There’s something perfect about the fact that season 5 of “Arrested Development” picks up almost immediately where season 4 left off as if no time has passed at all, alternately ignoring and winking at the fact that its cast has aged. After all (narrator voice): it’s “Arrested Development.”
Opting to stick with the still unfolding season 4 stories instead of flashing right by them is a gutsy choice that mostly pays off. Fans will be relieved to know that season 5 makes a point of bringing the Bluth family back together after obvious scheduling issues with the cast for season 4 – the first on Netflix after almost a decade off the air – necessitated that most of their storylines were separated.
Season 4 was a convoluted mess, marooning each character in their own myopic spirals when so much of the original series’ spark came from them bouncing off each other. It was so controversial, in fact, that creator Mitch Hurwitz went so far as to recut the entire thing into more shorter episodes that are meant to evoke the ebullience of the original series. (The “remix” is currently available on Netflix as the default season 4 option; the original cut is buried deep under the “trailers and more” tab.)
To ts credit, season 5 seems to know what went wrong before and works hard to correct it. The quota of celebrity guest stars is significantly down, making the ones that do pop up count that much more. Plots that never quite worked on season 4 – like George Senior (Jeffrey Tambor) accidentally taking too much estrogen and Tobias (David Cross) staging a “Fantastic 4” musical – get dropped. Stronger stories – like Michael (Jason Bateman) and George Michael (Michael Cera) accidentally dating the same woman (Isla Fisher) – get more support.
And while Lindsay’s quest for validation through political fearmongering features surprisingly little of Lindsay herself (de Rossi is the only one who appears to have been shot separately more often than not), her congressional campaign is exactly the kind of framing device that brings out the most ridiculous sides of her family. The same holds true for the rare combination of Tobias and Lucille (Jessica Walter) when he briefly becomes her therapist; in these scenes, there’s hardly a line of Lucille’s that Walter doesn’t deliver with the pitch perfect amount of acid. (As for her favorite son Buster, I can’t say much lest I ruin his storyline completely, but rest assured that Tony Hale’s wide-eyed, weirdo energy remains a bright spot as per always.)
Every revival and reboot has the shadow of expectations looming overhead, making the most pressing question whether or not it can live up to the original. And “Arrested”’s shadow is darker than most thanks to allegations of sexual harassment from Tambor’s “Transparent” trans costars and verbal abuse from several, including Walter. So I can’t lie: of course that affected how I saw the show. It’s just not as much fun to watch George Senior and Lucille bicker knowing how poisonous that dynamic became when Tambor apparently took it out on Walter. Not everything, despite the show’s premise, can snap right back into place as if nothing ever happened.
So from where I’m sitting, it’s telling that some of the best material season 5 has to offer comes from storylines that let the characters change even just a little. While season 4 kept George Michael and Maeby (Alia Shawkat) acting about the same as they ever had as teenagers, season 5 acknowledges that they’re now at least approximately adults. George Michael – who ended season 4 by punching his father in the face – gains enough actual confidence to make him more evenly matched with Maeby, whose newest long con lets Shawkat be her screwball best. It’s both jarring and fun to see them now complain about their family over drinks, even more so to hear the usually docile George Michael mutter that someone’s “such a stupid asshole.”
One of the season’s best surprises comes from Gob (Will Arnett), always the most intense tryhard in a family full of them. This time, however, he’s spiraling as he grapples with his feelings for Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller), the magician who reminded him he has a heart by breaking it. I already knew how good Arnett is at selling a manic kind of existential dread (see: “BoJack Horseman”), but it’s still impressive to see him find some genuine pathos in between “Arrested”‘s most bonkers beats.
Granted, these new dynamics feel the least in line with the original series than any of the others, so maybe the most diehard “Arrested” fans will balk. But for me, seeing the Bluths try something a little new – even when they inevitably and spectacularly fail – is way more fun than their retreads of seasons past.
TV Review: “Arrested Development” Season 5
Comedy series (First half of the season is 8 episodes, 7 reviewed): Netflix, Tues. May 29
Executive producers Mitchell Hurwitz, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Jim Vallely and Richie Rosenstock.