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'Arrested Development' finds new life in the land of Netflix

If you don’t think the way we watch TV is in the midst of monumental change, ask yourself: Has any new network series of late generated nearly as much excitement as the return at 12:01 a.m. Sunday of “Arrested Development” on Netflix?

The offbeat sitcom about the Bluth family, one of the most dysfunctional clans in TV history, was canceled by Fox seven years ago because it was deemed to have too small an audience to be profitable for network TV.

But network TV is now seven years closer to its dinosaur grave, and Netflix appears to be booming with a new business model of distribution for TV shows that aren’t on TV. Exhibit A is “House of Cards,” the Maryland-made political thriller starring Kevin Spacey as House Majority Whip Francis Underwood. Its 13 episodes of the first season were offered to subscribers all at once in February, to be binged or parceled out as consumers so desired.

Most of us binged and then rationalized that we were video pioneers or cultural pathfinders or something righteous after 13 straight, sleep-deprived hours of reveling in Underwood and his wicked Washington ways.

Analysts expect the 15 episodes of “Arrested Development” to do even better for Netflix, because both the series and creator Mitch Hurwitz seem so in synch with the new media possibilities of on-demand, Internet-streamed productions.

Whereas “House of Cards” was told mostly in the traditional, linear manner as an HBO drama might be, “Arrested Development” always had a keen postmodern sensibility with a commitment to the kind of self-referential jokes that inspire a cult following.

And during the three seasons it ran on Fox from 2003 to 2006, “Arrested” achieved only cult numbers — with an audience that topped out at 6 million.

But a small audience is not necessarily a liability in the new world of niche, on-demand programming – especially if it is made up of passionately devoted fans who are likely to subscribe to a service for a show that speaks to them.

And that’s something “Arrested Development” always did. It was the anti-family sitcom in a medium that was all but built on sitcoms that celebrated families starting in the late 1940s.

The Bluth family was led into ruin by its patriarch, George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor). From his “creative accounting practices” to the Security and Exchange Commission probe of his crooked ways, he was the embodiment of the corporate corruption that led to the savings and loan scandals of the 1980s and the near-crash of Wall Street in 2008.

Prescient in 2003 about where the economy was headed? You bet, but in a crazed and darkly satiric way. George’s wife, Lucille (Jessica Walter), was just as bad as him — a pill-popping, self-indulgent monster to everyone from her children to servants.

The series’ deepest connection to its young-adult audience was forged through its leading character, Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), second-oldest son and the nearest thing to a competent member of the family. Like Michael in “The Godfather” movies, just when he thinks he has escaped, he’s dragged back into the madness of the family — and asked to save it while everyone around him keeps acting selfish and crazy.

The cast is superb. It also includes Will Arnett, Tony Hale, Portia de Rossi, Michael Cera, David Cross and Alia Shawkat. Ron Howard, who serves as narrator, has become a character in his own right through his sometimes ironic commentary. Recurring players include Liza Minnelli, whom viewers will see again during the new season.

Hurwitz’s sensibility is so attuned to the possibilities of the Netflix model that he says he’s had to rein himself in.

“Particularly, in comedy, the more communication you can have with your audience the better,” Hurwitz says. “I mean, that’s what comedy is. It’s about getting a laugh. It’s a social activity. Jim Vallely, my longtime producing partner, has been saying, ‘After this comes out, why don’t we make all the [hard drives] of all the content available online and let people cut [edit] their own versions of it?’”

If that’s not enough of a democratic and interactive model of TV production versus the old Hollywood gatekeepers system, how about this?

“At one point, I even thought, ‘Let’s do a Google chat in the writers room,’” Hurwitz added during a teleconference Thursday. “We were torn about something. We thought, ‘Is this funny? Is it good to have this character do this, or does this kill the character?’ And I really thought, ‘Well, why don’t we just go ahead and ask the people we’re trying to please anyway? Let’s just open it up to the fans and ask them.’”

Indicative of the level at which serious fans engage the show is a celebration that Baltimore’s EMP Collective was to stage over the weekend: BluthCon 2013 — “a celebration of the greatest television series of all time,” according to a release from the arts collective.

The event lineup included a costume competition, video monitors playing episodes from the first three seasons in an endless loop and a “Bluth Banana Stand.”

The Banana Stand references a storyline from the first season involving George Sr. telling Michael, “There's always money in the banana stand.” Banana stands are a Bluth family business.

Michael, angry at his father and wanting to show that he’s now in charge of what’s left of the family business, burns down the stand — only to discover that his father was being literal and there was $250,000 in paper money hidden in the stand.

The release of the 15 new episodes means binge time for the members of EMP Collective.

“I cannot imagine anyone in our organization not sitting down and watching the entire thing all in one sitting,” says Maggie Villegas, producing director of the group. “I’m pretty sure that’s going to be a marathon situation.”

That is the kind of engagement the Netflix model allows. And it has already proved itself a winning business formula with “House of Cards.”

Netflix added more than 2 million subscribers in America (3 million worldwide) during the first quarter, when “House of Cards” debuted. The new subscribers took Netflix to 29.2 million in the U.S., which put it ahead of HBO, which has 28.7 million subscribers, for the first time.

And while stock in Netflix had been down 6 percent the week before “House of Cards” debuted, it was up 10 percent the week after. Since Jan. 1, Netflix stock is up 150 percent overall. If “House” wasn’t a hit, it was perceived as one by Wall Street, and that’s pretty much all that matters in the mad world of media transformation these days.

“What I get from viewers — young and old and in-between — is how happy they are that we are coming out with this — for want of a better word — engine,” Tambor says of the Netflix model. “Our viewers, who are quite ardent and are the reason we’re back, really love what we’ve done here. The fans are appreciating the way we’re sending it as well as the content.”

“What I like is that the audience owns the material,” Hurwitz says. “They aren’t being told when they would get each particular bit of information. It informs the telling of the story.”

david.zurawik@baltsun.com

twitter.com/davidzurawik

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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