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Arrested Development season 5 tries to go back to the way things were, with mixed results

This new batch of episodes — the first half of the season — is like a magician explaining his tricks to you.

Arrested Development
David Cross plays Tobias playing Michael, a pale imitation of the original. Jason Bateman plays the actual Michael. Think of it as a metaphor for the new season.
Saeed Adyani/Netflix
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The fourth and fifth seasons of Arrested Development often feel like real-time psychological surveys of the show’s fan base, centered on one simple question: Why do you even want more Arrested Development?

The fourth season, which launched in 2013, was an ambitious mess. Since the show’s cast members had all gone on to greater levels of fame in the wake of the original three seasons’ groundbreaking run (between 2003 and 2006), creator Mitchell Hurwitz turned his inability to get all nine of them in the same place at the same time into a weird asset.

The original cut of that season featured 15 episodes of varying length, each focused on a new member of the Bluth family, which dovetailed in exasperating and exhilarating ways the deeper into the season the show got. It was perhaps the first true experiment in how streaming on a service like Netflix could change a TV show, a season-length episode of Arrested Development that didn’t always work but was always striving for something. Hurwitz has since recut the season into a 22-episode, more conventional version of itself that is less taxing to watch but also less impressive. (The originals are still available, just hidden.)

And now comes season five, which aims to be a faithful recreation of what Arrested was. Hurwitz had access to most of the cast for all 16 of its episodes (eight of which launched Tuesday, May 29, with the other eight following sometime in the near-ish future), so the storytelling is much closer to the original series.

But trying to recreate the past is almost always impossible, as every TV revival other than Twin Peaks: The Return has been forced to grapple with. And that leaves Arrested season five feeling half finished. It’s fun in places and labored in others, sometimes in the same scene. So let’s break it down into its best, worst, and weirdest attributes. Warning: Spoilers for all eight episodes that launched Tuesday follow.

Good: the whole cast is here, and they haven’t missed a step

Arrested Development stood apart from most TV comedies for many reasons when it debuted in the 2000s.

Its interest in rotting family legacies offered a way to talk about the George W. Bush era without talking about it directly, its writing combined elements of British farce and family sitcom cynicism into a toxically addictive stew, and its visuals (established by Infinity War directors Joe and Anthony Russo in the show’s pilot!) played around with the style of mockumentaries without ever plunging over the edge into full faux-documentary.

But really, the reason so many of us loved Arrested Development so much stemmed from how ably it assembled one of the best comedic ensembles ever put on American television — nine whole actors, each pitch perfect — then let them bounce off each other in ever-shifting combinations and permutations. Even the two kids (Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat) were hilarious.

If there’s one arena in which season five definitively improves on season four, then, it’s in returning these characters into one another’s orbits. There are a few players who aren’t as present. Tony Hale (Buster) sits out several episodes (presumably to accommodate his shooting schedule on the many other things he does), while the retired Portia de Rossi (Lindsay) is in far less of the season than you might want her to be, considering much of the season’s plot revolves around electing her to Congress.

But for the most part, these are the characters you loved, played as well as they ever were. Some are even better. Now that Shawkat is a much more experienced actor, she’s turned Maeby Funke into a two-bit con artist as adept as any in the Bluth family, and Will Arnett has somehow become even more pathetic as oldest brother Gob, even if the storytelling sometimes lets him down. And then you have players like Jessica Walter (Lucille) and Jason Bateman (Michael) and Cera (George Michael) — all still perfectly calibrated.

Really, only David Cross’s Tobias ultimately doesn’t work, and that’s more to do with how little reason the character has to stick around at this point in the story, nothing to do with Cross’s performance. Oh, right, and there’s Jeffrey Tambor too.

Bad: the whole cast is here — and that includes a number of people who make the show harder to watch

Arrested Development
Jeffrey Tambor (second from left) is also in the season, which is a whole thing.
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

The press tour for season four centered on the sheer improbable excitement of having a beloved show, taken before its time, back on television, with a steady backup of Hurwitz’s promise that he was trying to do something new with the show.

The press tour for season five has involved plenty of questions about how Tambor was fired from Amazon’s Transparent, a series for which he won two Emmys, after an investigation into accusations of sexual harassment against him. As part of his attempt at damage control, Tambor admitted in a Hollywood Reporter profile to a time when he berated Walter on the set of Arrested, which came up in a New York Times interview that rapidly went off the rails (and that’s me being charitable).

Both Tambor’s misconduct and the actions of the various men in the show’s cast who worked to burnish his reputation in interviews have cast a pall over the season for many. The show is better able to overcome this than you might expect, since it literally depicts Tambor’s character, George, as an anchor holding the Bluth family down at one point, but it’s still going to be hard for plenty of viewers to watch.

The series relies on light, effervescent clowning that skews our warped, modern, corporate-obsessed world through a goofy sitcom prism. That requires reality intruding on the proceedings as little as possible, except for when Hurwitz and company want it to intrude. Thus, Tambor’s actions make it harder to escape into the series, something Matt Zoller Seitz calls “cultural vandalism.”

