Arrested Development is back on the air, as the internet has not only certainly informed you of, but made possible in the first place and probably ruined for you already. I bring this up because they’re doing something interesting with the story structure. It’s a continuation of the original series, after a fashion, but it takes place years later, and each episode is a post-documentary follow-up focusing on a specific character. It’s not an entirely novel (ha! You’ll get that later) narrative structure — the documentary-years-after-the-plot device is at least as old as Spinal Tap – but AD are doing a few unique things. Because they’re a Netflix original, it’s not debuting like a normal series. There’s no weekly release schedule, no half hour run time. The entire season is available all at once, and there’s no set length for each episode. Some are twenty-five minutes, some are forty, and since you could feasibly watch them all back to back, the breaks only come when it makes sense to do so for the story.
As somebody who released a serial-novel that billed itself as ‘episodic,’ it’s of course interesting to see a TV show essentially take the traditional format of a novel. Think about it: No fixed length to chapters, available all at once, long form storytelling with no pre-sets on time or amount of content. That’s a book. Movies, even as adaptations from books, are fixed length. I’m sure there are art projects excepted from the rule, and series like the Lord of the Rings shatter your puny time constraints like those bitches was motherfuckin’ Narsil, but most mainstream movies are limited to about two and a half hours. As we’ve seen with adaptations like Snyder’s Watchmen, even three-going-into-four-feels-like-ten hours isn’t enough time to get to everything. Adaptations, by their very nature, must cut huge chunks of their source material to make sense in the movie format. TV shows are worse: They’re both fixed length and episodic, with viewers waiting weeks or even months for the next installment. Game of Thrones is possibly the first great adaptation of a book into a TV series, but it still feels like TV when you’re watching it. You’ve got fifty some odd minutes of run time, and knowing that, you can almost predict when the climax and the cliffhanger are coming. Then you wait for next week, or next season. We have the miniseries, but that’s just longer TV. Any way you cut it, there’s just no film equivalent to a page-turner. These Netflix original series are the closest we’ve got to televised books.
This format makes particular sense for Arrested Development. You can really see it in the new season. It starts weak; it’s just a bunch of references to stuff that happened in the previous seasons of the show, and not in a clever way. Pure, cheap nostalgia. But that’s only because it hasn’t been going long enough to work in their trademark callbacks and multi-tiered jokes. The fourth season hits its stride somewhere around the halfway point, when plotlines start tying together, and then it’s as good as its ever been. You might remember that as the exact same reason Arrested Development got canceled in the first place. It was too hard to approach, and too dense to jump into, right in the middle of everything. Arrested Development has always taken a long time to get great. It didn’t work when there was a long wait between episodes. It didn’t do too well constrained by the conventional structure. It couldn’t draw people in that didn’t start at the beginning. It really only hit its fanbase hard when it went on sale as season long collections, or came up for streaming – when you could watch it back to back and really catch everything they were doing, and all the ways it tied together. If these sorts of adaptations prove a viable format, and they seem to be doing so, I’m really interested in the inevitable book adaptations. You could feasibly film a fifteen hour movie, adapting everything relevant from the original work, then split it into chunks only where it makes sense to do so, and release it all at once without losing any of the magic.
It’s funny that, with platforms like Amazon serials, the rise of ebooks, and the overall increased general awareness of alternate formats for literary fiction, television is going the way of books while books are going the way of television.