The headline out of Netflix’s first appearance at the Television Critics Association press tour in Pasadena is that the streaming video service has produced 14 more episodes of the beloved cult hit Arrested Development, and will release them all in a single day on a to-be-announced day in May! But we already knew that the episodes were under production. The real news is that Netflix might have found its purpose as a creator of original programming with the Arrested Development experiment. Not resurrecting dead-but-beloved-or-even-merely-liked series, as seems to be the case every time a Terra Nova or a The Killing bites the dust. Not providing an employment program to Steven Van Zandt in between Springsteen tours. Rather, Netflix might just have found its niche in taking the logical step beyond the subject matter innovations of the Golden Age of television, and providing structural flexibility to television storytellers as well as room to tackle new subject material and in new tones.
To back up for a moment, the two most interesting things that Mitch Hurwitz, Arrested Development’s creator, explained about the Netflix episodes had nothing to do with what story they’d tell. Rather, he said first that the episodes would each focus on a different character, that they could be watched in no particular order, and that events in each episode would become clearer as viewers watched more of them. And second, he explained that some of them were different lengths, though they are all roughly thirty minutes long.
That first development is very significant. Television, for all that it’s developed beyond an episodic structure to tell long-arc narratives, is still a fundamentally linear storytelling mechanism. You may be able to marathon The Sopranos just fine, but you can’t shuffle up the order of episodes and have things make sense. A willingness to treat episodes like a series of interlinked short films that can be watched in multiple orders is something Netflix can do particularly because of its strategy of releasing all of the episodes of its shows at once, and because it doesn’t have to build and retain viewers episode to episode the way a network does to keep a reliable stream of advertising revenue flowing. And it means that Netflix could position itself as much better-suited than networks of any type to adapt not-strictly linear narratives with multiple perspectives. Before yesterday, my dream scenarios for Jennifer Egan’s novel A Visit From The Goon Squad involved the HBO adaptation, and for World War Z involved a series of stand-alone movies or mini-series episodes. Now, I’m excitedly thinking about what they might look like as Netflix series, a thought that has literally never occurred to me about any material before.
The idea of variable episode lengths is somewhat less radical. HBO regularly lets episodes run a few minutes over, and FX has let Kurt Sutter vary up the lengths of Sons of Anarchy during this season of the show. But there’s a difference between a fluctuation of a few minutes, and having a drama that can go from one episode that’s 45-minutes long, to an episode that’s two hours, to a third that’s 37 minutes if that’s what’s necessary to tell a story. Networks will probably never adopt that kind of radical flexibility for any number of reasons. Variable episode lengths would make it hard to standardize sales of advertising slots throughout a season. And from a programming standpoint, that flexibility would affect everything from reliable start times for other shows, to DVR schedules, to cuts of movies that could air after those unreliably-lengthed shows. But on Netflix, where shows exist in a vacuum, and subscribers are the programmers, there’s no such concern. The service could be the first to truly let showrunners make episodes the lengths that they need to be to tell whatever story they’ve segmented out for that individual episode.
Up until these announcements, it’s really seemed like Netflix was simply chasing broadcast television, whether picking up its scraps of cancelled shows or chasing cable’s tone. But if the network can make its bones by truly taking advantage of the things that make it different from the networks and cable, then it might be able to truly make itself a destination for creators and viewers, the way that cable’s lack of content restrictions has done for it over the last decade and a half.