Arrested Development has lost its edge.
After being revived by Netflix, the fourth season of cult comedy series Arrested Development was met with decidedly mixed reviews. It played with the formula of the first three seasons substantially, with episodes focused on the individual characters rather than the iconic Bluth clan as a collective entity. Partly due to scheduling conflicts amongst the ensemble cast, this change fundamentally undermined what made the original run so great – the witty interplay and mocking banter between a hilariously unstable group of people was the show’s USP. The backlash was significant enough that creator Mitchell Hurwitz recently released a re-edit of Season 4, one that tried admirably to recapture the feeling of the show’s earlier seasons. The result was a bit of a mixed bag, the all-too-visible seams tied over by an excess of Ron Howard’s cynical voice-over.
With this new batch of episodes Hurwitz set out to bring the family back together again, for real this time, but the opening episode is tasked with the heavy burden of untangling the convoluted plotting of the previous season. Thus, episode 1 essentially serves as a glorified recap to get viewers back up to speed. You wish that Hurwitz had more faith in his audience to keep up, as seeing things we’ve already seen before doesn’t bring any great joy and new voice-over from Howard continues to distract from proceedings. What was once a charming feature of the earlier seasons has now become increasingly grating on the ears.
The mild reception to the series’ revival isn’t the only thing that clouds over the release of this new season. In the wake of the #MeToo movement that has swept Hollywood, exposing the widespread nature of sexual assault and harassment in the entertainment industry, one of the show’s main stars Jeffrey Tambor was accused of sexual misconduct by his former assistant, Van Barnes, which was followed by similar accusations from past colleagues. This lead to Tambor leaving Amazon show Transparent, where he played the lead role, and cast doubt over his involvement in any future seasons of Arrested Development. As it turns out, filming for the fifth season had been completed by the time the allegations surfaced and his role has seemingly gone unaltered. Though a tricky subject, it makes for uncomfortable viewing seeing Tambor reprise the part of George Sr. in the first episode – especially in light of the recent New York Times article that drew further negative publicity to the show, a group interview of the cast that revealed that Tambor had verbally harassed co-star Jessica Walter on the set of this new season. The article caused uproar as it displayed how the other male stars of the show, Jason Bateman in particular, continued to defend and support Tambor despite being in the presence of a clearly-upset Walter. Walter is one of the highlights of the entire series, her Lucille Bluth an overpowering matriarch full of venom and the primary source of its biting humour, whilst Tambor has shown, in this opening episode and over the course of the preceding season, to be perhaps Arrested Development‘s weakest link. This is not to say that the quality of performance matters in such a situation; if Tambor has soured the professional relationship between himself and colleagues with improper behaviour, it wouldn’t matter how good or bad an actor he is. You get the feeling that Tambor is unlikely to play George Sr. again whether Season 6 happens or not.
This episode remains a slog to watch even if you overlook external factors. Besides the extended recap, we find Michael (Bateman) reeling after being punched in the face by his son George Michael (Michael Cera) – who is also unsure how to move on, confiding in his anarchic cousin Maeby (Alia Shawkat). The writing simply isn’t as sharp as it used to be: one scene plays on the familiar gag of Buster (Tony Hale) having a monstrous deformity, but his new Terminator hand doesn’t bring the laughs it should, and a whole bit on scuba diving falls completely flat. Arrested Development has a trait of developing in-jokes over several episodes so these could go somewhere, but for now they don’t show much promise.
The young blood of Cera and Shawkat gives a bit of hope to a cast that, for the most part, look bored of roles that they’ve played for 15 years on and off. Season 4 showed that isolating these characters doesn’t work, yet they still feel distinctly separate here – Gob (Will Arnett), Lucille, George Sr., Tobias (David Cross) and Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) only appear briefly. Effectively retired from acting, de Rossi’s presence in later episodes is mainly through awkward green screen that looks frustratingly amateur. If they couldn’t do it right, maybe they shouldn’t have done it at all. The first three seasons of Arrested Development were brilliant, lightning-in-a-bottle television, but these later two efforts signal that, though the fans may clamour for it, some shows should just stay dead.
The first 8 episodes of Arrested Development Season 5 are available to stream on Netflix now.