It's May! Here is the end of the traditional television season and a time when, before the advent of Netflix and cable and year-round programming, humble television critics could look forward to warm, lazy days filled with Tyrion-worthy quantities of wine, Hannah Horvath amounts of self-indulgent navel-gazing, and normal, television critic amounts of self-loathing and regret. Now, it's just another month to consider old shows, new shows, and old shows that are suddenly new again. In other words, it's prime time to order up a butt injection of amphetamines and dig into another heaping pile of mailbag. (If you'd like to see your question here next month, send an e-mail to GrantlandTVMailbag@gmail.com.)
So what's the deal with the new season of Arrested Development? Is there really more money to be found in this aging banana stand?
— Fan Dierman, Grantland offices, Los Angeles
I don't usually answer questions from my bosses — other than "Can you work faster?" and "Does a 50-word blurb really need six footnotes?" — but this one seemed important. Unless you've been having tea parties with dolls in the attic of a model home, you are probably well aware that Arrested Development, the fiercely adored Fox sitcom that ran from 2003 to 2006, is returning this weekend thanks to the persistence of Internet GIF makers and the munificence of Netflix. Beginning Sunday, all 15 episodes of the long-awaited Season 4 will appear en masse as if summoned there by Tony Wonder. The entire cast has returned, along with popular guest stars Henry Winkler (the shark-jumping Barry Zuckerkorn), Scott Baio (Barry's younger replacement, Bob Loblaw), Mae Whitman ("Her?"), and Liza Minnelli (the vertiginous Lucille No. 2), and creator Mitch Hurwitz has revealed that each of the episodes is focused on a single character, allowing plenty of time both for catch-up and AD's typically twisty games of interlocking plot and silly self-awareness.
Netflix has also maintained a strict "no touching!" policy when it comes to these new episodes, so there isn't a critic from here to Newport Beach who has actually seen them. In lieu of any advance knowledge, I'll try to answer my commanding officer's question with three queries of my own.
1. Is Arrested Development a good fit for Netflix? And is Netflix a good fit for Arrested Development?
Yes and yes. I've had my issues with the streaming service's embrace of the binge model for its original series, but this is a different matter. Outside of a few hard-core Spaceyheads (these are people who love Kevin Spacey, not people who love Kevin Spacey and also enjoy re-creating the final scene of Seven), no one was hungering for House of Cards before it debuted. But dumping seven and a half hours of brand-new Arrested Development content in the middle of a holiday weekend? That's like airlifting a crate of Cool Ranch Doritos Locos Tacos to a NORML convention. Servicing a ravenous fan base is what made Netflix successful, and binge-watching is what made Arrested Development a bigger cult in death than it ever was in life. It's win-win without even getting into the third win: Hurwitz seems to have designed these 15 overlapping episodes precisely for Netflix's pause-and-play interface. As star Jason Bateman told GQ: "The action across the episodes is happening simultaneously. If I'm driving down the street in my episode and Gob's going down the sidewalk on his Segway, you could stop my episode, go into his episode, and follow him and see where he's going." I have no idea why you would actually want to watch television like this, but, hey: You could!
2. But will the fourth season of Arrested Development be any good?
One thing worth remembering as AD returns is how, exactly, it ended. More time was spent protesting the injustice of the abbreviated third season (the final four episodes were burned off on a single night while the majority of America was watching the Winter Olympics) than actually considering it. This is a good thing for the show's legacy because, let's be honest, much of the third season kind of blue. (Charlize Theron as a maybe mentally challenged British person?) Furthermore, the fact that Mitch Hurwitz actually turned down a chance to keep the party going on Showtime has been vanished from the official record more neatly than George Senior's beloved yacht.1 Said Hurwitz at the time: "In truth, I had taken it as far as I felt I could as a series." And while much of the Arrested Development cast went on to bigger and better things, Hurwitz himself stumbled with Running Wilde, a lousy sitcom for Fox starring Will Arnett, Keri Russell, and a tiny pony. Gob was in charge of the family business longer than Wilde was on the air.
