There’s a Bluth family motto, repeated often in the new fifth season of Arrested Development: “We forget, but we never forgive.” That’s how some fans might feel about Netflix’s initial 2013 revival of the series, a stain on the legacy of arguably one of the greatest sitcoms ever.
The show’s obsessives nearly blue themselves over the comedic potential of an Arrested Development reunion, especially after having spent the seven years since its Fox cancellation preaching the virtues of its layered narrative, callback jokes, and cuckoo wordplay, converting new fans along the way. But Netflix’s much-anticipated fourth season turned out to be, to continue quoting the show, a huge mistake.
To manage the scheduling impossibility of wrangling the show’s sprawling cast—Jason Bateman, Tony Hale, Will Arnett, Jeffrey Tambor, Jessica Walter, Portia de Rossi, Michael Cera, David Cross, and Alia Shawkat, all busy with a slew of other projects—creator Mitchell Hurwitz devised a Rashomon-like narrative gimmick that splintered the cast into separate character-centric episodes. This essentially stripped the show of… everything that made it great.
The ping-pong comedic chemistry of the cast? The zany B- and C- (and D- and E-) plots? Gone completely.
It resulted in 15 episodes that were a befuddling slog instead of the madcap jaunt fans had been expecting. (And this was back when bingeing was still an infant concept. The thought of watching 13 hours of a teen suicide drama in one weekend was still unheard of.)
So everyone is right to be skeptical of a fifth season of the series, which arrives next Tuesday with Hurwitz’s assurance that he’s learned from the failed gamble of five years ago. But it also arrives amid #MeToo sexual-assault allegations against Tambor that came out during filming. The new revival isn’t perfect, especially in the tone-deaf (and arguably offensive) way in which Tambor’s controversy is mirrored in his character’s, George Sr.’s, story arc.
But it also goes a long way to absolve the sins of that first Netflix revival, sins we can forget, but are still a ways away from forgiving.
There are other problematic elements of the new season. The last revival’s off-putting trick of blatantly using green scenes whenever cast members couldn’t be on set together is back, particularly whenever Portia de Rossi’s Lindsay is in a scene with the whole family.
But with so much of the indelible humor and gratifying narrative Tetris finally back, not to mention some of the sharpest Trump commentary any scripted comedy has mounted (a high bar), it turns out—and this is the last time we’ll do this, we swear—there really is always money in the banana stand.
All that said, five years is a long time to remember what the hell was going on in a show that moves as quickly through corkscrew plot twists and timelines as this one. Ron Howard’s narration does its damndest to recap the madness, but, after having seen the first seven episodes of the new season, our advice is to just surrender yourself to the constant confusion and instead take pleasure in the clever writing. (Arrested Development, the comedy version of Westworld.)
Michael (Bateman) has been away from his family for two months, and his life has never seemed better. He’s working at Search, a stand-in for Google, where he thinks he could finally put his family and their exhausting scandals behind him.
That family, for reasons that would take far too long to recount completely, have all made their way to Mexico, fleeing one thing or another, and in various pairings. The one pair we’ll single out is Gob (Arnett) and George Sr. (Tambor).
Gob is in Mexico reckoning with confused feelings after falling in love with rival magician Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller). George Sr. is there—and here’s the problematic bit—in a tailspin crisis of masculinity after learning that his testosterone levels have plummeted to that of a menopausal woman. The two of them, overcompensating for their insecurity over these developments, emptily vow to embark on a mission to “f*** our way through Mexico.”
The bit would be innocuous, were it not for the meta way in which it is introduced. A detective is looking for a woman with red hair, but Ron Howard’s narration informs us the woman in question is actually “cis male George Sr.” wearing a wig to pose as a woman after his testosterone revelation. But, Howard narrates, “George Sr. soon realized his impression of a woman wasn’t going to win him any awards, so he took off in his trailer to Mexico to forget his shameful mistakes.”
