Why I'm Not Worried About Seeing 'Arrested Development' Before Netflix Streams It

Arrested Development Posters - H 2013

Arrested Development Posters - H 2013

There was a low grumbling sound that, in certain corners, reached more of a caterwaul yesterday when Netflix announced to television critics that there would be no advanced previews of Arrested Development.

I’d say the first reaction was disappointment, since Arrested Development has long been an iconic television series with many critics hailing it as one of the greatest comedies of all time. The second reaction was more annoyance because, well, deadlines are deadlines and reviews should be made in advance whenever possible, not after the fact. That idea gets more merit given the nature of Netflix’s all-you-can-eat-immediately option, where there’s little doubt some people will mainline all 15 episodes as soon as they launch (May 26), work and school be damned.

So must critics then, just to make those reviews kinda-sorta relevant, after the fact.

But there was also a reaction to the Netflix decision that the company didn’t need and the show certainly didn’t deserve. Critics began wondering what they were hiding. Was this some sort of red flag? After all, when film studios know they’ve got a bomb or a sure-fire critical whipping boy on their hands, they don’t even screen the film. You don’t even have to be a savvy pop culture acolyte to know what that means.

Netflix was, by its decision, potentially putting doubt in the air. Critics are cynical by nature -- you don’t have to try hard to make them (often correctly) dubious.

Karen Barragan, head of publicity for Netflix, sent critics and television writers a very simple message: “We wanted to let you know that we will not be sending review episodes of ‘Arrested Development’ prior to the show's premiere on Sunday, May 26 on Netflix. Thanks for keeping in touch and holding space but we won't be able to deliver the entire season before your deadline, and since the episodes are so interwoven with each other, we felt like that would be the best experience in which to watch and enjoy.”

I reached out to Barragan via email immediately because the statement didn’t really jibe with what Netflix, series creator Mitch Hurwitz and many of the actors said at the Television Critics Association press tour in January, which was that the episodes could stand alone – even though they are complexly interwoven.

To be clear, this was less about my worry that Arrested Development had content issues than it was a bad decision on the part of Netflix. After all, in January Hurwitz showed critics an extended clip of the series that wasn’t even going to be used and it slayed the majority of us. There were shouts to put it back in and not leave it on the cutting-room floor, it was that funny.

As critics, we never want to be denied an advance look at what we’re covering. And Netflix had already shown critics episodes of both House of Cards and Hemlock Grove in advance. The Hollywood Reporter asked to get Hemlock Grove earlier than Netflix was going to release it so that we could meet our print deadline – and then I immediately tore it to shreds in our review, and the series went on to get a woeful 46 out of 100 average on Metacritic.com, which aggregates nationwide critical response. So, yeah, sometimes you wonder about corporate decisions made after something like that.

As it turns out, the decision was definitely made by Netflix. But I reached out to Hurwitz (and series star Jason Bateman) to see if they knew about and endorsed the decision. For transparency purposes, I’m friends with both men and have been since the initial days of Arrested Development. Hurwitz responded via email, in his typical style:

“It was Netflix’s decision not to show the episodes to critics ahead of time, not mine, but I support it. The idea of this show on Netflix, and Netflix in general, is (people) can view it how they want, without being told what to do so -- by us, or press or a network head or anyone else. The audience owns the material, that's what I love about it.  Although it does change the game for a lot of us in this business.  But the business needs a change. The episodes are meant to be seen together…but an audience can choose to watch it all at once, one a day, or what I'd recommend, 30 seconds a day for three straight years. Here's my response, before you rip me on THR: ‘Tim Goodman threatened to rip me in The Hollywood Reporter if he didn't get to see episodes in advance -- based on what he feels he was promised at the TCAs.’ Is that usable?”

Yes, Mitch, that’s usable. And while I’m always in favor of getting reviews in advance, I do think Hurwitz and the Arrested Development writers and actors deserve more than a little faith given the show’s legacy, and, more important, what this batch of 15 episodes is trying to do.

I talked to both Hurwitz and Bateman at the TCAs and both emphasized that the show was going out of its way to experiment with the Netflix formula of having the entire season available immediately. It was an opportunity, they said, to really take advantage of the strategy in a way they couldn't anywhere else. One of the conceits, they said, was that jokes made by one character in their specific episode (most of the characters have their own intensely focused episode so as to familiarize newbies and eliminate the need for bloated backstory when and if an Arrested Development movie gets made), may seem vague or random until you flip over to another character’s episode where the full reveal of the joke will get fleshed out.

This level of detail shouldn’t come as a shock to fans of the series. Hurwitz and his writers were known for – and the series became famous for – an intricate and dense layering of all kinds of jokes in one specific scene – from verbal, to visual to physical. Sometimes there were four or more separate elements of a joke playing out and viewers didn’t get the full impact until rewatching the episode a second (or even third) time. That will forever be part of the show’s legacy – it didn’t pander with a simple one-liner, opting instead for myriad jokes that you got or didn’t. Perhaps that level of sophistication is what cut short its tenure on Fox, which needed a massive hit, not a revered niche series. But it's unquestionably a creative approach that would work perfectly on Netflix.

In any case, I get the reasoning behind the decision. Netflix’s Barragan, also a fan of the series when it was on Fox, went out of her way in a second email to assure me Netflix has no content worries about the series and it will play out, for fans, in a much more enjoyable way when they can not only watch the episodes straight through, but jump back and forth.

That’s the feeling of both Hurwitz (who is still frantically editing episodes) and Bateman as well, naturally. And I get that if critics just got two or three links to episodes and there were unresolved comedic situations, etc., it might not do the series justice.

As a critic, I’d rather make that call for myself. But I’m also a huge fan of the series and believe that Hurwitz and company have earned the right to roll the series out in a way that will bring the most enjoyment and fully-integrated enjoyment for fans.

But Netflix, if you try to pull this with Orange Is the New Black in July, we’re going to have issues.

Email: Tim.Goodman@THR.com

Twitter: @BastardMachine