That said, the main reason Hurwitz bagged on the Bluths seven years ago was because he was concerned about consistency, not quality. At its best, AD was a primal yawp of writers' room frustration, an escalating game of comedic chicken that stacked layers of cleverness and nonsense like empty pizza boxes to the sky. Hurwitz had done time in the sitcom trenches (one of his earliest credits was the short-lived Golden Girls spin-off The Golden Palace)2 and it was clear that reinventing the speed and language of traditional sitcoms was one thing, but doing it while under the constraints of a traditional sitcom was something else entirely. Thanks to Netflix, this new season was conceived, written, and shot far away from the madding crowds of network note-givers and those who parse the instant overnight ratings with the bullshit intensity of an ancient soothsayer examining goose guts. Arrested Development's fourth season could be much improved not because Hurwitz necessarily has something new to say but because he finally has time to say it.
3. Right, but will the fourth season of Arrested Development be good enough?
Exactly. That's the thing. In the 20th century, absence made the heart grow fonder. These days, absence just makes the heart grow more and more demanding. The fever for more Arrested Development has long since exploded past the confines of simple anticipation and mutated into something rabid and more than a little terrifying. It's possible to argue that our franchise-driven, on-demand culture has eliminated the idea of casual fans altogether, but because this is meant to be a mailbag and I'm still on the third subquestion of the first question, I won't do that. What I will say is that there are definitely no casual fans of Arrested Development. This reunion feels as if it were willed into being by a global coterie of manic Motherboys, all of whom feel personally invested in the outcome. That means the new episodes won't be judged against past successes but against the beloved, obsessed-over memories of those successes, memories built up over seven years and countless rewatchings. "It's truly an audience-driven experience," Hurwitz said in 2006. But that same audience has driven expectations through the roof. For those who've spent close to a decade popping Teamocils and holding on to hope, there's almost no way for the reality to measure up. Cue "The Final Countdown."3 We'll find out the truth, blurred or not, soon enough.
I know you've written a ton about The Office …
You're right! Let's move on.
So what's answering one more question?
Dammit. Fine. Go ahead.
Please assign cast members to the following categories:
Destined for Continued Success in Film/TV (besides Carell and I'm guessing Helms)
— Craig F.
I really thought I was done with the paper industry, but I'm a sucker for handing out awards. These are no Dundies, but I'll do my best:
Show MVP: Jenna Fischer. The finale wasn't perfect, but it was perfectly fine. The best thing it did was showcase how, particularly post-Michael, it was the slow and gentle evolution of Pam Beesly from meek receptionist to fulfilled dream-chaser that was both the heartbeat and the lifeblood of The Office. Fischer never won any awards or rocked the boat, but it was her steady performance that kept the entire thing afloat.
Most Overrated: I think I might punt on this. Even when The Office was bad — and it was bad for most of the last two seasons — the strength of the ensemble never wavered. Also, there really weren't many gushing pieces written on, say, the cult of Creed or how The Office was really about the unfettered promiscuity of Meredith, even though that kind of contrarian reasoning is basically what the Internet was invented to provide. Most people affiliated with this show were either underrated or just plain rated — not a bad legacy.
Most Underrated: You could name almost any of the formerly faceless day players elevated to key supporting roles, all of whom, from showrunner turned punching bag Paul Lieberstein (Toby) to casting associate turned mother hen Phyllis Smith (Phyllis), made me laugh. (You could even name John Krasinski, who achieved celebrity by making fecklessness look not only easy, but somehow charming.) But no character on The Office continuously did more with less than the curmudgeonly Leslie David Baker. When The Office decamped to Florida for a series of increasingly insane episodes last year, the sight of Baker's Stanley in a Miami Vice suit — replete with pink pocket square — almost made the whole thing worth it.
Most Improved: With apologies to Angela Kinsey and the great Steve Carell, who started strong but found another gear as Michael Scott transitioned from cancerous cartoon to well-meaning idiot, I'm giving this to Ellie Kemper. The Office was already overstuffed when Erin was hired in the fifth season, but Kemper took what could have been a throwaway part and slowly transformed it into an essential addition. By the end, it was Erin who got the most emotional slice of the finale — reuniting with her birth parents — and no die-hard fans batted an eye.
Destined for Continued Success: Even though no one wanted to meet the Peeples this past weekend, I still think Craig Robinson has a nice movie career ahead of him, particularly if he sticks to supporting turns in strong projects (the bouncer in Knocked Up, the weeping henchman in Pineapple Express) instead of leads in bad ones. You know. Choices like this.
