“When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear time’s waste.”
Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30 might not have been about TV reboots and revivals, but in many ways it fits. Arrested Development started as a Fox series in 2003, and the gaps between its cancellation there and its revival (and now second revival season) on Netflix certainly reflects the passage of time. When Arrested Development first aired, it was towards the end of the first term of George W. Bush’s presidency, when an often zany satire of a rich, clueless O.C. family was still funny and relevant. But in the intervening years, and moving into the current Donald Trump administration (which the show’s new season leans into heavily in early episodes), that focus has proved less charming.
Let’s go back just a little bit, because the show certainly does. Arrested Development’s highly-anticipated fourth season pickup by Netflix was ultimately not embraced by fans in the way that its creators and producers Mitch Hurwitz, Brian Grazer, and Ron Howard surely hoped it would be. Taking advantage of its new platform, Arrested Development broke away from the storytelling of its first three seasons, and instead focused each episode on a single character. Reactions were mixed at best, and the season didn’t really come together until the very end — even then, it was messy and largely unsatisfying even to diehard viewers. But instead of cutting losses and moving on, Hurwitz recently recut the season into the original format, rereleasing it on Netflix before Season 5. And while that might have been the end of it (and probably should have been), it’s not. The first episode of the new season is essentially all a catchup on the forgettable (and nonsensical) fourth season, which continues to haunt Season 5 throughout the first five (of an eventual eight in this set, and eight more later this year) episodes available to critics.
One of the thing that made Arrested Development so great in its early years was how it always had something to fight against. Often it was its own network, Fox, and the constraints of being a broadcast comedy; it made the series sharp and funny, its meta humor a righteous calling out of a tired old framework housing a brash new comedic style. On Netflix, there’s nothing to fight against — the creators have complete control to do anything they want. That’s not always a good thing. The plot going into Season 5 has become so convoluted, for instance, that Ron Howard’s exposition dominates every scene. Instead of being heavy on jokes with the narration as a way to transition from scene to scene, the balance is almost all explanations with the occasional attempt at reminding us of jokes from seasons past (remember the banana stand? Or Tobias’ license plate? Or the cornballer?) Often the narration runs over the dialogue in a way that’s not at all reminiscent of the sharp, layered, exceptionally clever script construction of those early seasons.
As for where the Bluth family is now, Season 5 focuses on Michael (Jason Bateman) being pulled back into his family’s problems again and again, with many references to the number of times he says he’s really done with them before. Something is broken in his relationship with George Michael (Michael Cera), though, after Season 4 revealed the two are sleeping with the same actress (played by Isla Fischer), one of the most cringe-worthy things the show has ever done. Somehow the cautious references to George Michael and Maeby (Alia Shawkat) being attracted to each other in the early seasons now seems exceptionally tame compared to this new, overt, and pretty gross revelation that never seems to find an end point.
Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) barely plays a role in the early episodes, though eventually she is encouraged to run for office by her mother Lucille (Jessica Walter), who is taking some time for self-reflection in quasi-therapy with Tobias (David Cross) who is himself working to prove his worth to the family. Gob (Will Arnett) is still processing a potential attraction to men, so he and his testerone-less father George (Jeffrey Tambor) go on a failed journey to Mexico together to try and rekindle their desire for women. As for Buster (Tony Hale), well, per usual he’s being controlled by his family, and ultimately may hold the key to the mysterious maybe-disappearance of Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli).
While the family is usually better together, they’re mostly scattered again (with a few strange pairings that don’t really work, like Lucille and Tobias), and the narrative focus is completely on Michael. No one else has much of an individual story yet, and that’s a shame, because the strongest comedy so far comes from the plots that are the most removed from Michael (who is always better as a foil to his crazy family than on his own). In particular, Maeby impersonating a 60-year-old woman so she can live in a retirement community is genuinely funny, and some of the jokes there — “He can’t hear anything because he has aids! Hearing aids” — are very reminiscent of the original seasons. There are also some fantastic Buster moments (like a party catered just to his “limited palette” of jell-o and plain hamburgers), and a fun mini-plot where George Michael makes friends with a would-be frat house of Noahs while visiting Mexico. Further, the ongoing joke of Tobias desperately trying to play the part of other family members is increasingly desperate and insane.
Arrested Development was always at its best when it focused in on the weird world it created, and the same is true for the new season, especially when it comes to wordplay, miscommunication, and mistaken meanings. But those are few and far between this time around, in a season that feels like a mix of nostalgia and a desire to make us laugh at the same Bush-era jokes that exist in a completely different context under Trump. And what’s why I bring Shakespeare into the mix; the Netflix seasons, for one reason or another, can’t take us back to those early to mid-naught glory days of the series, no matter how much it wants us to reminisce.
It’s never a waste to follow the stories of these characters, but the experience is becoming increasingly hollow. There’s a scene in Season 5 where George Michael dons his padded muscle suit by the pool, and it actually fits him. He flirts with a girl and gets into the water, with things finally going his way. She wants to give him her number, but as he stands there waiting, he realizes that the suit has become fully waterlogged, sagging and folding grotesquely. The girl immediately leaves. It makes one think about how the characters of Arrested Development are always trying to teach each other lessons — maybe there’s an important one here about quitting while you’re ahead.
Arrested Development Season 5 premieres Tuesday, May 29th on Netflix.