Arrested Development Binge-Watch vs. One a Week: Which Viewing Strategy Worked Best?

It may seem like years ago that Netflix dumped the fifteen episodes of Arrested Development’s fourth season on us, but that momentous event occurred just fifteen weeks ago. Knowing that cannonballing the entire season on the day of release would be difficult to resist, yet also wanting to heed show creator Mitch Hurwitz’s advice not to binge-watch them, Vulture commissioned Slaughterhouse 90210 curator Maris Kreizman to chug down the entire stash in a single sitting and The Wilder Life author Wendy McClure to watch them in the old-school manner of one episode per week. So, which writer watched it best? Below, the vitamin D-deprived Kreizman and “listless consumptive” McClure discuss the highs and lows of our grand Arrested Development viewing experiment.

Maris Kreizman: Hi, Wendy! Are you finally through with your moderately paced summer of the Bluth family, round four? Did you have fun? I found season four of Arrested Development a little depressing, and I wonder how much that has to do with the fact that I watched it inside, alone on my couch, during the gorgeous Memorial Day weekend, while gorging on Netflix, air-conditioning, and cheese. I thought the return of my favorite straight man, Michael Bluth, would be sunshine enough for me, but alas. In the original series, it always seemed like the rest of the Bluths were the result of some new-money zombie apocalypse, and Michael had to do his best to protect himself and his son from getting bitten. This season it was like Michael stopped running, put his brain on a silver platter, and offered it up to his family with a “bon appétit.” I kept waiting for a moment of humanity or redemption, and it never arrived. Am I just bitter because I didn’t get enough vitamin D while binge-watching? Was your reunion with the Bluth clan less angsty than mine? Looking forward to hearing what you think.

Wendy McClure: Interesting to hear you suffered from vitamin-D deficiency during your marathon, because I felt a bit like a listless consumptive during my once-a-week watching schedule. It was like I had some vague, inexplicable disease and each episode was the elaborately quacky treatment that I had to endure every week. I’d lie back and get my dose of Bluth shenanigans (with a bracing course of ukulele injections) but never feel any progress.

I think that feeling was definitely a side effect of the season’s crazy Mobius-strip structure, which moved the story around and around in a twisted circle rather than forward. (Maybe that explains why Michael Bluth seems so different this time: He wasn’t the anchor at the center; he was caught up in the same spiral as everyone else.) Once I figured out that the narrative kept going back to the same scenes from different perspectives, I began to wonder if this season was actually written with binge-watching in mind — with the intention to create a trippy, sucked-into-the-vortex effect for marathon viewers. Did you feel anything like that? Anything at all? Was it ever enough to overpower the loneliness of spending the whole weekend indoors eating a whole thing of candy beans cheese? Because I feel like I missed something. Tell me if I did.

MK: Wendy, this whole summer I’ve been jealous of your watching experience because I’d imagined you’d be able to come to the show each week with a clear head, with seven days to have contemplated the genius of the episode before. Did having a little distance make it any easier for you to take it all in? Because by the fifth episode or so, I started feeling like this season had become the sitcom equivalent of The Wire (had The Wire been narrated by Ron Howard) in terms of the attention span required to appreciate it. There were so many details to absorb, so many sight gags and throwaway lines and tiny little threads of narrative to piece together. I was afraid I’d become too distracted by Twitter and bathroom breaks and general stir craziness to appreciate all of the overlaps, the jokes within jokes that were supposed to add up to bigger and more satisfying revelations.

Wendy, I was sure I was the one who was missing something, that I’d become addled from overdosing on the show. I was Gob and I’d roofied myself. Was there any benefit in viewing responsibly, having the episodes meted out in controlled doses? Were there particular scenes or performances you were able to savor?

WM: Oh, Maris, this is like group therapy at Austerity! Our experiences so different, our pain so similar. I guess there were some benefits to watching all that stuff on a leisurely schedule. Like, I’d sit down and fire up the Netflix and think, Hey, Maria Bamford! She might be on my TV again today! So, yes, I had time to get excited about that. And I suppose the first few times I caught the story lines overlapping, the knowingness felt extra good because the payoff happened after a couple of weeks instead of just a couple of hours.

But I never felt like time was on my side. Because … okay, Maris, a confession: You asked me if I was through with the episodes. Well, see, I think I actually have a few left. Not sure how many. Three? Cuatro? Did I miss a week? Did I start late? I don’t know how it happened. I think after about three episodes, time lost all meaning in the face of all the wackadoo chronology. Maybe I drifted off. I feel like I wasn’t spinning fast enough to stay in orbit. But of course I’m going to try to finish this weekend. Or maybe I already finished, and this moment right now is just the backstory, and I’m wearing a red wig for reasons that haven’t been explained yet. Who knows?

MK: Ooh, Wendy, it’s always been my dream to perform in a musical (however shitty) with Tommy Tune, so the Austerity patient comparison kind of made my day. How to locate you in the mire of circuitous narrative is harder. Tell me what you know about the ostrich, how immobile Portia de Rossi’s forehead seems, and how many times Andy Richter has shown up so far, and maybe I can help you figure out where you got lost and where you are. Then again, it’s so hard to tell!

