‘Arrested Development’ kicks critics in the teeth at its own peril

“Arrested Development”
“Arrested Development”
(Sam Urdank / Netflix)

Television critics of the world unite: Let’s start reviewing shows whenever the heck we get around to it.

That’s the model Netflix appears to be recommending with its decision to release 15 episodes of “Arrested Development” Sunday without making any available to critics early for review.

Strange, considering that critics helped keep the original series on the air for three seasons during its first go-round and amplified the drumbeat to bring it back.

Now, what with Twitter, Facebook and Netflix’s newly mojo’ed stock price, the creators of the show figure they don’t need timely reviews to get the word out -- they already have a built-in fan base.


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Also they know we’ll write about it anyway, as quickly as we can when the series goes up Sunday night, and how fun will that be, to make other writers scramble.

Not that this is why Netflix decided to bypass the critics. No, the official reason runs like this: Since not all of the highly “interwoven” episodes would be ready early for review, Netflix decided it would be Best For Everyone not to offer the first two or three. Which, apparently, are neither representative nor able to stand on their own.

According to Netflix’s bulimic model of television, no one is going to just watch the first two or three; subscribers will consume the season in one gulp, like a 7-and-a-half-hour film.


I don’t know how the creators of “House of Cards” and “Hemlock Grove” feel, considering that Netflix offered critics early episodes of both those shows; apparently, they weren’t “interwoven” enough. But I know how I feel: suspicious, irritated and more than a little concerned.

Suspicious because shutting down early reviews is a notorious Very Bad Sign.

Irritated because the only show in recent memory as overhyped as the resurrection of “Arrested Development” was “Smash,” and look how that turned out.

Concerned because I actually want “Arrested Development” to succeed, and I think Netflix is using it as a guinea pig, a system that, though good for science, is usually detrimental to the guinea pig.

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Television, along with every other industry based on “creative content,” is in a bit of an uproar just now. It’s attempting to navigate a suddenlyinfinite universe pocked with time-and-space-defying wormholes using a rocket built to get a few guys from Texas to the moon and back. 

With the standard-issue equipment woefully obsolete, jerry-rigged, and possibly revolutionary systems are springing up all the time -- network websites, Hulu, YouTube (premium and regular), Amazon and Netflix.

In an effort to create and claim the binge-viewing space, Netflix has already jettisoned most of the traditional industry tools. Recapping, which has become a linchpin of television coverage and conversation, doesn’t work when there is no official timeline for any given show. Likewise, special two-part or holiday episodes don’t exist and season finales have no meaning.


Now, apparently, there will be no official debut either. Chatter about “Arrested Development” will be free-form and floating, people will watch or they won’t watch, when and if the mood strikes them, and talk about it on Twitter and Facebook, you know, or not. 

Critical anarchy or cultural democracy -- it all depends on how you look at it. I hope it works. As a critic, I want everyone to watch everything all the time.

There is nothing more important to a culture than the stories it tells about itself to itself, and right now the best stories are being told via the serialized art form formerly known as television. Critics exist simply as moderators -- ideally, we start the conversation, push it along when it lags and point out themes and innovations that emerge. Including, ahem, shows that are very good but not “successful.”

We can certainly do that for “Arrested Development” without the chance to see the first few episodes ahead of time, although it does make it more difficult; contrary to the conventional wisdom of the digital universe, thought does require a little time.

Just as a conversation, even in hip ‘n’ cool impolite society, requires a minimal sense of order. Boiled down to kindergarten morality, in speaking to each other, we need to take turns. The traditional structure of reviews makes it a little easier for critics and reporters to separate conversation strands from the ongoing babble, which is why it has worked as long as it has.

Netflix is a savvy industry innovator, and there is something invigorating about allowing viewers to seize the means of production, critics be damned. But prudence remains a virtue, and Netflix would do well to remember that after the binge, invariably comes the purge.

And that can get a little messy.



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