[Mild SPOILERS for Arrested Development season 5.]
After the disappointment of Arrested Development season 4, the call for season 5 was more a chance for the series to make good on the promise of its revival by Netflix after three seasons of diminishing returns on FOX. So it’s no surprise, then, that Arrested Development season 5 works very hard to prove season 4 was a fluke, and, even more decidedly, an unfortunate byproduct of the actors’ hectic scheduling. One of the ways the series aims to prove that is not by sweeping the events of the previous season (that dropped five years ago, in 2013) under the rug, but by playing into them as though the series were still operating like a traditional broadcast television comedy. The result is a season of television that is, for better and for worse, even more self-aware than usual, but nonetheless sees the cast (mostly) returning in top form.
Season 5 is the middle ground between a revival and a reboot. It’s practically a redo, or whatever the television equivalent of taking a mulligan is. After season 4 saw the Bluth family on a series of misguided solo adventures and intersecting green screened or bizarrely edited encounters the early episodes of the new season make it a point to show the actors in the same room with one another. On the flip side, though, when the series’ scheduling didn’t work (as is most often the case with Portia de Rossi’s Lindsay Bluth Fünke) and it has to resort to some of the tricks that were unsuccessful in the past, Arrested Development does so by deliberately drawing attention to them. The whole thing walks a very fine, self-deprecating/self-congratulatory line that’s funny, but maybe for all wrong reasons (?).
What is clear is that there’s no substitute for having these actors in the same room, reacting to one another. Now that’s not always a good thing as was made evident by the disastrous roundtable interview with the cast in the New York Times that resulted in the cancelation of the show’s U.K. press tour before it even began. But, for the actual scripted show at least, it suggests creator Mitchell Hurwitz and his writing team have learned from past mistakes and aimed to correct them here. As mentioned before, the series finds more time for the Bluths to be together, and when the whole clan isn’t available, it makes do with some fun pairings.
Perhaps because actual appearances by de Rossi are seemingly scattershot, the series puts Jessica Walter and David Cross together in the early part of the season with Tobias serving as Lucille’s therapist. The uneven power dynamic between the family matriarch and its most marginalized member by (crumbling) marriage is rich, as the two are so often working at cross purposes and are motivated by different pursuits that the actors are practically playing different scenes. It’s almost like the series is making another meta-joke at its own expense.
But the reason for Tobias and Lucille’s pairing gives the season its most concrete storyline: Lindsay’s less-than-genuine bid for congress. The attempted power grab affords the whole family — save for Michael (Jason Bateman) and George-Michael (Michael Cera), perhaps — an opportunity to be at their worst, which is, for reasons as to why this show continues to be popular, their best. But Lindsay’s congressional push is only one of several storylines populating the season, the second biggest being the disappearance of Lucille Austero (Liza Minelli), which the police are actively investigating. It’s an investigation that very soon finds Buster (Tony Hale) involved as only Buster can be.
Though much of the season feels like a do-over, there are storylines that legitimately attempt to address the fact a significant amount of time has passed since season 4, something that could be better explored if and when we are looking at Arrested Development season 6 in 2023. While Will Arnett’s Gob is perhaps at his most ludicrous, his reasons for being so put the character in an interestingly self-reflective place, something he’s utterly ill-equipped to handl. It’s not BoJack Horseman-levels of fitful and failed introspection but it’s interesting to see Gob’s usually manic personality turned inward for a change. The same is true of George-Michael, as he grapples with the fallout of dating Rebel Alley (Isla Fisher), a woman his father was also briefly dating.
Even though the series is titled Arrested Development and is insisting season 5 takes place immediately after the events of season 4, there’s a hint that these characters are being allowed an opportunity to do what sitcom characters so rarely are: change. That’s perhaps most evident in Alia Shawkat’s Maeby, who has graduated to juggling several disguise-worth scams at the same time, one of which involves an extended stay in a retirement community that looks an awful lot where Judith Light’s Shelly Pfefferman lives in Transparent, which may inadvertently brings viewers back to that uncomfortable roundtable interview and discussions around Tambor’s on set behavior on this show and elsewhere.
Overall, this season feels as close to a return to form a series that’s had five seasons in fifteen years can hope to achieve. It’s a definite improvement over the bummer of a season from five years ago, and the screwball antics of the entire Bluth clan feel more screwball-y than ever before. It’s a course correction of sorts that feels like the series is trying to get back to basics. But is back to basics what the show should be aiming for? After so many years, maybe what Arrested Development needs is a reason not to live up to its title.
Arrested Development season 5 will stream on Netflix starting Tuesday, May 29.