Maybe you won’t think about this when watching his scenes, and that’s fine. Everybody consumes media differently. But the whole story has, at the very least, made the show far less of a trifle.

Bad: the storytelling is incredibly labored and wheezy

Arrested Development
But, hey, the whole cast is here!
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Maybe the show could have overcome the issues stemming from Tambor’s involvement if it returned at peak storytelling performance, but season five strains visibly. This was true of some of the show’s golden era too — its third season is full of bits that grit their teeth so hard the veins pop out on their forehead — but the series was almost always building to something so amazing and out of the blue that you’d forgive the occasional effortful tangents.

Season five, however, lacks a grand, unifying idea like “Michael has to save the family and/or family business.” There are stabs at turning the mystery of what happened to Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli) at the end of season four, or Lindsay’s run for Congress, into a single idea to tie everything together. But neither idea is potent enough — or involves enough Bluths — to keep everything on track.

This turns much of the season’s storytelling into busywork. Characters keep going to Mexico and coming back from Mexico and going to Mexico again for reasons that occasionally make logical sense but never make sense on a level where the audience feels compelled to care. Even worse, the show can’t figure out what to do with Michael, ostensibly its central character, who is reduced to a bunch of stories about whether he’ll leave the family that neither the show nor the other characters believe for a second.

It’s entirely possible this stems from the decision to split the season in two. Arrested Development is usually building to something in its finale, and season five’s finale is several months away at least. The eighth episode does feature a parade that places most of the characters in the same place at the same time (and consequently features some of the season’s best gags), but the road there is filled with potholes.

Part of the genius of Arrested Development is that it’s a magic trick that shows you exactly what it’s doing at all times and still arrives at a conclusion so unexpected you laugh all the same. The laughter often stems from how hard the show works to make you laugh. But the original series (and even season four) mixed that with slapstick and one-liners and unlikely situations. There were lots of different types of jokes, to the show’s benefit. Season five increasingly only has the labored effort. It shows, and it wants you to know it shows.

Good: the series’ interest in intergenerational idiocy and corruption couldn’t be more timely

Arrested Development
Maeby Funke goes full Bluth this season.
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

If the first three seasons were a response to the George W. Bush era (right down to Mission Accomplished banners and eerie prescience about the coming housing market collapse), and if the fourth season was a strangely predictive text about what was coming (right down to much of the season centering on the Bluths trying to build a wall on the border with Mexico), then season five seems downright terrified of how thoroughly the show anticipated the Trump era across its run.

There’s even a bit where Lucille seems a little chagrined at Trump for stealing some of her best ideas. (Season five is set, so far as I can tell, in 2015, so Trump is not yet president, and it joins Mr. Robot on the list of shows set in 2015 that are incredibly timely and obsessed with Trump nonetheless.)

But Arrested’s timeliness goes beyond a simple overlap with the Trump era. The show has always been about how big money in capitalist America corrupts. It’s not a show of the now; it’s a show of the whole post-Reagan era. Michael seems sensible, but only in comparison to the other Bluths. To anybody else, he’s just as venal and corrupt as they are.

The same goes for George Michael and Maeby, who perhaps had a chance to escape their family’s craven orbit at one point but now are increasingly succumbing to the same pitfalls as everybody else.

That, maybe, is Arrested Development’s greatest legacy. It understands how everything in American life is a hustle, but if you have a lot of money, you get praised for your intelligence and ingenuity rather than your deceptions. The Bluths are con artists, all the way down, and so, maybe, is corporate America.

Bad: has the show always been this over-indebted to Ron Howard’s narration?

Both season five and the season four remix are filled with such wall-to-wall Ron Howard narration at points that they can feel like an audio drama more than a TV show.

More than most comedies, Arrested Development has to shovel a ton of exposition at the audience at all times, and Howard’s performance as the narrator has always been a great way to plow through said exposition. But goodness, does this season overindulge, particularly in the first few episodes.

(It’s worth noting that Howard has an increased onscreen presence in this season, including a whole storyline set at a Howard family reunion, and he’s just as great there. Make Ron Howard America’s greatest actor again!)

Weird: green screen!

Arrested Development
Green screen: It’s how Lindsay can be in the show!
Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Whether it’s to cover for how two actors aren’t in the same place at the same time — particularly when it comes to de Rossi — or just to fill in little details for scenes, season five relies heavily on green screen, and it never feels not weird. Maybe that’s part of the joke, especially when it pertains to Lindsay, but if it’s not, then it’s simply distracting for no good reason.

Come to think of it, that’s a lot of season five in a nutshell. If this is a magic trick, then this is all of the distraction on the way to the reveal — and without that reveal (which is presumably coming sometime), the distraction is all the more evident. The card you’re looking for is still up the magician’s sleeve.

Arrested Development season five is streaming on Netflix in part. The rest of the season will follow sometime later.

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