The new season of Arrested Development came out last week, and let’s make one thing clear; it is amazing. It’s what it’s always been, while full of new gags and tropes that made me excited to go back and watch again (because I’m sure I missed plenty). While I admit, it is rocky in places—the George Sr. storyline being considerably weaker than the others and, sure, editing could have been tighter—it is still the same brilliant show.
The return of Arrested marks another exciting notch in what critics have called “The Golden Age of Television.” Streaming websites like Netflix have become players in providing content too. Ten years ago, the only competition in television was amongst the Big Four networks—this was the age when Friends could draw 25 million viewers per episode per week. However, then cable networks began producing high quality content and were under less strict FCC regulations. ABC, NBC, FOX, and CBS didn’t really see the cable networks as serious competition until shows like The Walking Dead started winning the ratings race. Now, Netflix is building an audience with the revival of Arrested Development, their gritty political drama House of Cards, and a well-reviewed mystery/horror show Hemlock Grove. Amazon has also begun producing their own original content, and YouTube has also experimented with less success.
The expanded competition has produced a heightened quality in the shows we watch. Characters have become more complex, plots have deepened, “laugh tracks” are long gone. There is a side effect to this, though: people have become more critical of the TV that they watch to the point of nausea. Bloggers, news sites, everyday passersby find a need to criticize the most miniscule parts of shows like Arrested Development, expecting successive seasons to be impossibly better than what they’ve seen before. I think this sense is what lead to a lot of the negativity towards season four; people had simply expected too much for any amount of laughs to make good on; because some people insist on being overly critical of this masterpiece, I feel justified being critical of their criticisms. Here are a few:
Brian Lowry of Variety has one of the most hilariously aloof negative reviews. He first bemoans the fact that the episodes were not made available to critics before their release to the general public, so critics and regular people are weighing in at the same time. I think this bitterness over not receiving preferential treatment is partly driving his next miniscule criticism that the episodes shouldn’t have been released all at once because it feels like “work” watching them. Yes, if your job is to watch these episodes as quickly as possible to put a review up online as quickly as possible, then it is work. Creator Mitch Hurwitz even warned fans not to “binge-watch” the season so they wouldn’t ruin it for themselves.
Other reviews focused on how the show “didn’t live up to expectation” (again, impossible to live up to), or that it was too sad, because the characters’ lives were too messed up. (Wasn’t the entire show about how messed up their lives are?! It’s at the beginning of every episode: “Now the story of a family who lost everything…”)
I’m reminded of DZ’s “Maintaining the Beast” sermon on Urban Meyer, in which he talked about how the ascent to greatness may be joyous, but maintenance of said greatness is nothing but stress and anxiety, because suddenly everybody expects unrealistic greatness every day and all the time. I fear this is exactly what is happening in this our “Golden Age of TV.” Surrounded by brilliant content and yet grown exceedingly entitled in what we choose to watch, TV producers must “maintain the beast” of high quality television.
This “watching to criticize” gradually reduces “watching to enjoy” and makes television about critique and not about entertainment. You can see this everywhere: foodies with restaurants, vinyl purists with music, and so on. The people who enjoy the most are those for whom the experience is new, while nit-picking critics scale horizons for miniscule things to make them unhappy.
(For the record: In a fit of irony, yes, I am fully aware that this post has been critical of the critical problem that everyone is a critic.)