‘Arrested Development’ on Netflix: Bullied into bingeing
Next Sunday, Netflix will drop an entire new season of “Arrested Development” on our heads. To some, it will be like 15 wrapped gifts falling from the heavens, a Never Nude Christmas with one-handed angels singing “Call Me Maeby” and “Afternoon Delight.” To others, like me, the episode dump will feel more like those fat frogs raining down in “Magnolia” — lots of splatter and some horror, too.
Oh, I sure do want to see those episodes. Like most “Arrested Development” fans, I’m dying to find out how Mitchell Hurwitz, Ron Howard, and the cast have redeveloped “Arrested Development,” and whether the new material will work on its own or simply as an intricate mesh of insider jokes from the 2003-06 run. I’m hoping “Arrested Development” will be an exception to the rule that requires every revisiting or remake or reboot of an old show to somehow resemble “Return to Green Acres” — the dreaded Rule of Re’s.
No, my problem has more to do with the method of delivery, the episode dump. As it did with “House of Cards” in February and “Hemlock Grove” in April, and as it will do with the women’s-prison series, “Orange Is the New Black,” in July, Netflix is releasing the full season of “Arrested Development” episodes on a single day. Ready, set, go to your couches for a 7½-hour mind-meld with the Bluth family. By Monday morning, lethargic and bloated from one too many frozen bananas, you can have watched it all, and you can savor that bleary-eyed buzz that comes from a long, strange binge.
But of course you will probably have forgotten a lot of what you saw; the brain tends to purge when it has been overloaded on a Lost Weekend, especially when the material moves as fast and furiously as it does on “Arrested Development.” All the episodes, no matter how nicely self-contained they are, will run together in your mind.
And you will most likely be alone in your know-all status, which means you won’t be sharing all the puns, self-references, and sick twists that you do remember with many people, including the spoiler-averse who’ve started but not finished the season.
Plus, you’ll be done with season 4 of “Arrested Development” in the proverbial blink of an eye, so that the characters will barely have mingled with your own life compared with the characters of most long-form narratives. You’ll be done until another season lands on your head, if Netflix decides to commission one sometime in the future.
Still, you’ll always have Sunday.
There certainly is a critical place in our lives for “power-watching” a series, a phrase that, unlike bingeing, doesn’t rely on the metaphor of addiction. Power-watching is a proactive approach to playing catch-up with a series — canceled or still running — that has just come to your attention. Shows as diverse as “The Wire” and “Firefly” have had second lives after their TV runs, as has “Arrested Development,” thanks to our ability to watch them on demand, streaming or on DVD.
Time shifting and place shifting are fantastic options in our on-demand era. They’re empowering for the viewer, as we can watch what we want instead of only what the networks are offering. No one, I think, would like to return to the days of appointment viewing, a handful of networks, and those nights when “The Ropers” might be the only option. And it’s fun, sometimes, to steep yourself in the world of a show. I’ve had magical experiences spending weekends with “Downton Abbey,” “Vikings,” “Nurse Jackie,” and “Freaks and Geeks.”
But I like to choose to power-watch . . . OK, binge. The Netflix model bullies you into a hurried viewing experience, especially if you’re the type who wants to be involved with the culture around a show — the Web chat, the recaps, etc. And it automatically fractures the audience, so that viewers are less in synch with one another than usual. Some will watch the “Arrested Development” episodes right away, but others will take it one or two episodes at a time, complicating the watercooler situation. The episode dump undermines the community that emerges around a show, the fighting and the analysis about what happened and the shared imaginings about future developments.
After the “House of Cards” episode dump, most of my conversations about it went something like this.
Me: “Have you seen ‘House of Cards’ ”?
The other person: “Yes! But don’t say anything, I’ve only seen three episodes.”
Me: “OK, bye.”
Compare that to the conversations that were rampant during the six-season run of “Lost.” Those discussions could be rich, as the audience in unison tried to piece the puzzle together every week and make sense of all the far-flung literary and philosophical allusions. During “The Sopranos,” I spent hours across the show’s six seasons picking apart Tony Soprano’s behavior with friends, altering my perceptions with each new bit of information. Right now, I interact with readers every week about the “Mad Men” characters, especially Don Draper. Roger, Joan, Peggy, Betty, they can all be dissected in depth with each incremental revelation. There is so much dividing us, technologically and politically; I like the idea of these long-form stories somehow bringing us together.
The binge also tamps down your imagination, as it eliminates those between-episode interstitial periods when your impressions run wild. That room to breathe is something that TV can offer that movies can’t; it’s one of the virtues of series storytelling, the way it hands the narrative to us for a week, asks us to fill in the cliffhanger resolution before the writers do. Watching “Homeland,” we have time to change our minds about Brody’s loyalties 10 times over. If we only watched TV in binges, we’d essentially be watching long — really long — movies. We’d miss the entertainment of having our opinion of Brody toyed with for months at a time. We’d only have thought about Tony Soprano for a day or two every year, instead of carrying our impressions of him and his sociopathic actions with us from week to week, wondering if he would or could ever change, hoping against hope.
In the past decade or so, our culture has come to enjoy the idea of pop obsession — addiction. Fueled by the entertainment media, we’ve celebrated that feverish sense that we are fixated on a show and must have more now. “We don’t just watch TV anymore,” Entertainment Weekly wrote recently, “we CONSUME it.” And that’s fine, and fun. But that hunger for instant gratification shouldn’t always be fed, should it? What about savoring? I feel oddly counter-cultural by suggesting that, sometimes, patience is a virtue. Sometimes, waiting can be a powerful experience.