Contrarian Corner: 'Arrested Development' and 'Party Down' RIPs?
Ever read Pet Sematary? The family cat gets run over by a truck. Such a sad thing, to see a pretty cat struck down in its prime. That cat could have amused the family for years! Fortunately for the family, their house is just a few doors down from the local Indian Burial Ground. Dad makes an executive decision and uses the Burial Ground magic to bring the cat back to life. Good as new! Better than ever! Except that the resurrected cat is different somehow. Stranger. Less fun. He’s not as energetic. He smells like death. At a certain point, Dad starts regretting his decision. Maybe he should’ve just gotten a new cat.
Now, Party Down died a quiet death in mid-2010. Such a sad thing, to see such a brilliant comedy of despair struck down in its prime. The show could have amused us for years! Fortunately for us, the TV business has its own private Magic Indian Burial Ground. It’s called Netflix, and it won’t rest until all your favorite shows are pumped full of zombie juice. Party Down hit Netflix about a year ago, and the show’s burgeoning youth-cult has grown larger and larger, one stoned roommate at a time. The calls for a Party Down movie have, in turn, grown larger and larger. Over the weekend, star Megan Mullally chattily announced that the movie’s script was currently being written, with plans to film it in 2012.
If the Party Down movie does get made, it will have taken less than two years to revive the show. By comparison, when Netflix announced the impending resurrection of Arrested Development, over half a decade had passed since Fox quietly burned off the sitcom’s final few episodes. Fox gave the same tell-me-about-the-rabbits-George treatment to Futurama, which originally ended in the summer of 2003; Comedy Central has since revived the series. The gold standard for reviving a low-rated TV series was yet another Fox series, Family Guy: Canceled in 2002, Family Guy was a TV-on-DVD smash in that beautiful brief window when TV-on-DVD was a thing, and the show’s second run has essentially taken over Fox’s Sunday night. (Both Family Guy and Futurama owe their resurrection to another Magic Indian Burial Ground: Cartoon Network’s Adult Swim, where the grace of lowered expectations transformed them from broadcast flops to cable hits.)
All of these shows have fervent, young, loud, demographically appealing, Internet-maiming fan bases. More importantly, they all come gilded with a built-in persecution narrative: Party Down was overlooked because it was airing on tiny pre-Spartacus Starz; the Fox shows were, well, on Fox, a network with a long history of shuttling underperforming shows all across the schedule. All fans love to feel persecuted, and the sense these shows were somehow victims of forces beyond their control — of network bean counters who only care about the bottom line, of our horrible fellow Americans who’d rather watch Two and a Half Men reruns, of capitalism — creates a powerful energetic impulse to demand more. (There’s a sense that, if Arrested Development actually can return, then a great victory will have been won, although exactly who is being defeated — Fox, stupidity, time itself — is up for debate.) Most importantly, all of these shows returned (or will return) with the main creative teams intact, thus assuring (in theory) that the shows will be just as good as they ever were.
There’s just one problem: Revivals don’t work. At best, they very occasionally achieve a reasonable facsimile of what made the original incarnation great. At worst, they are memory-tarnishing mediocrities, self-parody cash-ins, self-aware victory laps filled with fan-service self-congratulation. And it’s not Hollywood’s fault — not entirely. It’s our fault. Because we just can’t let our favorite shows die. We pick up their corroded carcasses. We hose them down. We spray them with cologne, to get rid of the intestine smell. We spray them with insect repellent, to get rid of the maggots. We demand that they dance for us.
NEXT PAGE: The perfect death and sad second life of Futurama
Whatever you think about Family Guy, you have to admit that the version of the show that returned in 2005 has always felt less anarchic than the original incarnation — in Simpsons terms, it’s as if the show skipped straight from “The Season 1-3 Era of Exploration” to “The Season 10-20 Era of Self-Satisfied Decline,” missing the vibrant Golden Age entirely. You could point to Star Trek as an example of a good revival…but the good Star Trek movies featuring the original cast are nothing like the original series, while the bad ones (The Final Frontier, The Search for Spock) feel like episodes from the horrible third season of Star Trek left to run free with a bigger budget.
