A new Development in sitcom

Paul Scott on the Netflix model

Seven years after failing ratings lead to its cancelation by Fox, Arrested Development has returned. But not in the conventional sense: the 15 new episodes have been released simultaneously on 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 programmes 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, such as Peep Show and The Inbetweeners, let their episodes build slowly: situations are set-up and build 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. Conversely, an American sitcom will share a 30 minute slot with eight minutes of advertising scattered 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.

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.

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 attract 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.

Published: 30 May 2013

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