In an overcrowded TV landscape, it’s hard for any show to stand out. Some series, like Netflix’s heavily promoted Everything Sucks!, come and go after a single season. Others linger quietly under the radar year after year, like The Path, which completed a three-season run on Hulu in March, not that many seemed to notice. Maybe you watched and loved these shows. Maybe you know someone else who did. But whether they’re short-lived or strangely enduring, many shows lack the qualities that make them worthy social media fodder and fandom bait, the 2018 equivalent of water cooler conversation topics: they exist without seeming to matter.
It’s a tough environment even for beloved, buzzed-about shows that are returning after a considerable absence. Consider Arrested Development. Savvy, media-aware audiences heard a lot about Mitchell Hurwitz’s ensemble comedy a week before Netflix debuted its fifth season on May 29th, but they heard about it for all the wrong reasons. The sexual misconduct allegations leveled at Arrested Development co-star Jeffrey Tambor for alleged behavior during the production of the Amazon series Transparent have cast a shadow over both shows. And though no sexual harassment accusations have surfaced regarding Tambor’s work on Arrested Development, a disastrous New York Times interview revealed Tambor had caused considerable tension there by verbally abusing co-star Jessica Walter, who broke down in tears when the subject came up.
Instead of expressing sympathy for Walter, cast members Jason Bateman, Tony Hale, and David Cross rushed to excuse Tambor’s behavior. (All three men have since publicly apologized, while co-star Alia Shawkat gave a revealing interview about why the conversation was so harrowing and why she didn’t speak up more at the time.) All in all, it was a bad day to be an Arrested Development publicist, a bad day for Tambor’s attempt at a redemption tour, and a bad day for fans harboring the illusion that the show was as much fun to make as it was to watch.
Not all publicity is good publicity, and knowing about Tambor’s actions toward Walter, along with the other charges leveled against him, has made it hard to see Arrested Development in the same light as it was once received. Vulture critic Matt Zoller Seitz introduced the term “cultural vandalism” to describe the effect an artist’s deplorable behavior has on a piece of art. Arrested Development’s fifth season arrived heavily tagged.
But would erasing those tags change the new season’s relatively hushed reception?
Here’s some inside baseball: if you worked at a pop culture website between 2006 and 2013, running items about Arrested Development’s long-rumored return was like printing pageviews. The show never enjoyed tremendous ratings during its three seasons at Fox, but it did enjoy critical acclaim and a fervent cult following. When its final episode, “Development Arrested,” aired on February 10th, 2006 as part of a one-night burn-off of the last four episodes, it brought the series full circle. But many fans still wanted more. That apparently included Hurwitz and the cast, who frequently hinted at their willingness to participate in a fourth season. Still, the idea seemed far-fetched — until Netflix started looking for available properties that could boost the profile and reputation of its original content roster. The rumors turned into reality, and the fourth season of Arrested Development hit Netflix in May 2013.
Netflix was an entirely different service five years ago
That was just five years ago, but it was a different era for TV (as well as the rest of the world). Netflix premiered its first original series, House of Cards, in February 2013. Another signature show, Orange Is the New Black, was still a few months away. (Subscribers could already enjoy Hemlock Grove, however.) Bringing Arrested Development to the service, at that point still best known as a place to stream movies or rent DVDs by mail, was a big deal, one that would help establish Netflix as a platform where original series could thrive — or, as the titles for the revived Arrested Development noted, a “semi-original series.”
Arrested Development also returned at a point when TV revivals, on Netflix or elsewhere, weren’t common. Family Guy and Futurama had been canceled and made comebacks, but usually, dead shows stayed dead. Arrested Development helped change that, paving the way for revivals of everything from Gilmore Girls to Twin Peaks to Mystery Science Theater 3000 — a trend that includes what was briefly 2018’s biggest TV success story, the highly rated revival of the now-canceled Roseanne.
Now, Arrested Development has returned to the TV world that its fourth season helped create, but it doesn’t seem to be creating much of a stir in that world. Reactions to the fifth season have been muted, with reviews dominated by phrases like “mostly fine” and “fun in places.” Netflix doesn’t publish ratings, which makes it tough to gauge fan reaction. But social media response suggests that the new season didn’t turn fans into binge-driven shut-ins, the way the season 4 premiere did.
Some of this is likely due to issues particular to Arrested Development itself. Season 4 was divisive. Scheduling issues kept the cast apart for much of production, resulting in episodes centered around individual characters instead of the powerful ensemble that drove the first three seasons. Those new episodes moved to a different rhythm than the previous ones. The humor took on a nastier edge, and while some viewers saw this as a feature rather than a bug, many didn’t. And while season 5 returned to a more traditional production method, it has its own issues. Where season 4 was Arrested Development’s White Album — a collection of solo turns united in one package — season 5 sometimes plays like the show’s Let It Be, with an ensemble relearning to play together again. (And even here, the solo turns are what stand out, particularly Will Arnett’s work as the increasingly tortured Gob Bluth.)
the premiere of virtually any TV show in 2018 can’t be the event it was in 2013
It’s also tough to factor out Tambor’s situation. That disastrous Times interview undoubtedly helped squelch enthusiasm for the show’s return and cooled goodwill toward the cast members who defended him. But even without it, the premiere of new Arrested Development episodes in 2018 isn’t the event it was in 2013, for reasons beyond the show itself. Given the splintering of the TV landscape, the sheer number of familiar properties being adapted or rebooted, and the intense marketing that goes into turning streaming-service fare into appointment viewing, the premiere of virtually any TV show in 2018 can’t be the event it was in 2013. Even the shows that can unite a fractured viewership are either scheduled to end soon (Game of Thrones) or engaged in a seemingly irreversible decline (The Walking Dead). There’s more great TV than ever right now, but the medium is moving at warp speed. There’s more to watch than ever before, and more that’s worth watching, but unless a given show makes a splash on social media or earns a vocal fandom willing to stump for it, it’s hard to see the impact of any new arrival.
And the surplus of things to watch has made audiences treat new TV like work, like a heavy responsibility. If anything, viewers now look for reasons to be relieved of the obligation to watch something. Where they used to labor to find something to watch, they now search for reasons to tune out. Arrested Development was once a special show. Now, it’s a show struggling to remind viewers why it’s special.