Arrested Development Season 4: How the Bluth Family Changed Comedy History

It’s been seven years since the Bluth family last appeared in new episodes on television screens before being cancelled by the Fox network; one of Fox’s notorious cancellations (see Whedon, Joss). But over the years Arrested Development’s reputation and cult-like following kept rumors of a movie going. Then creator Mitch Hurwitz announced that Netflix had acquired the rights and that AD would return with 15 episodes, all streaming and available at once. Now Memorial Day weekend has come and gone and while we aren’t getting the movie (yet!), the Bluths have made their return, and are still dominating Facebook and Twitter feeds. 

This time their legacy is not being lived out only on television sets, but on laptops, tablet computers, and video game consoles through which Netflix subscribers can mainline their AD fix. Viewers are falling over themselves to be the first to see all the episodes (don’t post any spoilers, at this point I’m only five episodes in). One day after its arrival plenty of viewers had already completed the series and are doubtless queuing up repeat viewings.

The return of the “little show that could” marks a key point in the way that television is changing, for the better. And it isn’t coincidental. AD played a key role in shaping and paving the way for the renaissance of television storytelling we’re enjoying right now. While House of Cards was Netflix’s first foray into the release a high profile show all at once, AD seems to be a more serious shift in the way we do television. But it’s not just the streaming format. AD is perhaps one of the most important shows to help shape what we expect from television for the better.

Firstly, AD incorporated serial storytelling, a format was long associated with soap operas. Dramas have long understood the potential for long-form storytelling and taking multiple episodes (or seasons) to create story arcs. But AD was one of the first comedies that expected its audience to have been following what came before. The story of the Bluth family’s troubles wasn’t a bunch of one off gags, but a comedic story that only paid off in the end. Now plenty of shows expect audiences to be up on supporting characters and past plotlines. The very thing that was seen as a stumbling block to the show on its original run is now a template for success. 

While AD’s network run was a failure, its DVD sales were a success. The DVDs of the show sold well and Netflix now has a chance to prove that a streaming show can do even better. The show’s structure of repeated gags and intricate plot rewards repeat viewings, and the DVD format supported it well. Releasing all the episodes at once for streaming may have been the most logical way for the powers that be to go with AD.

Lastly, AD’s return is a triumph of what dedicated fans and a supportive creator can accomplish when they show that the desire is really there. The fan’s enthusiasm is such that plenty of fans tuning likely never watched the show on its initial run, and only discovered it due to the AD evangelists in their circle of friends. The truth is that AD’s dismal ratings, which led to its cancellation, today would make it a fairly successful show. The fragmentation of the entertainment landscape means that for a show to be a success, it needs those dedicated fans and AD is an example of how fans can yield that success. A few thousand die hards means a lot more today than it did seven years ago.

Hopefully fans, myself included, will find the return of AD to be everything we hoped for. Either way, when you participated in streaming AD on Netflix last weekend, it was a part of a shift in what we expect from television and how production companies can deliver. But more importantly, it represents a shift in television viewing and production practices toward the viewer — and that is what’s most important.