In its fifth season, Arrested Development ditches the puzzle-box structure of its 2013 resurrection on Netflix, and it zips along as if trying to make up for lost time. Season four famously adopted its cyclical structure in part because of the conflicting schedules of the show’s cast, whose characters were often deprived of the opportunity to interact with one another. The series supplanted the largely missing family dynamic that was at the heart of its first three seasons with a season-long mystery narrative told from the varying perspectives of individual members of the Bluth clan.
Though some characters do still disappear for long stretches during the new season, the entire family has been rejoined, and the volatile chemistry between its members is the combustion engine that drives Arrested Development’s chaotic storylines and self-referential humor. After the dense and head-spinning exposition of the first few episodes, which establish each character’s whereabouts and pile up jokes at a breakneck pace, the season begins in earnest with Michael (Jason Bateman) finally reuniting with the rest of the Bluths in support of Lindsay’s (Portia de Rossi) run for Congress.
The season’s first half finds Gob (Will Arnett), the family’s irrationally confident doofus, wrestling with his repressed homosexuality—an arc that sees him curiously encroaching on Tobias’s (David Cross) established role as the Bluth clan’s likely closet case. This results in a series of predictably absurd scenarios that quickly become repetitive and one-note, from Gob’s fruitless attempt to “fuck his way through Mexico,” to his mistaking a closet specialty store for the offices of a conversion therapist, but the overall bit quickly forfeits its comedic momentum. Tobias, meanwhile, is left lingering in the background, impersonating missing Bluth family members to prepare for a film adaptation of their life story that may never happen—a conceit that allows for hysterically miscalculated representations by Tobias the “actor” but feels like a monotonous showcase of Cross’s talents.
In another head-scratching narrative choice, Lindsay, after launching her campaign, quickly goes off grid to find her birth family. The development is emblematic of the season as a whole, whose visual gags and expert wordplay are content to only teasingly engage with the current state of the world. Lucille’s (Jessica Walter) border-wall idea, of course, recalls Donald Trump’s xenophobia, but the series doesn’t develop this particular thread beyond an amusing coincidence. The subplot of Lindsay’s campaign is sidelined as quickly as it’s introduced, and at least during the first half of the season (the second will launch later this year), the writers fail to capitalize on some fortuitous comedic gold: that the wall bit was presciently introduced in 2013, years before the stranger-than-fiction ascension to the presidency by a real-estate grifter with his own Bluth-ian border-control ideas.
Similarly, when the series targets Hollywood, the results can feel obligatory and well-tread. An Imagine Entertainment executive tells Michael that “You have to crank out these family dramas now before they let you make your dream superhero movie,” a joke that would have also felt obvious five years ago. The series even audaciously references Jeffrey Tambor’s ignominious ouster from Amazon’s Transparent, prompted by sexual-misconduct allegations against the actor. Ron Howard’s narrator, referring to the events of this season of Arrested Development, says, “George Sr. soon learned his impression of a woman wasn’t going to win him any awards, so he took off for Mexico to forget his shameful mistakes.” But is this a winking bit of half-hearted contrition or a smug defense of Tambor’s presence? The series is often content to glibly acknowledge another uncomfortable situation without attempting to offer any substantive discussion on such matters.
Still, Arrested Development continues to impress for the sharpness of its verbal wit. Throughout, seemingly inconsequential puns are elevated to the level of high art, and due largely to the familiar rhythms of the characters. The series feels like comedic comfort food whenever it recycles some of its longest-running gags: Tobias is as staggeringly oblivious as ever (“Now let’s put a nugget in your mouth!”), while George Michael’s (Michael Cera) romantic tension with sorta-cousin Maeby (Alia Shawkat) has become only more awkward as both have aged out of their fumbling pubescence.
As ever, the sight of Michael dramatically storming out on his family, only to inevitably return, remains the Sisyphean struggle that seems to hold the Bluths, like the series, together. And by returning to a relatively more linear narrative, not to mention its truly ensemble roots, Arrested Development has given something back to us by remembering that the Bluths are fundamentally bound by idiosyncrasy. At its best, the series continues to deftly skewer the interpersonal dynamics of a hilariously dysfunctional family.