Is Eric Taylor not the perfect fit for the Eagles post–Andy Reid instead of Chip Kelly? Both have serious trouble managing the clock late in a game, both say 10 words max at a press conference, and both led a mobile quarterback with a troubled past down the road to redemption. Plus Taylor's gotten to know the city for the last 3 years. Wouldn't you want to see Shady yelling "CAN'T LOSE!" after Coach has made them run up the Manayunk Wall in the rain for the fifth time?
There are so many reasons why this would work! Coach Taylor has all the skills necessary to survive — no, thrive — in my hometown. One, he's shown not only the bravery to take a chance on a high-upside prospect at the quarterback position (Voodoo), he's also demonstrated the ability to make that same prospect disappear as if he'd never even existed (also Voodoo). Two, he's able to preserve important draft picks by transforming completely unathletic guitar players/murderers into serviceable kickers. Three, Eagles fans love a redemption story, and if we once fell for an amiable schoolteacher turned special teamer, then just imagine how crazy we'd go for our new fullback, an alcoholic ex-felon with sensitive eyes and a come-hither Canadian accent. Four, Coach Taylor has a history of doing what most Philadelphians consider the impossible: getting a decent performance out of Nnamdi Asomugha. And finally, while owner Jeffrey Lurie's (now ex) wife antagonized the howling hoagie eaters by having Vera Wang redesign the cheerleader outfits, Mrs. Coach is Mrs. Coach. Start selling playoff tickets now, basically.
If you were offered three mulligans that you could use at any point in TV history, what would they be? You can use these mulligans to remove/replace any character, episode, season, or story arc that put a major blemish on that show's history.
— Jerome D.
Oh my. I am drunk with power! (Wait, no. I'm just drunk.) Unlike literally everything else I do in writing and in life, I'm not going to overthink this, so:
1. Since we're already on the topic, I would wipe out the second season of Friday Night Lights. I already tell people they don't need to watch it — the producers basically wiped it out from continuity themselves — but it rarely stops completists from suffering through the agonies of born-again Lyla and Landry's unquenchable thirst for vengeance and blood.
2. I would convince David Caruso to stick around NYPD Blue for longer than a season. This would have a pleasing butterfly effect:
A. NYPD Blue gets to build on its amazing first season and the volatile chemistry between Caruso's John Kelly and a pre-cuddly Sipowicz.
B. Jimmy Smits, who was plenty great on the show, joins a few years later. This pushes the surprisingly fine Rick Schroder back, too, and pushes the wooden Mark-Paul Gosselaar off the schedule entirely.
C. Jade never, ever happens.
3. There are so many ways to use this on Lost, one of the best TV series of my lifetime that always could have been just a teeny bit better. Had I more mulligans to give, I would consider Ana Lucia, Nikki and Paulo, Bai Ling (just in general), all flashJacks after the first season, the word "soul mate," Michael coming back, Outdoorsy Claire, that weird episode with Allison Janney, and the Thing That Happened to Sun and Jin That I Will Never Forgive Damon Lindelof For. But it's gotta be the truth behind the sideways flashes, right? I will always respect the showrunners' freedom to tell the exact story they wanted to tell and I love nearly everything about the way they told it. But it would have been so much nicer to discover that said story was built on solid ground, not a molten core of sentimental mush.
Before Robb Stark interrupted his wife this week on Game of Thrones she was writing letters. My question is, how are these letters getting delivered? Someone having to travel The King's Road from kingdom to kingdom with a loaded mail sack seems like a harder job than tavern wench. And if it's ravens, think of how many birds you would need to service all of the Sevem Kingdoms' mail. Either way I could watch AT LEAST 15 minutes devoted to the inner workings of the Westeros Postal Service.
