Posted by: markfender | June 5, 2013

Why Critics Hate Arrested Development

I don’t know what I expected.

deaddoveSince the premiere of the new season of Arrested Development on Netflix, the response has been, well, mixed is probably putting it politely. The immediate reviews were harsh. This is a little surprising considering that the show was always a critical darling. It managed to hang onto three seasons on the air due mostly to the critical reception, as it always seemed to perform poorly for FOX. And yet, the very critics that heaped praise upon the show immediately began slagging it as the new season debuted.

The Daily Beast said that “Season 4 feels like an anvil being dropped on the heads of the viewers, one with a note attached that reads, ‘LOVE ME. PLEASE LOVE ME. LOVE ME,’ all in caps.” Variety says that “Arrested Development’s long-awaited encore is like a lot of TV development–namely, an interesting idea that was more exciting on paper.” Lots of critics made similar comments, complaining about the “ambition” of the multi-arc storyline while at the same time saying that it was “bloated.”

Meanwhile, most of the fan reactions seem fairly positive. There are common complaints brought up (Not much ensemble work, looser storytelling, your favorite character didn’t get enough screentime) but, overall, it seems like a positive response from fans and a negative response from critics. So, what happened?

I think there’s a few factors going into the negative reviews, both of which preclude the changing nature of criticism.

1. No screener copies. Normally, critics receive screener copies of new shows so that their reviews can be turned in and printed the day the new show is aired. This did not happen with Arrested Development. The normal reason this doesn’t happen is because the executives in charge don’t think it’s a strong show and want to avoid a steady stream of criticism. The reason Netflix didn’t send screener copies was because there wasn’t enough time. Mitchell Hurwitz, creator of the show, was still editing episodes a week before it aired. So, critics were stuck watching the show on Sunday like the rest of us plebes. And this didn’t make them happy. They’re used to being catered to, to being an important voice in the discussion. Several articles were written by critics complaining about this, which just made them seem like arrogant assholes who had lost their privileges. I’m not surprised that critics who felt entitled were then especially harsh towards the show – it’s almost like they’re a member of the Bluth family, lashing out at the thing removing their entitlement. Of course, if Netflix had sent out screeners of the first two episodes (like they did with House of Cards), I think the reaction would have been about the same. The first two episodes of the new season were not particularly strong. But that segues into my next point…

2. The second factor would be the time scale. If you’re a reviewer and you’ve got a review of an entire season of a show due on Monday, you’ve got eight hours of television to get through. That’s not exactly a fun proposition, even if you liked the show. For a show with already high expectations, this makes it difficult to summon up the enthusiasm, especially with a deadline hanging over your head. A lot of these critics watched as many episodes as they could get through before writing their review. What’s especially interesting about these reviews is that, if you’re familiar with the entire season, you can tell which episode the critic stopped watching. To put it mildly, the show is a “grower,” getting better and better the more steeped you get in its world. While individual episodes might have been particularly strong or weak, the overall story that and recursion that was building continues to escalate into a fever pitch. If you stopped that ride early, you were missing out on the continual escalation of that world.

Both of these things come down to the nature of criticism and how it’s becoming less and less relevant. I’m not saying that criticism as a whole isn’t relevant. But the timely nature required for page hits/magazine sales/eyes-on–page is increasingly irrelevant. The new business model of things like Netflix make the more common “as it airs” criticism hard to do. The nature of watching has changed, while the review process has not. Recently, as critics have watched the show on a more measured pace with reviews of individual episodes being published, the reception has been more positive. Reviews grow increasingly glowing as the critics realize what the show is trying to accomplish and how it’s accomplishing that. It’s a long build, one that does not work with the traditional way that criticism is done.

The fourth season of Arrested Development is not a television show, and it should not be judged like one. Every single review I read mentioned the longer running time of each episode, with most complaining about the bloat from 22 minutes. While I’m not against tighter editing (which the show could have definitely used in a few spots), the critical response continues to judge it on television terms. It’s not as tight because it doesn’t need to be. I would perhaps use a different word to describe it: “augmented”, “expanded” or “embellished”. Not the negative word “bloated.”

I personally am increasingly impressed with the fourth season. The creators took the basic format they’ve always used and then specifically embraced the advantages a format like Netflix allows. It’s a complicated show with incredible recursion. It’s the best example of using the new media framework we have to change the nature of traditional television storytelling. Criticism has not advanced into the twenty-first century the way that other fields have. It still relies upon an old model that was an active detriment to how this show should be consumed and understood.

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