PASADENA, CALIF. - Did Arrested Development creator Mitch Hurwitz really think Fox's cult-favorite comedy, canceled after three low-rated seasons, would ever come back?
"I certainly didn't think of it in terms of TV," he says, partly because "it would be impossible to get everyone together at the same time" to film it. But a few logistical somersaults - and a deep-pocketed benefactor in Netflix, the streaming service with 23 million subscribers - has improbably revived the dysfunctional-family sitcom, nearly seven years after Fox dumped it.
Netflix is responding to a new generation of fans who discovered the show online and lapped up 53 episodes with the oddball Bluths. In the process, it's turning the traditional broadcast model of weekly episodic television on its head.
The service subsisted on a sometimes-moldy collection of movies until it began snapping up beloved TV shows as a way to keep customers watching. They've grown to represent 70% of viewing on the service.
Now Netflix is making shows of its own: Starting next month, it will unveil six series that viewers won't find anywhere else, following a pattern set by pay-TV channels such as HBO and Showtime, who lured new subscribers with can't-miss shows such as The Sopranos and Homeland. And it will offer them wherever it does business, in Europe, South America, Canada and Mexico.
A steady stream of streaming originals includes:
- House of Cards (Feb. 1), a darkly cynical political drama from producer David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo) that stars Kevin Spacey as a scheming congressman who plots revenge when he's outmaneuvered for a political post. "The swath of his sword is never-ending," Spacey says. Fincher directed the first two episodes, and a second 13-episode season is planned by early 2014 as part of the estimated $100 million commitment.
- Hemlock Grove (April 19), a murder mystery set in a Pennsylvania steel town in which "killer creatures" are among the suspects. Produced by Eli Roth (Grindhouse), it's based on a novel.
- Arrested Development (May), reviving the Emmy-winning series, after reruns were among Netflix's biggest draws.
- Orange is the New Black (late spring), based on the comedic novel set in a women's prison, from producer Jenji Kohan (Weeds). Jodie Foster is among its directors.
- Derek (summer), the latest series from writer-star Ricky Gervais, about lovable losers who work in a nursing home.
- Lilyhammer (fall), a second season of last year's series starring Steve Van Zandt (The Sopranos) as an ex-mobster in the witness protection program who's transplanted to Norway.
Unlike online rivals such as Hulu and YouTube, "we're not trying to figure out how to make cheaper shows," says chief content officer Ted Sarandos. "We're trying to figure out how to make better television," with budgets and talent to match. Netflix outbid Showtime for the right to remake Arrested, and bested HBO's offer for House of Cards by promising two seasons upfront.
Its shows will also be eligible for Emmy awards, and Wednesday the service will, for the first time, tout shows to the Television Critics Association semiannual meeting in Pasadena, Calif.
"We're mostly interested in very highly serialized storytelling," based on a book, movie or existing show that is "somewhat well known," Sarandos says. Unlike traditional TV networks, Netflix doesn't commission pilots, instead ordering series based on completed scripts and commitments from actors.
And it releases entire seasons all at once, catering to the "binge viewing" method more viewers have developed for cable series such as AMC's Mad Men, Breaking Bad and The Walking Dead, all of which count Netflix as their exclusive TV home for prior seasons. On each release date, every episode will be available for instant viewing on Netflix's website, mobile apps or Internet-enabled TVs, by all of its $7.99-a-month subscribers.
"There's less risk because we're not programming for a time slot," Sarandos says. Nor is he dependent on advertising or companion shows. Instead, a sophisticated recommendation algorithm, like the one used by Amazon, mines data from customers' prior viewing to suggest viewers check out new projects based on their appetite and rating of similar series or movies.
So subscribers who often watch serialized TV, political movies or are known Spacey fans will be pitched Cards, and "we can find an audience over time," he says.
"It's attractive because the film industry and now the TV industry has the opportunity to learn what the music industry hasn't," Spacey says. "Give the audience what they want, when they want it, at a reasonable price, and they will buy it and won't steal it."
The all-at-once model "flies in the face of everything that's been going on in television forever," says Hurwitz, and assumes that voracious viewers are always up to speed. "Part of the experience of waiting for the next episode (forces) the need to create artificial cliffhangers (that) ultimately dilute the storytelling," Sarandos says.
Original shows make up 10% of Netflix's $2.3 billion content budget, says Cowen & Co. analyst John Blackledge, who applauds the exclusive strategy: "The whole goal is to have subscribers increase the amount of time they spend on the service, so evolving their content is clearly the best way to do that."
But it's not forsaking movies, either: In a first, Netflix just nabbed first-TV rights to new Disney movies, starting in 2016, that historically have gone to pay-cable channels right after their DVD and video-on-demand releases.
House of Cards was shot in Baltimore in a feature-film style, and Arrested is also applying a new model, less because of its new home than competing demands for its stars, several of whom appear in other projects. "Contractually, we couldn't use all the characters in every episode; they were not free to do as much television as they want," Hurwitz says.
Each of 14 episodes (up from 10 originally planned) will focus on a single character, and only Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), the level-headed son who holds the clan together, will appear in all of them. (Michael Cera, who plays son George Michael, is also now among the show's writers.)
"The show will look very different," Hurwitz says, and is being assembled as a "very, very complex puzzle" from scenes shot out of sequence over many months.
Though famous for its layered flashbacks and juggling of multiple story lines, held together by Ron Howard's narration, new episodes adopt a different rhythm. "We're not jumping from one thing to another; you're staying with one character," while other cast members appear in smaller roles, and recurring characters played by Henry Winkler and Liza Minnelli, among others, will return. Howard and Brian Grazer, whose Imagine TV is behind the project, will also appear.
"The bigger story is the family has fallen apart at the start of our show," Hurwitz says. "They all went their own way, without Michael holding them together, so they're left to their own devices, and they're not the most successful devices." The season is designed as a "first act to what we eventually want to do, which is a big movie," though there's no guarantee it will ever get made.
"Each individual (episode) kind of depicts what happens in 2006 as the Bluths fled from the law on the Queen Mary" in what was once the series' finale, then explains what's happened to them since and leaves them in the present day, he says.
The true flavor "slowly reveals itself, as the moment you saw in one show will reappear in another show from a different character's perspective," he says. "If people watch it all at once, it will seem like a giant Arrested Development. It's really tailored for Netflix."
Only once did the entire cast reassemble, as the final episode teases a movie by promising an imminent family reunion. "It was such a joy to be back with everybody; it didn't feel like work, it felt like being back with friends," Hurwitz says. "You don't see them all together until you see the movie." But even apart, "I can assure you that the characters are just as damaged, self-involved and self-righteous as ever."
Netflix is betting passionate TV fans looking for shows they can't find elsewhere are the most likely candidates to remain loyal streaming subscribers.
"One of the reasons Arrested wasn't embraced at the time was it wasn't easy to get your head around it," Hurwitz says. "It was a point of pride with me; I wanted to create a show that had surprises. But that's what they want to do (at Netflix). They want to take risks. They encouraged the complexity that had been discouraged before."
And Spacey says keeping users happy is "a very different way of measuring what you would call success in this form than driving viewers to Sundays at 8. It's very exciting trying to do something that creates a new paradigm. (But) it could also wind up being a big thud heard around the world. Who knows?"