— Joe, Orlando
I love this. In fact, from the minute Tyrion saved King's Landing thanks to his intimate knowledge of the city's sewage system, I've been longing for a swords 'n' sorcery fantasy show set within the mundane confines of fictional civic management. Yes, it'd be plenty harrowing hand-delivering love letters across a continent crowded with rogue torturers, heavily armed brotherhoods with or without banners, and grumps who look like this. And, yes, direwolves are probably more of a workplace hazard than Shiba Inus. But think of it this way: The weather is fantastic for years at a time! There's no snow, some rain, and very little sleet. You could conceivably build up quite a nice pension before winter comes again. And when it does come, people will be more worried about basic survival than about hearing from their distant cousin in Qarth. Honestly, I think it'd be far more dangerous to be the guy in charge of sluicing the blood from underneath House Bolton or King Joffrey's sex dungeon, setting the table and hosing off the guests for one of King Robert's boargies, or ventilating the room every time Melisandre starts smoking again. Call it Beneath the Thrones. I imagine a cross between The Honeymooners, Parks and Recreation, and the torture scene in Braveheart, and I fully expect Starz to have given it the green light before the end of this column.
This isn't really a question, but rather a desperate plea for some news, even if untrue, that this show is being picked up to fill the otherwise crater-sized hole in my heart. Was that too dramatic?
—Jawaad, St. Louis
Not too dramatic to make it into the mailbag! I am also mourning the loss of the funniest, fastest show on television. Last I heard, the talks with USA were legit, not just Sony huffing and puffing to keep one of its series afloat. But that was also a week ago, and the most recent rumors have been less than good. This is dispiriting but not surprising; even without major stars, network sitcoms with large-ish ensembles and brilliant writing staffs tend to be expensive in a way that makes even cash-rich basic cable channels blanch. That said, all those affiliated with the show who I reached out to either (a) wouldn't speak at all, or (b) sounded strangely calm about the whole thing. Both signs point to a hazy future, but a future nonetheless. And if Sony can wring two more seasons out of the zombie Community — from NBC, the zombie network, no less — then truly anything is possible.
During your Upfronts coverage, you often referred to sitcoms as multi-cam or single-cam. I was able to figure out that you mean multiple or singular camera, but I don't really understand how that affects the show or why I should care how many cameras are used. Can you please explain why it's important and maybe give some examples of why one is preferable over the other.
Yes! Thank you for this servicey question, Daniel. "Multi-cam" and "single-cam" are, like "showrunner," "bottle episode," and "Les Moonves's titanium-coated helicarrier," industry terms that entered the mainstream recently without much thought or explanation. Basically there are two prevailing styles when it comes to sitcoms. For years, "multi-cam" was king. This means the show is blocked and performed on a static set, like a play, with multiple (usually three) cameras picking up the action. Think of all the classic sitcoms filmed in front of a studio audience, from The Cosby Show to Cheers. CBS has had a remarkable run of success merely by sticking with this tried-and-true format this past decade: Though they may look slicker than, say, Full House, current hits like How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory are proudly, defiantly multi-cam.
Thanks to quick and clever shows like The Office and Arrested Development, "single-cam" became the style of choice over the past decade for comedy snobs. Single-cam, in this case, means the show is filmed like a movie, with a single camera tracking the movements of the actors. (Sometimes "single-cam" isn't literal: Both The Office and Parks and Recreation use two cameras circling the action in order to better capture the jittery, improvised mockumentary feel.) For a while, all development was in single-camera because most writers seemed to prefer it. Without the ever-present chuckles and oohs and ahhhs of an audience, and the familiar rhythm they impose, scripts were free to speed up the jokes, or double back to previous ones, or dispense with them altogether. The only problem is, aside from Modern Family, large-scale audiences still seemed to prefer the old style. That's why NBC has been desperately trying to get back into the multi-cam business in search of viewers with Nielsen boxes, not those with Twitter accounts.
The truth is, both styles can be good, but there has been an unfortunate cultural divide built up between the two of late, so much so that an entire generation of TV fans now thinks anything with a laugh track is inherently unfunny. My hope is that some brave and hardy soul will find a way to bring the upscale sensibility of shows like 30 Rock and Happy Endings to the downscale (read: cheaper) world of multi-cam. The number of cameras is about the only thing classic greats like Frasier have in common with recent duds like Guys With Kids and Whitney. Which leads me to my next question …
Are you surprised John Mulaney's sitcom didn't get picked up by NBC? Can you see him taking over the Weekend Update desk? Who are your other Weekend Update replacement front-runners?
