The backlash to the long-awaited fourth season of Arrested Development -- which, let's face it, is hardly a backlash by Internet standards -- is undercut by the fact that it was an inevitable byproduct of such an ambitious and risky project. What's more, it will hardly be as toxic to the show and its legacy as some are predicting.
"Chalk one up for the Internet: It has killed Arrested Development," proclaimed the New York Times' Mike Hale upon reviewing the show. This assessment seems to be representative of the consensus reaction: Netflix stock even dipped upon the release of the show, with many pointing to middling reviews of the new season as the culprit.
But the Times piece also reflects a strange, and problematic, attitude about the expectations set for the series. The unenthusiastic reaction that many had for the show is not due to Hurwitz and his co-conspirators' failure to deliver ("The actual execution was carried out by the producers of the show's fourth season," wrote Hale, in faux-obituary mode), but instead, can be placed squarely on the knee-jerk reaction of an online crowd that favors the idea of reunions and revivals over delivery of them.
Like Hot Cops sweatily shoveling coal into the engine of the Queen Mary, Internet denizens use nostalgia as fuel for galvanizing an audience around shared experiences (and entertainment) from yesteryear. Viral hit monster BuzzFeed, which even has an entire section devoted to nostalgia, has published thousands of posts about Arrested Development, written by its dedicated staff and contributors, that mourned the death of the show, advocated for its return and finally celebrated its revival.
Even the fandom-friendly BuzzFeed cautiously noted before the new season's premiere that the revival was likely to be a disappointment, wisely pointing out that the show's popularity was deeply connected with its status as a sort of secret club seven years in the making. "Arrested" fans could identify each other simply by referencing Mrs. Featherbottom or asking a cock-eyed "Her?," inevitably followed by lamenting Fox's decision to prematurely cancel the show.
But with the show's revival, the secret's out -- and with it, the notion that only a savvy fanbase was privy to its charms. Netflix, perhaps naively, assumed that this level of dedication was evidence that the fans of the show would respond positively to its resurrection. Unfortunately, many seemed to be only interested in the aspiration of resurrection. As an editor of the Comedy page of this site, I know firsthand that the Huffington Post audience found the buildup of the new Arrested Development much more interesting than the final product.
Only minutes after the new episodes went live on Netflix, Twitter exploded with criticism, some users writing epitaphs of the entire endeavor without completing a full episode. Variety was the first to run a (largely negative) review of the eight-and-a-half hour season, published about 16 hours after the shows went live at midnight. Any perceived weakness was used as evidence that the project was doomed from the start, and who can resist RTing and clicking on such a takedown?
That's not to say that the new season is without fault. But does it really earn the 73 rating it currently holds on Metacritic? The criticisms of the show are unanimous (and often accurate): The episodes could have stood some massive editing, the poor production values are distracting and although the actors' schedules made it impossible, it's a bummer that the Bluths so rarely interact.
However, it's hard to envision that without expectations placed so highly, the new season would not have been embraced as passionately as the three that preceded it. After rewatching several of the new episodes, I've noticed plenty of subtle jokes I didn't catch the first time, like the running gag from the old series that the Bluths don't know Spanish ("hermano" confusion has begat "brothiero" this time around). Another hidden gem: The bathroom-scandal averse George Michael might want to think again before changing his name to George Maharis. Like the original seasons, the new episodes are much, much more clever than they first appear, but the weight of expectations and the rush to offer a definitive critique (first!) became the enemy of appreciating the show like we did when the first season aired 10 Twitter-less years ago.
This is the new world we live in, where it's not enough for a piece of entertainment to be entertaining. It must live on beyond its natural life, whether fans are clamoring for new seasons of Community beyond the point that anyone outside of Tumblr thinks it's a good show, or forcing the Party Down creators to methodically give updates on a movie version of the show.
There's a silver lining to the Internet's short attention span, though. Just as Arrested Development was reevaluated years after it went off the air as one of the best sitcoms in history, it's likely that the immediate reaction to this season will be swallowed up when a movie or fifth season of the show is eventually produced. (And based on the way the new season ends, that's all but certain.)
As long as we can temper our expectations for what we want out of a franchise, and avoid the temptation to demand more out of our favorite entertainment than is reasonable, we'll be rewarded in the long run with funnier, more ambitious and more enriching work.
Follow Ross Luippold on Twitter: www.twitter.com/rossluippold