We’ve waited almost a decade for more Arrested Development, the groundbreaking sitcom of the aughts. Now with a release date set, critics and fans are eager for Mitch Hurwitz’s franchise to break new ground on the web, via Netflix.
Think Progress‘ Alyssa Rosenberg, one of television’s sharpest critical voices, has a cogent argument for how Arrested Development may just reinvent TV.
If it does, however, it won’t be the first. In fact, the innovations Arrested Development (2013) will bring to television narrative and distribution have existed in smaller, less-obvious and lower-budget forms online for over a decade.
As I explored in a recent article in the Journal of Communication Inquiry, the web series market has existed for nearly twenty years, and in that time has routinely upended our expectations of what television is and can be. Arrested Development is building on years of work from scores of producers of independent television — television produced not just by independent production companies (mostly), but also television produced independent of the industry’s conventions. Web series are a vital and largely unexplored part of the Golden Age of Television, which critics have largely located on basic and premium cable.
Television Beyond Time Constraints
Rosenberg points to two ways Arrested Development might reconfigure the television text. Let’s start with variable episode length. At TCA Hurwitz stated the episodes do not conform to the standard 22-minute format:
Networks will probably never adopt that kind of radical flexibility for any number of reasons. Variable episode lengths would make it hard to standardize sales of advertising slots throughout a season.
Nearly every web series every produced has eschewed standard TV-lengths. There’s been no need to, since they exist outside the advertising machine that finances corporate television, which Netflix is side-stepping because they also don’t have to (neither, does HBO, Showtime and the like, of course).
That aside, web series have shown remarkable innovation in playing with episode length. Take, for example, 2012′s MyMusic (above), which I have called YouTube’s most ambitious sitcom. Created by the Fine Brothers, the comedy team behind several hit viral series, MyMusic is a weekly scripted sitcom about a faux music company. Each week it releases short episodes under 10-minutes — it also has a number of weekly live and interactive shows. Every few weeks, those short episodes are re-cut into TV-length episodes. Viewers can choose which way they want to watch.
Valemont, MTV’s 2009 web series from pioneering producer Brent Friedman, featured similar innovations. Premiering during ad pods between The Hills and The City, the show moved online in short episodes under 10-minutes. Those episodes were re-cut into a TV pilot and could’ve been turned into a movie (The Bannen Way is the success story with that).
Basically all web series tell stories in whatever lengths they see fit. The Outs, whose creator Adam Goldman writes for this site, has episode lengths of 13, 19, 22, 18, 25 and 28 minutes, respectively, with a longer holiday episode coming next month. It’s a brilliant, intimate show I recently called one of the best of 2012 over at indieWIRE.
One could argue that, as a former property of television networks, Arrested Development‘s choice to vary episode length is more revolutionary than those who did it outside of the industry’s structures. That makes a lot of sense. But it misses that many web series have been translated to television, lived on the websites of television networks or been funded, directly and indirectly, by the same sponsors and distributors.
Television Beyond Linearity
Arrested Development‘s real innovation, though, could be its non-linear storytelling. (UPDATE 5/15/13: Nevermind. Hurwitz says you have to watch them in order. Indie TV: 2, Netflix: 0).
Here, it is true, it will likely outdo anything before it. This is mostly, I would argue, because it is a known franchise whose creator had the luxury of thinking big:
A willingness to treat episodes like a series of interlinked short films that can be watched in multiple orders is something Netflix can do particularly because of its strategy of releasing all of the episodes of its shows at once, and because it doesn’t have to build and retain viewers episode to episode the way a network does to keep a reliable stream of advertising revenue flowing.
Rosenberg rightly points out that TV networks are not comfortable with non-linearity, because it doesn’t work with current business models.
And, yet, still, independent television series have stretched the concept of linearity since the moment “cybersoaps” hit the tubes in the mid-1990s.
Take The Spot, widely regarded as the first “web series,” though it was largely text-based. Created by Scott Zakarin in 1995, who is still producing today, The Spot had some video but consisted mainly of character diaries. Most people followed the narrative linearly, but they did not have to. You could read up on the characters you cared about. You could miss other parts of the narrative. Zakarin had a handle on the big picture, but the details were often left to writers and actors. ”A lot of these guys, they write they’re own dialogue on their feet,” Zakarin once told me. Sometimes plot details were influenced by audience feedback via email. Zakarin’s more recent projects, including the interlocked Upstairs Girls and Downstairs Guys, are pseudo-reality shows that are more serialized explorations of a universe than strict narratives meant to be watched in order.
Fast forward to 2006, lonelygirl15 was mostly a linear narrative. But the earliest episodes were more casual. Unbeknownst to viewers when it premiered, those seemingly random early vlogs contained clues to a deeper mystery the series delved into in its later half. As I narrated in my essay on the vlog format in First Monday, users actually had to go back to the earlier episodes to piece together the “reality” of the show.
Around the same time, Valemont creator Brent Friedman was developing his first major project, Afterworld, a massive, 100+ episode animated sci-fi series that unfolded through what Friedman told me was “myst-like storytelling.” Afterworld was a complex mystery that combined serialization with more vague layers of information meant to be pieced together by fans, similar to some ARGs (alternate reality games). Afterworld, it should be said, was distributed by Budweiser, made on a seven-figure budget, and, according to Friedman, turned a profit through licensing (it even appeared on TV screens, globally).
“Webseries should be telling stories that literally could not be told in any other medium. Let the functionality define the form,” Friedman wrote in a 2009 essay (now offline), “What The Hell Is New Media?”
Various forms of non-linear storytelling are always cropping up on the web. There is, for example, the strange universe of Fred, created by teenager Lucas Cruikshank, which unfolded in 2-minute bits for years before moving to Nickelodeon. Fred is like many comedy web series in that, for the sake of audience retention, viewers do not need to watch every episode, or in any particular order, per se. Or consider the genius that is Got 2B Real, whose narrative is propelled by nothing other than “throwing shade.” For that show, I’d actually recommend you start at the finale.
Non-linearity can be, and has been, accomplished with recent web dramas as well. My mind gravitates toward The LXD, Jon Chu’s dance series on Hulu, which should be watched in order, but, at least for the first season, doesn’t have to. It’s more of an exploration of physicality, and each of the early episodes, along with several latter ones, are more music videos than episodes of television tied together by a vague conspiracy that sets up a deeper narrative in the later episodes.
I don’t want to over-state my case. By Hurwitz’s description, Arrested Development will indeed take serial non-linearity to heights unseen (I really hope so!). I can, however, safely say he is not the first to try, and probably won’t be the first to succeed.**
Never Forget Independent Television
I cannot wait for Arrested Development to take the web by storm.
But I caution critics and scholars not to overstate its innovations simply because it’s among the first, recognizable, well-financed web series. I and others have spent years chronicling the work of brilliant showrunners most Americans will never know or care about, and I feel compelled to make sure their labor isn’t forgotten or washed aside by the influx of cash Netflix, Amazon, Hulu and other corporations are pouring into the market.
A fuller picture of the new television economy reveals a more complex picture. Arrested Development’s chief contribution to the web series could likely be using its innovation on a bigger platform, in a way that’s more directly marketable.
And I wonder, if it hadn’t started on television, and if, instead, its budget was 1/10th the size and had premiered on YouTube, would anyone of us notice?
**I can also safely say I must be missing some key examples out there. Sound off in the comments.