I had the chance to read Mulaney, the now-dead sitcom written by the star of the SNL writers' room (and the guy responsible for every creature in attendance for Stefon's wedding, from Gizblow to Hobocop), John Mulaney, and I thought it was hilarious. It concerned the New York City travails of one John Mulaney, a funny guy prone to getting blackout drunk, and his adventures attempting to stay sober while ping-ponging between his wastoid roommates, his elegantly aging gay neighbor (Elliott Gould), and the showbiz ham whose checks pay Mulaney's rent (Martin Short). The real trick of the script was the way it felt both dirty and fresh in the manner of most contemporary, critically adored sitcoms and yet was defiantly multi-cam in its style and tempo. I thought it was the show both NBC and I were looking for, the one that would unite the stratified worlds (and cameras) of comedy through winning smiles and pot jokes. But NBC passed.4
Since then Mulaney has been mentioned as a potential replacement for his pal Seth Meyers behind the "Weekend Update" desk. To which I say: great! There's a proud tradition of funny, shouty people who aren't quite sketch performers getting the gig and doing it proud. (I'm thinking Norm Macdonald all the way back to Dennis Miller. Meyers did a few years in the main company but found his groove once he sat down.) If it's not Mulaney, then the pickings are slim from the current cast. I'd give Nasim Pedrad a shot, both because she has a sly, declarative comedic voice and because the weekly grab bag of made-up game shows and celebrity impersonations rarely give her a chance to shine. Also, maybe Tim Robinson is the guy because, come on — he has to be good at something.
Is Matt Weiner trying to finish the job that his mentor David Chase never could with The Sopranos? Chiefly, creating a flawed character the audience loves and them driving them to hate him? Chase was famously furious with the audience forgiving Tony's sins no matter how terrible. Don Draper held that sway for five seasons but this season Weiner seems determined to crush all remaining audience love for Mr. Draper.
I like the idea, but I don't think it's quite on the mark. Weiner tends to play with our affections for Don like Joan plays the accordion — which is to say, expertly. A few times a season, Mad Men will dangle Don over the despicable precipice of no return before yanking him back to swaggering safety. I'd agree with Neil that this season has pushed it like none before — calling your wife a whore while sneaking downstairs for your neighbor's gabagool is pretty unforgivable. But more than anything else Mad Men isn't about cheating vs. fidelity, likable vs. unlikable, it's about the giant chasm of neediness and desperation yawning at the center of all its characters. To call Don lovable or a flawed hero misses the point, because he's no hero. He's just another schmuck trying to stick a temporary Band-Aid over a permanent wound and chasing a happiness that only lasts until he's hopelessly in need of more. Sterling Cooper Whatever Whatever doesn't sell cars and margarine. It sells the fleeting promise of satisfaction. And the fact that we all want to love Don only demonstrates how desperate we are to buy the bullshit he and his firm have become famous for peddling.
Can we start a petition to get the scenes from next week's episode changed to a Vine video of elevator doors closing and opening on various characters? The elevator is a more consistent character than Bobby Draper.
— Frank, Rochester
NY INT. MATT WEINER'S OFFICE. VERY LATE.
MATT WEINER, bald, sits at his desk, rubbing homemade voodoo dolls of writers he's fired for luck. He types a few lines on his immaculate, 1964 Olivetti typewriter, then rubs his brow.
MATT: "The way these elevator doors close and open … it's like a pair of legs in a whorehouse!" No, that's not it. Too on the nose. Come on, Weiner. Think!
He rips the page out like Stephen J. Cannell and tries again.
MATT: "Look at that elevator going up and down. You could charge top dollar for that at a whorehouse!" No. no. Not quite. This is a classy show. Classy.
He carefully applies a coat of Wite-Out. Retypes a few words.
MATT: "Look at that elevator going up and down! It's like our fortunes, rising and falling. The unknowable uncertainty of life … "
He taps his forehead, thinking.
MATT: "It's almost as if this elevator could be … an elevator in a whorehouse!"
He smiles. Then his face FALLS.
MATT: What kind of whorehouses have elevators, you fool? This is 1968, not Mars. Oh, Weiner, you're in a pickle this time.
MARTEN: Dad, I'm telling you, I don't even want to be an actor.
Need some help with my spec script for the Mad Men series finale. So far all I have is "a flash forward to Bobby Draper's marriage falling apart during a news report about JFK Jr's death while Destiny's Child's 'Bills, Bills, Bills' plays in the background." How do you see the series ending?
— Damon D.
I know this may sound weird, but I see it like that, Damon. I see it exactly like that.