It all seems to be a winking reference to Tambor’s Emmy-winning work playing transgender Maura Pfefferman on Amazon’s Transparent. Jokes at the expense of the Amazon series seem to double down when, in a later episode, Maeby moves into a retirement village that uses the exact same set as the one Judith Light’s character lived in.
However cheeky the meta Transparent allusions were meant to be, they scan more menacingly in the wake of Tambor’s firing from the series after being accused of sexual misconduct on set, which he denies. While the bit is a continuation of a plot that started five years ago, jokingly mocking sexual predation and having Jeffrey Tambor laugh about how “Mexico won’t be able to walk for a week!” still registers in poor taste now.
It’s the rare case in which the show’s meta references don’t succeed. (Digs at Ron Howard and Brian Grazer’s production company in episode two, for example, are masterful.) To that end, with its inside-baseball cleverness and rat’s nest of competing plots, Arrested Development is a series that has always seemed very pleased with itself. When it doesn’t land the jokes, as in the last season, that can read as off-putting smugness. When it connects, though, it’s magic, which happens often enough in this new season that even Gob would be impressed.
You might think it impossible, for example, to find new ways of mocking the rise of Trump. Yet Arrested Development does it brilliantly.
There are Maeby’s attempts to thwart her mother’s political aspirations by manufacturing scenarios in which she offends minorities and gets caught sexually harassing reporters, only for Lindsay’s poll numbers to surge with each passing incident.
But the piece de resistance is a gag that comes after Walter’s Lucille recaps the lengths she went to in order to get someone to pay for a wall between Mexico and the U.S. on land that she bought. She watches Trump introduce the idea on the campaign trail (this takes place prior to his election), and is livid that he stole her idea. Then he says he’s going to have Mexico pay for the wall itself. She concedes: “OK. That’s a clever twist.”
With any family sitcom, it’s an achievement to create one, maybe two scene-stealing relatives and, if you’re lucky, an appealing straight man to center the action. The Bluths are all lunatics. Tony Hale’s Buster might be the weirdest character on TV, a mentally off-kilter manchild with an Oedipal complex and a robotic hook for a hand. Yet Hale grounds him so that there’s not an insane move that he makes that isn’t somehow relatable. Jessica Walter’s tart-tongued matriarch raises the bar for that sitcom archetype so high that it should just be retired. And, especially in this season, Alia Shawkat’s precocious vengefulness as Maeby is peculiarly appealing.
And, while we’re shouting out memorable characters, don’t miss a cameo by The Daily Beast’s own editor in chief John Avlon in episode three.
Watching the Bluths in action is akin to watching an entire family march confidently into a six-lane highway in rush hour, oblivious to the danger because they’ve always somehow come out unscathed. The disastrous collateral damage to their brazenness? Not their problem. That makes Bateman’s Michael Bluth one of TV’s most interesting straight men. He’s a loon like the rest of them. But at least he’ll exasperatedly call 911 on his family’s behalf. Most of the time.
It’s fascinating to watch Arrested Development return in a television age it essentially helped create. Each episode ends with a plot explosion, sparking the kind of narrative fireworks most sitcoms traditionally steer clear from—which is perhaps why that original run wasn’t a ratings hit, but in the age of streaming and bingeing, is what audiences crave. Even broadcast sitcoms have adopted this method, none better than NBC’s The Good Place.
And its wanton joke-per-second ratio and penchant for clever wordplay certainly sprouted an appetite for shows like The Office and 30 Rock, to the point that Netflix’s Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt may even be exceeding it in that realm. Of course, volume doesn’t necessarily mean intelligence or quality, and the new Arrested Development, while imperfect, does have that. So I’ll leave you with the line that, while not a pun or an overt joke, left me breathless with laughter, I thought it was so smart.
Maeby is trying to reassure George Michael. “It’s OK, George Michael,” she says. “You worry too much.” Without skipping a beat, George Michael replies, “It keeps me up at night, actually.”