I have more complicated feelings about the new Futurama, which returned with a series of horrible TV-movies that drowned in fan service, but which also produced the funniest and most profound half hour of television of 2010. And yet, even if there are parts of the new Futurama I enjoy, I’m struck by just how much the show’s return has altered my view of the series. After the show was canceled the first time, I was disappointed. I wished it had been more popular. That’s only human. At a basic animal level, I want everyone to like the things that I like, and I’m sad when they don’t.
But I couldn’t be too sad, because the original series finale of Futurama is an incredible episode of television, featuring — among other things — an opera, a plot based loosely on Faust, an immortal supporting appearance by the endlessly quotable Hedonism-Bot, and an utterly perfect ending. Futurama didn’t “end” like a movie, or a great novel, or a TV show with an end-date. All of the various hanging plot strands were not resolved. Fry and Leela did not definitively fall in love. But the show had lasted for 72 episodes. It went out on a high note. Now, it’s back on Comedy Central. It will last much longer. I don’t think it will ever be better.
Television is a strange medium. A good TV show is not simply the result of a fine collaboration between talented people. It’s also the result of a highly specific time and space when those people were collaborating. When TV shows — especially sitcoms — are good, there’s a sense of unrelenting momentum, the feeling that very creative people are operating at a higher level than they ever have before. Sometimes that’s because success is invigorating them: When you look at the early seasons of The Simpsons, or Lost, or The Sopranos, you discover a group of immensely talented writers who took the show’s initial zeitgeist success as license to get steadily weirder, more expansive, more distinctive.
But failure can be just as invigorating. Part of what made the original run of Arrested Development so great was the sense that the show could be canceled at any minute. The best episodes of Arrested feel urgent and desperate, juggling dozens of subplots and pushing the characters further down the spiral towards apocalypse. The problem with reviving a show is that you lose all that original momentum. And it’s not always easy for the creative team to find that momentum again.
Of course, sometimes the problem is simpler: The creative team that revives is not, in point of fact, the original creative team. Look at Sex and the City. Executive producer Michael Patrick King was unquestionably the guiding creative force for the show’s latter seasons. But he was hardly the show’s only creative force. The show had a writing staff. The episodes were the result of collaborations. Conversely, the Sex and the City movies were written and directed by King alone. This alone is enough reason to be skeptical of the revived Arrested Development, which appears to be the sole work of Mitchell Hurwitz. Now, Hurwitz is a genius. But Arrested Development was a group effort. By comparison, imagine if Paul McCartney started touring as the Beatles.
(Aside: You can see a variant of this problem with The Simpsons Movie. The pre-buzz on the film was that it reunited all the great writers from the Simpsons‘ early days. But two noteworthy creatives from the Golden Age did not participate: Conan O’Brien and Brad Bird. By comparison, imagine if you could own the ’90s Chicago Bulls in their prime, except without Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, and Michael Jordan is still Michael Jordan but he’s angry-retired-Jordan not lovable-Space-Jam-Jordan, and also Ian Maxtone-Graham is on the team for some horrible reason.)
I want to make one thing clear: I love Party Down and Arrested Development, and I desperately want the resurrected versions of those shows to be just as good as the originals. But I don’t understand the aura of disappointment that hangs over those show’s fan bases. Party Down might have only lasted 20 episodes, but each of those episodes were incredible. I’ll be re-watching them for years. And, if you consider the story of Party Down to be “The Death and Rebirth of Henry Pollard,” it ended at the exact right moment.
Conversely, Arrested Development lasted a full 53 episodes. That might not seem like much compared to, say, nine seasons of Two and a Half Men, but every one of those episodes is a mini-masterpiece, juggling every possible comedic tone — satire, farce, wordplay, referential comedy, meta-comedy, Blue People. But it’s more than some shows get. Heck, it’s 41 more episodes than Fawlty Towers ever had. Why do we need more?
NEXT PAGE: Okay, fair enough, but when will there be a Community movie?
There are lots of reasons why we want more of our favorite shows. We enjoy things that are good. We’re getting older, and it’s getting harder to invest ourselves in new shows. We’re American, which means we always want more of something we used to love, and our dreams are already behind us, we’re borne back ceaselessly into the past, etc. But I think the real source of this mania, this demand, this requirement for more comes from one simple fact: We were all spoiled by The Simpsons. An indisputably great show, The Simpsons was a runaway success at just the right time, essentially conjuring the entire Fox network from scratch. It’s also the rare show to stay consistently good for almost a decade. Moreover, because it was animated, it stayed literally consistent. The characters did not grow up, and the central relationship dynamics barely changed. The Simpsons created a brand new species of TV show — the eccentric, cerebral, goofy, heartfelt, relentlessly quoteable popular series. Take out the word “popular,” and I just described every Party Down and Arrested Development.
