More than any other television revival in the age of indiscriminate streaming cash slapping every series of yesteryear with means to question the nature of nostalgia, Arrested Development has demanded answers more than given them.
It’s been a mantra slathered across the Internet since the groundbreaking series first went off-air in 2006. “Bring back Arrested Development!” (“Bring back Conan!”) And then, against all odds, it was. But those 15 episodes comprising that fourth season heavily divided the foaming masses. It was told in an exceptionally ambitious format, twisting in a Rashomon-turned-Pulp Fiction sort of way.
It was perhaps the first time a show truly experimented with the streaming format. It’s a season that was and continues to be intended to be viewed in one go, over and over again, and that drove some folk up the walls. And those folk became extremely vocal, so much so that ahead of the release of the first half of the fifth season, creator Mitchell Hurwitz recut that tremendous endeavour into a more traditional 22 episodes that is infinitely more watchable but also depressingly less noteworthy or impressive.
This is the baggage the show carries into this new season, and it strangely feels…complicit, maybe with a dash of hostile. It feels in the early goings as if Hurwitz & co. simply felt the need to prove to that outspoken group that they can give you what you want but at the same time ask something far more important: is it what you need? It quickly breaks out the greatest hits with a sort of rote, thousand-yard-stare glaze in a pushover style that the original run refused to do in an era dominated, for better or worse, by pointedly and overwrought dramatic television.
And for the most part, it lands like a refreshing breeze on a sunny day in a bucolic meadow. Seeing all these top-shelf comedic talents back together again in actual physical spaces (as close to an objective shortcoming as there is when it comes to the fourth season) is a joy, especially as the intervening years have given the young guns like Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat more experience to flesh out their breakout roles (George Michael and Maeby, respectively).
Shawkat, especially, is golden here, and anything that puts Maeby and George Michael in close proximity with one another is always a good idea. She spans what feels like three or four different roles in her singular character, and they’re all exactly what the show needs as she evolves into her fully realized, Bluth-blooded con man form. I won’t go into where this leads, but it’s a terrific long con that rivals her turn as one of Hollywood’s youngest film producers (while bringing back a treasured series regular).
But as much as the cast manages to flex comedy muscles long dormant, it’s also hard to ignore how much Jeffrey Tambor’s presence casts a shadow in each scene that features his character George Sr. It’s almost impossible to ignore the fact that he has sexual allegations following him with every step, and combined with the fact that in a Hollywood Reporter piece, he admitted to verbally abusing costar Jessica Walter on set (with a catastrophic New York Times cast interview coloring their male costars of a complicit shade), you can only agree with Matt Zoller Seitz’s “cultural vandalism” descriptor.
It’s extra taxing considering how much of the season’s goofs and various interweaving narratives rely on the zeitgeist. Or, I suppose, is prescient of the zeitgeist considering how much of it had been written and/or planned by the time Trump’s reign and the extent of that America-sized facepalm came to fruition. It’s sharp and absurdist in the way the original seasons had been about the George W. Bush era of American politics.
The problem, however, is that it was absurdist because the people they were lampooning surely realized that this extra step beyond reality was a both a commentary and steadfast warning to those in charge. Today, not only will they not make that connection, those lampooned surely do not have the capacity to even do so if they tried. Then it stops being funny and starts just being depressing on an entirely new, metaphysical level. Of course it’s not a fault of the show (unless you want to say it could and should go to Jonathan Swift levels of child-eating), but it’s an integral part of the seasons nonetheless. And gosh is it hard to stomach.
It’s odd, too, to even talk about this season as it stands because it’s incomplete. Part of what makes streaming media so fascinating is that when delivered as a single payload, there’s no way for creators to push and pull with fans as it is being made the way traditional broadcast television does. If season four had been aired, episode two would have started with a huge record scratch before reverting back to the tried and true.
To that end, this is only half of the fifth season. The remaining eight episodes will come at some point later this year, and hopefully it will do the thing that Arrested Development has always done: stir a swirling cauldron of nonsense to a boiling, overflowing mess before somehow pulling out a majestic swan of a goof. Hopefully the culminating holiday thread pays off and hopefully Buster and Lindsay’s absences prove worthwhile and hopefully there is a reason for all the Mexico-hopping in pretty much every single thread.
But that’s so much to hope for, and we’ve already hoped for so much. Is this what you really wanted?
Final Score: 7 out of 10