'Arrested Development' Season 5: TV Review

Much, much better.
5/29/2018

After a couple of stutter-steps salvaging the storyline from season four, the show begins to hit its stride, evoking its glory days.

In addition to being one of the great comedies of all time, Arrested Development will surely go down in history as being one of the most unfortunate, which in some weird way is perfectly on point for the material. If you'll remember, and you probably won't, the last four episodes of the third season on Fox were burned off in one night — unceremoniously, right up against the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. It's funny now.

A season before that, back in the days when ratings really mattered, Fox had to be talked into saving the show, but by the end of that third season it was mostly a cult series, and all the hipster kids who said they were there at the beginning had not yet started watching.

From cult to legend, Arrested Development was then revived in 2013 by a new thing called Netflix, which needed its own street cred before, you know, taking over the world. People might not remember wanting that fourth season so badly that they would buy a subscription service to get it. What they remember clearly is how disappointed they were by the cut-up results, the Rashomon-style Rasho-mess that creator and writer Mitch Hurwitz ended up constructing, partly out of necessity. (For one thing, it was a challenge to coordinate the shooting schedules of the castmembers, which by then were pretty famous. For another, Netflix was a mysterious new thing and Hurwitz was told people could watch all the episodes at once and even out of order, any which way, any time they wanted — ah, the nascent days of streaming! All these factors contributed to his bold, labor-intensive and, yes, "huge mistake.")

I call the show "unfortunate" because although season four is a confusing structural mess and a be-careful-what-you-wish-for moment, it's also very, very funny in parts. Those parts are better highlighted in the more linear recut of the season that Hurwitz posted on Netflix earlier this month — on Cinco de Mayo, of course. The new version serves as a better appetizer for the vastly improved fifth season. (Netflix is dropping eight of the 16 episodes on Tuesdayand the rest will be available later.)

Since this series, unlike most other TV comedies, is so story-focused, the early stretches of season five spend a lot of time trying to catch viewers up. The first couple of episodes — seven were made available to critics — are saddled with previous plot points that will be the basis for future developments. So temper your expectations; the narrative clutter sometimes obscures the jokes.

But even amid the mad scramble to re-establish plotlines, there are plenty of funny callbacks. One of the daring elements of the original Fox seasons, which might have worked against the show gaining a large audience, was that Hurwitz and his writers used callback jokes that evoked not just moments in the same episode, but earlier episodes and even earlier seasons. Under its veneer of ludicrousness, it was one of television's most daringly cerebral series.

Luckily, by the third episode of the new season, the cylinders are firing a lot more effortlessly, and the series benefits from having the cast pretty much all back together for shared scenes. Episodes five, six and seven show Arrested Development at its best, taking a full sprint at ridiculously elaborate scenarios.

Jason Bateman (a note of transparency: He's a friend — though he might use that patented Michael Bluth shake of the head to imply that this is a real stretch) is once again not missing a beat as the one Bluth family member who is self-reflective and aware that the clan is insane. That delusional mindset has Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) running for office and George Michael (Michael Cera) still fighting those weird urges over cousin Maeby (Alia Shawkat), who in turn has upped her scheming to preposterous and hilarious new levels, among many other storylines. And while those storylines stumble a bit in the early, catch-up episodes, patience pays off.

Voiceover: George Sr. soon realized his impression of a woman wasn't going to win him any acting awards.

Michael: This is why you always, always leave a note. (Pause) Where's that from?

George Michael: Family of the year? Who would give us that?

Maeby: We're giving it to ourselves.

George Michael: Still doesn't seem we'd get the votes.

It's nice to see the series return to the form it defined so many years ago with its rapid-fire, multiple-layer jokes (verbal, physical and visual). While there's not much of de Rossi in the first seven episodes, Bateman, Will Arnett, Tony Hale, Cera, Jessica Walter, Jeffrey Tambor, David Cross and especially Shawkat get to either pick up or expand where they left off, with a number of cameos from the past sprinkled in as well. Hurwitz, writing partner Jim Vallely and the staff nail enough jokes in the exposition-laden early episodes (with a major assist from Ron Howard doing both narration and acting) to build a bridge to the stronger installments that follow.

But Arrested Development will always be a series that fails to satisfy the expectations of every fan. Not everybody thought Michael Jordan was good when he came back, either. From the halfway point in its new season, it looks like a solid and welcome return to form, which makes me excited to see the rest.

Cast: Jason Bateman, Will Arnett, Jessica Walter, Jeffrey Tambor, Michael Cera, Tony Hale, David Cross, Portia de Rossi, Alia Shawkat, Ron Howard
Creator and writer: Mitch Hurwitz
Premieres: Tuesday (Netflix)