Is this the end of Arrested Development? Sad to say, I hope so. The second half of the fifth season lands on Netflix today. These eight episodes conclude a byzantine mystery that began way back in 2013, when the canceled cult comedy rebooted itself as Streaming Age event.
This release marks a low point for the once-great series, recycling gags, reheating limp characters, swirling complicated narrative strands without the old snappy grace. In the season (series?) finale, a long 45-minute-ish episode, there is an 80-second Ron Howard narration montage. It’s a recap of key plot points from a few episodes earlier. The jokes weren’t funny the first time. Watching them play out — again, for more than a minute — made me ponder the theory of Eternal Recurrence, which states that we haven’t laughed at the fifth season of Arrested Development infinite times before, and we won’t laugh at the fifth season of Arrested Development infinite times yet to come.
The original run of the show was creating a new kind of TV viewer, the wiki-chomping encyclopedist catching biannual callbacks to background visuals. The newest reboot is worried that you missed a gigantic plot moment screamed through a megaphone. Exposition in quotation marks is still exposition. And there’s an extended spoof of true-crime documentaries, literally the funniest idea of two American Vandals ago. And Jeffrey Tambor gives two bad performances, sometimes in the same scene. Are we having fun yet?
Tambor once again plays two Bluths: befuddled patriarch George Senior and befuddled uncle Oscar. He looks physically befuddled, wondering how two distinctive characters became emotionally identical gagbots. It’s not just a Tambor problem. Every actor is flailing one way or another. Arrested Development really does feel like a 16-year sitcom now, the whole cast Flanderized to inhuman extremes. G.O.B. (Will Arnett) is still struggling through a never-ending gay panic joke, at one point falling in with a real-life Gay Mafia, ha ha. Buster (Tony Hale) used to be a helplessly needy man-child, and now he’s a cartoon character, Pinky without the Brain, the latest Bluth to go on the run from the law.
There’s an uncanny-valley point where comedic repetition feels less smart than lazy. Tobias (David Cross) brings his new family to live secretly in the attic, just like George Sr. did that one time! Michael (Jason Bateman) and G.O.B. are, briefly, co-presidenting at the Bluth company… again! G.O.B. and Tobias try to catch each other in secret-gay Freudian slips, “You realize you just said ‘ball’?” George Michael (Michael Cera) ponders a move back into his childhood room, backsliding ceaselessly into the past. In last year’s midseason finale, Ben Stiller’s Tony Wonder was seemingly killed in a cement mishap. Tony Wonder gets brought up like every five minutes this season, with regular cuts back to his last appearance. It’s old-school desperate, a celebrity cameo clipshowed into a supporting role.
As matriarch Lucille, Jessica Walter tries hard to bring back her acidic magic. But I wonder, in hindsight, if the show’s sincere commitment to its own rigid canon ruined that character. In the first three seasons, Lucille was a glorious grotesque of Orange County upper-classless aristocracy. Her asphyxial love was the molten core of the Bluth family; she adored her children the way a wolf enjoys a good steak.
The original season 3 finale revealed that Lucille was also the dominating influence in the Bluths’ business affairs. This was a very fun last-minute twist, and yet I don’t think any of the revival seasons have really known what to make of Lucille Bluth, Evil Business Mastermind. Now she’s just one of many characters plotting elaborate real-estate deals. In season 5, those deals still involve building a wall on the southern border. Arrested Development comes by this topicality honestly. The Bluths started talking about building a wall years before a significant minority of American voters pledged their allegiance to that idiotic act of hysterical infrastructure.
Credit creator Mitchell Hurwitz for crafting art insane enough to inspire our insane real life. Season 5’s Trump stuff feels less inspired than dutiful, though. Was there another plan? Portia de Rossi’s Lindsay was running for Congress at the start of season 5. But de Rossi barely appears in the new batch of episodes. It turns out that Sally Sitwell (Christine Taylor) won the election, and that minor character’s subplot looks a bit like a rewritten Lindsay arc. Then again, Hurwitz decided season 5 would be a period piece, set in some eternal 2015. Maybe that’s why the new episodes feel so immediately dated. In this glorious past, the money-grubbing Bluths are falling. In 2019, various real-world Bluths are doing just fine.
Is there a future for this series? It’s worth noting that Arrested Development launched the careers of two flavors of millennial icon. The ever-delightful Cera defined a certain brand of indie-rock sweetness, smirking sweetly through Nick and Norah’s Infinite Playlist and Scott Pilgrim vs. the World. Alia Shawkat has risen as a fascinating cultural counter-response, playing downbeat fear and loathing on Search Party. In season 5, George Michael is still peddling Fakeblock, a yet-ongoing reference to that time in 2011 when people thought Michael Cera was Jesse Eisenberg. And Maeby (Shawkat) is still pretending to be a senior citizen, a funny one-episode idea that has become her whole season-long arc.
You get the vibe that the show doesn’t really know what to do with the younger characters. Or much of anything, really. The wordplay this go-round feels back-of-the-napkin: “Mistrial! Mistrial!” “Yes, yes, I missed your trial!” The ADR is invasive, like every conversation was written in post-production to make room for more exposition. If you ever loved the show, skip to the last five minutes for the latest twist ending. Arrested Development is over, which means rumors of more Arrested Development are about to begin. Fake news! Everyone knows Arrested Development ended 13 years ago. D