ALWAYS LEAVE A NOTE
How ‘Arrested Development’ Tries to Atone for the Mistreatment of Jessica Walter in New Season 5 Episodes
The Netflix comedy is as funny and self-aware as ever in the newly dropped second half of Season 5—but its attempt at smoothing over last year’s real-life scandal falls flat.
Arrested Development is back—again—on Netflix this Friday (March 15), and it’s my pleasure to report that after a severely underwhelming initial return in 2013, followed by a strong eight-episode run last year, the acclaimed series has now reclaimed as much of its mile-a-minute jokey mojo as it likely ever will. Yes, there are more awkward green-screen effects used to get various characters in the frame at the same time. And yes, there’s a considerable amount of post-production ADR work present, sometimes to the point of distraction. But in terms of sheer, unadulterated head-spinning humor, this latest batch of episodes—technically, the second half of “season 5” that began in 2018—proves that there’s still plenty of money left in the banana stand.
Literally, actually, as Arrested Development’s plot hinges, at least temporarily, on the revelation that the Bluth’s famed kiosk business is also the code name for a secret offshore slush fund utilized by George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) and Lucille (Jessica Walter) to hide $3 million procured from the Chinese, who gave it to them as a gift that they’re supposed to then return in order to “save face” for having botched their ongoing deal with the Chinese to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico. Got that? Probably not. But then, Mitchell Hurwitz’s groundbreaker has always been predicated on tying its storylines up in knots at a blistering fast-forward pace, never stopping to take a breath save for those moments when it has narrator Ron Howard provide a handy recap of key preceding events—a device that isn’t just for summary purposes, but is meant to underline, and revel in, the laughable intricacy of its insanity.
That comes to a head in this season’s fifth episode, which is a master class in lunacy. In its first 15 minutes, it delivers: an extended flashback to the Bluth’s 1982 summer at their beach cottage, where young George Sr. (Taran Killam) and Lucille (Cobie Smulders) have their misfit kids compete in a “Mr. and Mrs. Bluth” talent show; a connect-the-dots look back at the incidents that led to the present-day arrest of Buster (Tony Hale) for the murder of Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli), aka Lucille Two; a wacko Golden Girls homage when Tobias (David Cross), son Murphy Brown (Kyle Mooney), and girlfriend/Lindsay impersonator DeBrie (Maria Bamford) move into the retirement community where Maeby (Alia Shawkat) is living in disguise as her older alter ego Annette; and a random L.A. Law-style introduction to The Guilty Guys, a superstar legal team recommended to the Bluths by their clownish lawyer Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler). It’s an astounding barrage of free-flowing nonsense, highlighting how Arrested Development is at its finest when it can barely keep up with itself.
As always, numerous mini-dramas compete for attention, only to become hopelessly entangled with each other. Continuing a thread initiated at the end of season 4, Buster finds himself the prime suspect in Lucille’s mysterious demise. George Michael (Michael Cera) is still hiding the fact that his tech company Fakeblock is founded on make-believe security software. Michael resumes his oft-rejected duty as CEO of the family company, only to uncover typically shady dealings. Following his ill-fated sexual-orientation magic trick with boy-crush Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller), Gob (Will Arnett) is forced to stay in the closet by the gay mafia (led by Lucille Two’s brother, played by Tommy Tune). Maeby, in her Annette guise, is desperate to stop living with Stan Sitwell (Ed Begley Jr.). And George Sr. valiantly attempts to win back the (sexual) affections of Lucille, who’s now shacked up with a gray-haired, rock-throwing beach bum named Dusty (Dermot Mulroney) who, eventually, becomes Buster’s attorney.
That Tambor-Walter material is more than a tad discomfiting, given that it comes across as a running apologia-style commentary of sorts on last year’s disastrous press tour, when Walter confessed to the media that Tambor had treated her horribly on-set, and her co-stars Bateman, Cross and Hale responded, at first, by mansplaining to her and defending him (apologies followed). Though Arrested Development has long been a pioneer in self-awareness, this narrative strand is season 5’s wobbliest element, especially since it’s never adequately (or amusingly) resolved. Certainly, it’s far less sharp than the repeated digs at Trump’s border wall project (the action is set in 2015, before his election), or at Howard, or at Harvey Weinstein (via some choice Tobias inanity), or at its own artifice, which peaks with the disclosure that the flashbacks to the Bluth family’s ‘80s heyday—replete with Jean Smart as Lucille’s mom Mimi—are clips from the cinematic Bluth biopic being produced by Imagine Entertainment.
Intricate behind-the-scenes loop-di-loops were undoubtedly required to reunite all these actors—save for Portia de Rossi, whose Lindsay is basically MIA—and the seams are sometimes visible, notably during every conversation in which actors’ mouths are hidden so re-dubbed dialogue can be played. Nonetheless, director Troy Miller maintains the brisk momentum and rapid-fire repartee that are the show’s hallmarks, and everyone is at the top of their respective games, be it Hale and his collection of prosthetic hands (this time, there’s a particularly ridiculous veiny one), Bateman and his smiling condescension and weary exasperation, or Walter and her collection of cold-as-ice put-downs, most dispensed with an alcoholic beverage in hand. It’s Shawkat and Arnett, however, that routinely steal the spotlight. The former exhibits precision timing whether posing as a senior citizen or explaining to George Michael that she can flip her emotions on and off like a switch (which makes her, according to George Michael, “a sociopath”). And the latter remains a source of priceless buffoonery whose dancing, flailing, grinning-idiot shtick is only enhanced by his nagging hetero/homo confusion.
Like the series’ plentiful cameos from fresh and familiar faces (Gene Parmesan—“It never gets old!”), Arrested Development’s one-liners and inward-looking allusions fly by at the speed of light, and at this point, the show has long since given up trying to accommodate new viewers. It’s a comedy whose main frame of reference is itself, and while that likely limits its appeal outside its cadre of hardcore fans, its latest go-round reconfirms that, though many sturdy imitators have followed in its wake, it still sits upon the absurdist throne.
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