Arrested Development has always rewarded close viewers, those of us who are experts enough in Bluth family trivia to trace the recurrence of a joke throughout a string of seasons. And while one of the pleasures of watching the fourth season came from revisiting some of our favorite old tropes (George Michael, Star Wars Kid, makes an appearance in Spain!), the overlapping narrative structure proves that one of the show’s biggest strengths could become its downfall — recurring jokes can turn into recurring nightmares. I was struck by a claustrophobia that had nothing to do with being stuck indoors. The Bluths had always been miserable people, but delightfully so. Season four was the first time they felt overwhelming. I wanted to turn off my TV and get away from them, maybe run off to India and get in touch with my spiritual side instead. Even though you weren’t binging, Wendy, did you experience any claustrophobia like this?

WM: A-ha! It was only two episodes I hadn’t watched yet. For complicated reasons, I couldn’t check to see how many I had left in my Netflix queue; my previous dispatches had been sent during a massive thunderstorm in Chicago that knocked out my Internet service for about 30 hours. It was like I was stuck in Sudden Valley. (Fun fact: The iPhone voice dictation hears “Michael Bluth” as “my medical blues.”) But more troubling was the way I didn’t feel like I was that close to the end — just lost in that mire that you described so well, going in circles, coming back again and again to the same old things, the shtick about Rebel Alley and Ron Howard, the maritime law jokes, the ostrich squawks. Yes, I guess it must have been claustrophobia, because at the end of each episode, I rarely felt like I wanted to go back in right away.

But this morning I got my Wi-Fi back and watched the Buster episode! And while I love me some Buster, I had given up hope that his story would be as funny this time around. But in one fell swoop of a giant hand, I finally felt rewarded for sticking it out all these weeks, not just with the usual Motherboy hilarity, but with the drone-attacks-from-a-strip-mall bit that was the first genuinely on-the-money political commentary I’d seen all season. And more than any other episode this season, it felt like it could stand on its own, and instead of just watching the next and final episode in the same sitting (because I am, after all, behind schedule), I was able to savor this one.

So maybe there’s something of an arc there after all? In the midst of your epic weekend of viewing, did you feel you were close to the end by the time Buster’s robotic hand beckoned to us all?

MK: You know, I was looking over our e-mails, Wendy, and I realized how negative my tone had become. I want to back up and say that my lost weekend of binging on AD was not all eye rolling and disappointment and ODing on juice boxes. I was genuinely excited reunite with this lunatic family and their crazy chicken dancing, and to see how time had treated each of the characters. Then, as I got farther along and realized that each episode would have a different narrative focus, I was particularly psyched to see the Buster and George Michael episodes. How do the innocents of the family deal with being the star of the show for a while?

The Buster episode did not disappoint. I can’t say, like you did, Wendy, that it made the arc feel more complete. But I do think it was particularly clever, and I loved the war-games angle with Buster playing drone strike in the strip mall. And the nostalgia factor was in full effect as I watched Buster making “breakfast” for his mommy — so many martini glasses, so much sadness! Wendy, you might be watching the final episode as I type this, so let me just say this: If the ultimate payoff was less than satisfying, then at least it set things up for a potentially brilliant season five. Get back at me when you’ve finished, and we’ll talk about the great big mystery of what happened to Lucille Austero …

WM: Oh yeah, Maris, for all the unevenness, there were some good times: Michael and Gob’s chase/fight in the kiddie ballroom, dinner at Swapigans, and even Kristen Wiig playing eighties Lucille made my night a little brighter once a week. And now I think I’m convinced that there wasn’t an ideal pace for watching this season. If anything, I think it was probably made for repeated viewing, where we can go back and see how the puzzle fit together — when you think about it, isn’t it all just like a series of backward callbacks? I still think George Michael’s heightened ability to track the passage of time would have served me well in watching this season, but in the end I suppose it’s given me plenty to keep me occupied during the long wait for season five …

… Including — wow — a good old-fashioned cliff-hanger with Lucille II! You weren’t kidding, Maris. But of course, it had to happen. As Chekhov always said, if a stair-car is introduced in the first season, someone must be killed on it by the end of season four. Right?

MK: Wendy, if the next chapter of Arrested Development is Clue the movie only starring the Bluth family, I will be more than satisfied! Looking back over my notes from my lost weekend, I found that as early as episode two I jotted, “Timeline is gonna be tough to figure out.” Indeed, it was. I was so concerned about making all the pieces fit, and cramming the whole show into my brain, that I didn’t get to fully enjoy the fact that Gob was part of an entourage that went to a club on the Strip called And Jeremy Piven. Or that Lucille was a gang member on The Real Asian Housewives of the Orange County White Collar Prison System. Or that “George Maharis” sounds like the name of a young Internet tycoon who is capable of growing a really sexy mustache. I’ll do my next viewing at my own pace, no concerns about dodging spoilers and piecing together the circuitous plot. Who cares? Knowing that Michael Bluth will receive a well-deserved punch in the face by the end of the season will only help me to enjoy the journey to the finale. Right?

WM: I think so, Maris. After all, the Bluths (and the show’s writers) had so much catching up to do over the last six years, maybe a rewatch is meeting them halfway. And knowing that this timeline now exists might help me with my own encore viewing — whenever I hit one of those moments when the sheer barrage of onscreen details (wigs, foam Thing hands, Mark Cherry entourage members, glitter bombs, etc.) threatens to send me into a “Sound of Silence”–playing fugue state, I can always find my place again. Then again, just like you said, maybe next time I won’t care if I’m a little lost. Remember, there’s always the Something search.

Arrested Development Viewing: Tortoise vs. Hare