The Show That Ate Its Own Tail: Arrested Development

Curator's Note

When Fox breathed life into Arrested Development in 2003, no one could have predicted that the struggling show might outlast traditional television itself. Broadband existed, but adoption rates were low. Speeds were nothing like what we see today, so creators couldn’t yet create immersive digital content.

Thanks to successful multi-platform experiences like Lost’s and The Office’s, audiences now expect shows to be supplemented by different forms of content.These “transmedia texts” aren’t fully defined yet, but, two tenets are agreed: the text must exist canonically on multiple forms of media, and there is no single “ur-text” that provides all the reference material necessary to understand the world of the show.

Arrested Development meets the first criteria by accident: born on traditional television, discovered on DVD, and resurrected in an undefined new form; is it a 13 hour movie with a two hour “wrap up”? Are we witnessing comedic video gone Dickens? Regardless of how we describe this new form, new AD isn’t a “ television series” - there’s no preordained intervals for consumption, no time to absorb and analyze the work. Showrunner Mitch Hurwitz even claims that new episodes need not be watched in sequence.

While this new format mirrors how many fans discovered the show, binge distribution removes the show from context. Which brings us to criteria two - the lack of an “ur-text”. The clip above illustrates the problem with AD’s lack of a single reference text. You watch your boxsets, but when’s the last time you watched Fahrenheit 9/11? More importantly, when would you revisit news media obsessions?

Arrested Development is only half as funny if you don’t remember the particulars of the Bush era. Buster’s acceptance into Army comes off as a comedic contrivance today, but context deepens its meaning. The military’s desperation for new recruits to replace retiring soldiers meant they signed up those who wouldn’t normally qualify and sent them straight into battle. So when Lucille volunteers Buster for the Army, it’s more than comedy - it’s a subtle reminder of Lucille’s total bloody-mindedness. When watching the clips today, the moment remains funny, but it lacks teeth. This is the curse of the transmedia text. Parts of it live on, but many textual inputs fall away into the dustbin of history. Arrested Development still makes us laugh, but age divorces it from contextual inputs. Let’s see how the resurrection fares.


Interesting food for thought! I am looking forward to seeing how Netflix and the writers/producers galvinize the existing fan base. AD already has a considerable presence on Tumblr that seems to be operating as a "cliff notes" for those who are not familiar with the show. For Netflix's experiments with original programming to work the show will have to attract first time viewers who may come to AD through Netflix and begin with season 1. You ask what new form AD is taking, but I think that we are approaching a critical mass where the word "television" can easily be divorced both from the apparatus and even from traditional, industrial programming models.

Really interesting idea! I think something like this phenomenon happens when people see a show for the first time in re-runs--once while watching "The Non-Fat Yogurt" episode of Seinfeld I had to explain to someone that the term "wilding" referred to the Central Park Jogger Case. But it does feel different for the transmedia text. I wonder why?

I wonder if AD would have survived on Fox if it aired ten years later. One can only imagine the webisodes and other content that would have been used to fully develop narratives and provide background information. Even if the show garnered low ratings, it's possible these would have allowed the show to sustain a longer run.

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