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On the Set of Arrested Development: New Rules, New Dead Doves

On a late Thursday afternoon in mid-October, Jason Bateman pulled a paper bag out of the freezer on the set of Arrested Development. His character, Michael Bluth, was looking to extract some information from a child and suspected an icy treat would do the trick. “Tell me about George Maharis,” he said with a sly grin. After the kid innocently obliged, a triumphant Michael emptied the bag onto the kitchen counter to reveal the delicious reward within: a dead dove. “Well, that’s not what either of us expected,” he said.

The gags — the frozen bird, the nod to the hermano episode — will be all too familiar to the millions of Bluth-family anthropologists who’ve spent the years since Arrested Development’s 2006 cancelation obsessively cataloguing the show’s many recurring bits, visual jokes, and one-liners. If you somehow missed the news that is literally everywhere, the Bluths will run wild again this Sunday when Netflix releases fifteen new episodes simultaneously — a potential eight-hour smorgasbord for binge viewers not willing to pay heed to series honcho Mitch Hurwitz’s pleas to savor the experience.

While the episodes are still shrouded in secrecy, what’s clear is that, dead doves aside, the new season is a different animal than the original series. “It’s important to understand that this is not season four,” cautioned Bateman. “There will never be a season four. These episodes should be treated together as act one of a package we’re hoping to finish.” In fact, the revival is an anthology series, with each chapter following a single member of the Bluth family over the same stretch of time, years after George Sr.'s “light treason” scandal, and, collectively, the episodes are meant to serve as an epic prequel to an Arrested Development film, albeit one that has yet to get an official greenlight.

The overarching story of the new episodes revolves around Michael’s attempts to reunite his family for a big project, a near-impossible task that echoes the real-life one encountered by Hurwitz while he set about reviving the series. Getting the schedules of the increasingly busy cast to synch up for possible shooting dates made scheduling an ongoing struggle, and in the end, he was only able to secure a few actors at any given time. “It wouldn’t have worked if we weren’t close,” said Hurwitz. “That’s what I really had to sell to [production company 20th Television]. They’d ask, ‘What if you can’t get Jason on a day you have him and Portia in a scene together?’ And I’d say, ‘Well, we’re friends! I’ll ask again. Or I’ll greenscreen one of them. Or I’ll rewrite it.’”

Hurwitz wound up doing all of the above during production. The resulting episodes, he acknowledged, will have a more singular focus and a slower pace than installments of the original series, each of which typically juggled eight or nine story lines. “I was really stubborn [during the original run] about trying to get every character to have a story in every episode,” Hurwitz said. “I know there’s a risk that this will feel far less dense than the show people are used to. Hopefully, we make up for that deficit by telling a larger story.”

The upside is that the new episodes run longer, have no commercials, and were made with Hurwitz having complete creative control (Netflix executives didn’t weigh in with notes, a common occurrence with network shows). For these reasons, Bateman believes that, if anything, the show will seem even more dense in the way the many concurrent arcs intersect across all fifteen episodes. “It’s bolder in the complexities of the story lines and plot, absolutely,” said Bateman. “There’s really nothing in these episodes that doesn’t have to be there. It’s all relevant. It’s all hints and clues and foreshadowing. Mitch knew he’d be doing the show for Netflix. He knew the episodes would be released the same day, and it informed what he built.”

A few hours after the dove incident, David Cross arrived at the set already dressed in Tobias’s socks and sandals. He’s greeted with hugs and congratulations; the actor hadn’t been to the soundstage in three weeks and during that time away married actress Amber Tamblyn. But it was back to business immediately: In the next scene, Tobias would be strangling Ron Howard, and Hurwitz cornered them to go over the finer points of what it would look like. (“Throw me up against the wall,” suggested Howard.) Cross said he has a trick to getting back inside the author of The Man Inside Me. “I take out all the contractions,” he said. “Like in today’s script, there's the line ‘Tobias Funke. I’m a producer.’ So I say, ‘I am a producer.’ ‘You’re ruining my life!’ becomes ‘You are ruining my life!’ It gets me into the rhythm of it.”

More difficult is getting a firm grasp on where the story’s at — it’s the tenth week of production and they’re working on a “Lucille” episode — and Hurwitz needed to explain to the actors how the scene fit in with the overall arc in his head. The overlapping time line made it a challenge to keep plot points straight, and not all of the scripts had been finished yet. Some jokes set up in one episode would be paid off a few down the line. “That’s what impressive about it and also what’s complicated,” said Michael Cera, who now does double duty on the show after joining the writers room last year. He watched two out-of-sequence episodes in April at the show’s Los Angeles premiere. “They’re not really stand-alone.” (In other words: You must watch the episodes in order.)

Of course, Arrested Development has always been a frantic production, the product of lightning-speed plots, elaborate, precisely timed cutaways, and a large cast. So there was some expectation that the revival would again be a labor of love. “It was such an ever-changing thing,” Will Arnett, who plays family magician Gob, told Vulture more recently. “Mitch would constantly come in and drop new pages on us. He'd be like, 'Listen, I rewrote your scene with Jason. It's eight pages now, just you two back-and-forth.' And then two seconds later you hear, 'We're rolling! You ready?' and Jason and I are like, 'Fuck it. Okay. You grab the thing, I'll come in the door.' 'Okay, I'll be there, then you do that …' Memorize, memorize, memorize, then 'Action!' and we throw our sides offscreen, and just go for it. It keeps things surprising, and that's where the truly funny stuff comes from, I think.”

Cera further explained the madness behind the method: “Mitch would be about to shoot a scene and call up to the writers room and say, 'I need you guys to stop what you're doing and work on this other thing for half an hour and send it over.'" You know, I don't know if that experience will be applicable to any other show I might work on, but it was so much fun."

Also: exhausting! A little past midnight, Cross was in his trailer changing to go home. As he got down to his polka dot boxers — “Sorry, man, I’m so tired,” he said mid-strip — Cross confessed he only recently finished watching the original series. “Amber hadn't seen the third season and I, truth be told, never saw the last six episodes or so,” he said. “I guess I just didn’t watch it on TV and I never got the DVDs, so we started watching it on Netflix. I forgot how fucking crazy funny and silly it was.”

Fans, of course, haven’t forgotten, and it has been a mixed blessing for Hurwitz. “Even on very successful days — successful in the sense that we’d get through a lot of material, have big laughs, the actors would feel really good about it — I’d go home feeling nervous,” he said later, just days after wrapping. When it came time to sew together a trailer, he became so paranoid about giving away story information and spoiling things for fans that he wound up cutting out all the jokes. “I remember I kept asking my friend in post-production, ‘Is this too obvious? Are people going to get ahead of us?’ And he’d say, ‘Mitch, nobody is gonna understand a word of this.’ I mean, I’m glad I pulled all the stuff out, but as a result it wasn’t very funny.”

And as of earlier this week, after months and months in the editing room, he has no plans to get online to read the feedback once the episodes are out — at least not on Sunday. “I can’t do that,” he laughed. “I had a dream last night that the music was too loud in one scene. That’s where I’m at right now.”