other thing you wanted to do because you committed to this being the thing and this being the afternoon. I was constantly painting us into a corner and trying to find subtle ways out of it.”
It’s not the first time in Arrested Development’s tumultuous history that function dictated form. The third season of the show was written and shot with the threat of cancellation hanging around like San Francisco fog. This pervasive air of uncertainty produced a frenetic, off-the-rails tone and some of the craziest moments of the series. Eventually, the show was cancelled while there were still five episodes left to make. Money for guest stars dried up, and the cast and crew felt abandoned. What ended up on-screen is a reflection of those elements.
The new season, however, is more a product of its platform and the freedom it afforded Hurwitz. Netflix encouraged him to take risks and make what he wanted to make. Rather than act as taskmasters or preemptive censors, they were present partners. Once in a while, they’d express concerns about differentiating the show from how it might appear on commercial TV–for instance, each episode runs a half hour, compared with the standard 20:45 Hurwitz prefers–but none of the traditional, much-dreaded notes.
“I’ve had all sorts of experiences with networks, and their job is to reach a giant audience,” Hurwitz says. “Part and parcel of that is resisting the novel. It’s a balance for them, I think, because even the broadcasters know that the things that break the mold are the most successful. But they can’t just break the mold all the time. That’s the burden of running a broadcast network, and Netflix doesn’t have that. It’s the new world. Instead of trying to make one thing to appeal to everybody, let’s put a thousand things up that appeal to everyone in different ways.”
It’s anyone’s guess how much the new episodes will appeal to the audience that so loudly clamored for their creation over the years. The social reverberation created by the new episodes’ rollout suggests a lot more people will be watching than the substantial, in retrospect, 7 million who watched the old episodes each week. What will likely constitute success, though, is if Hurwitz’s efforts to pack the show with detail and nuance justify Netflix’s ability to keep viewers coming back for more–rather than a cursory perusal.
“I don’t want to give too much power to any first reaction, either critics’ or fans’, because I’m hoping it develops an audience over time,” Hurwitz says. “Every episode of the last season was met with a lot of hostility. People on message boards would say it’s not as good as it used to be, or that we ruined it. Now those episodes are embraced by people who don’t distinguish between the first 12 and the last nine–they just see it all as Arrested Development.”
[Images: Ray Mickshaw | Fox | Austin Film Festival | Maya Perez]