My colleague Mandi Bierly recently noted that, in the modern TV era, there is very often a fundamental disconnect between the TV shows with the most devoted fans and the TV shows with the most actual viewers. She was referencing NBC chairman Robert Greenblatt’s assertion that miracle-baby Chuck never remotely attained anything resembling ratings success, despite a passionate fan base. Community is on death’s door for the same reason. Likewise, Fox will almost certainly end Fringe because of perpetual low ratings.
All three shows are almost certainly going to travel down the Arrested Development pathway. Well, maybe not Chuck, since the series has already lasted five seasons, at least three of them inessential. But J.J. Abrams is already making sly hints — no doubt with a rakish J.J. Brand™ smirk-wink — that Fringe could continue on a separate network. And the cast of Community should begin preparing themselves for ten years of interviews that will always end with the same question: “What’s up with the Community movie?”
Hollywood people will never say no to a revival. Actors have to work. Producers need studios to recognize them as good investments. Even though the cast of Arrested Development has spent the last half decade spreading throughout the comedy world of Hollywood, none of them would dream of passing up the chance to return. Heck, the bare hint that Michael Cera didn’t think the Arrested Development movie was a good idea led to Internet rage. But what Cera actually said is telling: “I don’t think I would want to see a movie of the series if I was a fan, anyway.” And as a fan, he’s totally right. Arrested Development was a brilliant broadcast sitcom — by which I mean, it was a brilliant series of 23-minute episodes, with commercial breaks and bleeps. I don’t think it would have been better on HBO, with swear words. I don’t think it would have been better with a big movie budget. I don’t think it could have been better at all, really.
And as much as I want the revived show to be good, I find myself wishing that the cast and crew could have joined together on something new and different. As fans, we tend to criticize Hollywood for constantly reheating the same basic stories: remakes, reboots, sequels, prequels. But by demanding more Party Down and more Arrested Development, we’re rubber-stamping that Re-Everything philosophy. We’re telling Hollywood: Yes, we want another Transformers, and another Indiana Jones, and a new Bourne movie without Matt Damon for some reason. Nobody really wants a 24 movie, but Kiefer Sutherland will keep talking about it, because in the Hollywood that we have created, the Internet-friendly name recognition of 24: The Movie will always trump a project with no name recognition.
On the Deadwood DVD collection, there’s a fascinating extra where creator-writer-demigod David Milch wanders around the set of his old show. Deadwood was famously canceled early, with plans for a saga-concluding fourth season transformed into a long-promised duology of wrap-up movies that never came to pass. Almost six years later, the Deadwood cast has spread throughout Hollywood — starring in TV series and big-budget movies, earning Emmy and Oscar nominations. Milch himself has produced two more HBO series — the no-but-seriously-awesome John From Cincinnati and the upcoming Luck. Deadwood itself looks more and more like one of the best TV shows ever. And still, there are people who demand more, and still, the Deadwood actors talk about the possibility of movies.
Milch notes that, in the real-life town of Deadwood, the death of Western hero Wild Bill is re-enacted 14 times a day. Milch calls that “an argument against continuing stories past the point of their utility.” He also notes, “every episode is an ending of sorts.” He’s a smart guy. Maybe we should listen to him.
Arrested Development and Party Down were great TV shows. In our memories, they have only become greater. That’s a beautiful thing. Fringe and Community have lasted for years, even though both shows are watched by literally dozens of people. That’s nothing short of a miracle — in the go-go ’90s era, Community would’ve been a six-episode blip in the Must-See TV lineup, and Fringe would’ve filled in for Millennium for a couple weeks before being replaced by Brimstone. We should feel blessed to have had those shows for as long as we have.
Insisting on more doesn’t make us good fans. It just makes us spoiled-rotten children, unwilling to explore new things, senselessly complicit in modern Hollywood’s insistence on never letting franchises die. Just once, can’t we let the family cat stay dead?
Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich