What a weird time to be alive and watching TV. For example: Many many years ago, TV shows were on the air for either a year or a few years or many years, and then they stopped. This is how Seinfeld worked. This is how M*A*S*H* worked. It’s even how Heil Honey I’m Home! worked. Then, not too long ago, one particular TV show aired for three seasons. It was critically beloved, but, at the time, no one was watching it, though by today’s standards a lot of people were watching it, though people still say no one was watching it. And then it ended and everyone was very mad and lobbied for years for someone to bring the show back, or at least to make the TV show into a movie, which doesn’t happen, except for the time it did with a show about space cowboys that actually no one had watched.
And then something like seven years later, it actually did happen, the show came back, except this time it was online. And half the people who had wanted it so much for so long said “I loved that,” and the other half said “I did not love that.” And that was the end of that.
Until it wasn’t the end of that, because another five years later the guy who made the show rejiggered that last season so it was in chronological order—oh, right, also it had been designed for you to watch in any sequence you wanted—and dropped that new version with very little notice. He, or at least his distributor, also made it pretty tricky for you to actually watch the original version. Then he announced the show’s new season would drop later in the month. Everyone was very surprised, because who could possibly keep up with this shit.
I speak, of course, of Arrested Development, a show whose life story makes absolutely no sense.
I loved the fourth season of Arrested Development, which I vehemently defend whenever anyone expresses mild discontentedness with how it turned out (not my best quality). Netflix released it in the wee hours of the morning on my 19th birthday, when my friend Jordan came over at 3 a.m. to watch it until our brains hurt too much to stay awake. It seemed to make perfect sense that this show, whose original run relentlessly pushed the boundaries of what TV can do, would only grow more and more postmodern as it progressed. I agree with comedian Connor Ratliff’s response to the most common criticism of the season, that Hurwitz’s complicated workaround for the cast’s impossible scheduling conflicts did a disservice to the show’s “signature” full cast scenes. He argues, roughly, that there are actually very few scenes featuring the full ensemble to begin with; the misperception that these scenes were a huge part of the show’s DNA stems from the incredible chemistry between every possible character match-up, which is a huge part of the show’s DNA. In season four, working within the margins allowed Hurwitz to do something the first three seasons couldn’t accomplish. The season’s nonlinear structure means that for each setup there are two punchlines: one that follows the setup, and one preceding the setup that you can’t notice without the proper context (my favorite example of this is Gob’s Mark Cherry storyline, and its hit single “Getaway”).
Which is why I consider Arrested Development Season Four Remix: Fateful Consequences (does that sound like a Kingdom Hearts spinoff to anyone else?) to be an illuminating experiment but ultimately a big mistake. Not only is the George Lucasian choice to bury the original fourth season in the bowels of Netflix a weird, uncharacteristic slap in the face to those who went to bat for it, but it’s also a weird, uncharacteristic misappraisal of how it worked in the first place. The remixed chronology cuts the multi-punchline rewards out of the equation, unnecessarily elongates the season, and ruinously confuses anyone who didn’t watch season four on my birthday in 2013.
Take the first element of the show that feels slighted by the remix: Ron Howard’s omniscient narrator. Hurwitz thankfully starts the season off with the same flashback and one of its best jokes (Howard clearing his throat before resuming his narration after eight years.) The Narrator is perhaps the first of his kind to be seen in a sitcom, an Uatu the Watcher type whose iconic catchphrase is simply any contrarian statement: “But really, it wasn’t,” and so forth. And though we do rely on him to provide points of clarification and keep everything straight, he’s never saddled with Wikipedia-summary speeches in order to catch us up on events we haven’t seen, in order for us to understand plot points we weren’t supposed to discover until later.
Within a few minutes of the new first episode, however, Arrested Development treats us a barrage of narration intended to catch us up on the various season three plot threads that are picked up by the several different characters covered in said new first episode. It’s total chaos. Arrested Development is typically masterful when it comes to leaning into particularly convoluted stretches of plot, turning potential weaknesses into virtuosic shows of strength. Here, however, it’s just designed to be functional without really functioning.
The restructured plot also scrambles different threads, forming more conventionally structured episodes that bounce from character to character. But season four is as far from conventional as you can get. By trying to pretend otherwise, Arrested Development misses its own point. The choice to focus on one character at a time allowed other characters to slip through the background (again, unnoticed), before revealing themselves in much more satisfying ways. This also provided an essential opportunity for deeper character development episode-to-episode. Plus, it’s Netflix. They released every episode at once. It’s not like you had to wait a week between a George Michael episode and a Buster episode, so what’s the problem? In the remix, the balance of these arcs is thrown off, and the season quickly begins to clumsily spread its weight around each episode.
Most frustrating is how the remix seems to cave to criticism in a way Arrested Development never has—though, to be fair, there wasn’t originally all that much criticism. I can’t speak to Hurwitz’s intentions, and I would believe him if he really insisted he made Fateful Consequences following his own compass. It’s still hard not to respect the guy for tackling this kind of exercise in extreme editing. But the problem is that if you go to such lengths to hide the original season, there’s no way for the remix not to read as an insecure move. I’m not saying artists should plug their ears and blindly ignore any outside criticism. I’ve just always admired Arrested Development for sticking to its guns and trusting us to catch up; this feels like a greater betrayal of the show’s spirit than the original fourth season’s digressions from the first three.
I recognize the irony of this piece essentially trying to insist which qualities make a season the “real” Arrested Development. But what I hope comes across is a real love of the show’s willingness to push itself forward, incorporating the running gags and character arcs we love without a misplaced reverence for the way things used to be in a TV landscape that looked nothing like it does today. You better believe I’m still extremely excited for season five. I hope the show picks up even further down the line of Hurwitz’s aspirations, and even if it returns to a chronological narrative, I have no doubt it will innovate in other ways. Arrested Development can do a chronological narrative, after all; it can do so better than any other comedy. Still, Arrested Development was always so much more than the sum of its parts. The remix is a fateful lesson about what happens when a show’s creator second-guesses their instincts and concludes it was any one aspect of the show’s execution that made it great.