I pitched this to a broadsheet newspaper. They politely declined as they had more than enough Arrested Development material…
On 26th May– seven years after failing ratings lead to its cancelation by Fox – the cult American sitcom Arrested Development returns. Yet, it is not returning to television in the conventional sense. Rather than being broadcast weekly by a standard television station, 13 new episodes are being released simultaneously to online streaming service Netflix. In many ways this is the perfect marriage of product and platform. It is not just because the show has a tribe of loyal and dedicated fans ready to be tempted into Netflix’s walled garden: many of the quirks that made Arrested Development such a hard-sell on American network television should be surmounted by a move to the streaming service.
Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz claimed one of the reasons the show was abruptly cancelled was that it made for British – rather than American – sensibilities. It is too simple though, to blame the differences between American and British comedy on cultural grounds alone when the sheer amount of advertising on American television means programs are consumed in decidedly different ways. One of the most noticeable things about the majority of American sitcoms is how gag heavy they are; a joke every thirty seconds is the rule of thumb. In an average episode of The Big Bang Theory or 30 Rock the gags come so regularly the expectation is that you’ll be laughing whether you’ve just switched on or are a quarter of an hour in. Some British sitcoms are similarly joke heavy but many popular British sitcoms of recent years such as Peep Show and The Inbetweeners let their episodes build slowly: a situation is set-up and builds to hysterical comedic set pieces in the last few minutes.
Due to the way advertising slices up the schedule, American sitcoms do not have the luxury of the slow build. Even when broadcast on commercial channels, British sitcoms only have to deal with one short advertising break in the middle of the program. Conversely, an American sitcom will share a 30 minute slot with eight minutes of advertising placed throughout the show. As the program progresses the adverts come more rapidly, so that by the end the viewer is watching commercials interspersed with occasional bits of program. The urgent need to hold the audience’s interest despite constant interruption means intricacies of narrative development must sometimes be sacrificed. With the threat of cancelation hanging heavy against shows with low ratings, anything that doesn’t hook in casual viewers and channel hoppers must be discarded. This gives many American sitcoms a bubblegum quality: whilst they are often incredibly funny they are strangely unmemorable. You can watch a good couple of hours’ worth of these shows and find it hard to remember what the episodes were about. You’ll probably remember a few gags, you’ll definitely remember the characters but you’re a lot less likely to remember the situations that lead to the comedy. The most extreme example of this tendency is probably Family Guy, which is essentially an animated sketch show held together with an excuse of a story.
One of the reasons for the failure of Arrested Development – at least in the short term – was that it combined the hyperactive gag heaviness of American sitcoms with the painstakingly set-up set-pieces typical of many British shows. It also had unlikable characters with weird names and a slyly satirical self-referential nature which made it occasionally feel like it was scripted by Thomas Pynchon. It is obvious though that any show so self-consciously dense and intricate was always going to suffer when sliced up by adverts for toothpaste and health insurance. It was able to finally breathe when released on DVD and bootlegged online: viewers could now follow plotlines and sub-plotlines that snaked through multiple episodes without interruptions or even waiting a week. Attentive fans could trace the foreshadowing of the fate of Buster’s hand and follow the clues pointing to the identity of Mr. F.
British and American sitcoms haven’t just developed in different ways because of differing cultural sensibilities, but because of the different ways in which they are consumed. Forced to compete in one of the toughest marketplaces on earth American shows have had to strike an occasionally uneasy balance between creating devoted fan bases and pleasing casual viewers. Now with the emergence of online streaming services there is another way to attracts audiences. If Arrested Development’s second coming is a success, perhaps we will see the sitcom format develop in new ways on both sides of the Atlantic.
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