Jeffrey Tambor and his newly revealed history of on-set misconduct is a social media lightning rod right now. It might keep you from watching the new season of Arrested Development, which was filmed before his Transparent ousting. It’s arguably the best season of the show since 2006, but the end is starting to feel near and not just because of the Tambor scandal.
The new season of Arrested Development, which just dropped on Netflix this past week, is a vast improvement on the last, yet it has me feeling depressed. I’m attempting to figure out why, exactly, and the quest has led me into my closet.
To be clear, that is not a reference to one of season 5’s more elaborate running jokes which culminates with Will Arnett’s GOB staging a magic act in which he goes into a closet a straight man and comes out of another closet a gay man as a symbol of his own sexual awakening. No, I mean that my introspection led me quite literally into my own closet, not for repressed sexuality reasons, more because that’s where my clothes are. Allow me to explain.
I went into the closet in search of this:
Holy crap – it’s my Arrested Development T-Shirt from way back in 2004! I wasn’t sure if I still had it. That’s GOB accompanied by one of his many catchphrases, in this case, “Illusions! Trick are what whores do for money.” Of course, the years have largely robbed the shirt of that last part, leaving me with just a grainy pic of Arnett accompanied by the word “Illusion.”
Now, if I were to wear GOB and his “Illusion” to a pop culture convention some of the people around might still get the reference; wear it out in the general public, there are any number of other things Arnett might be recognized for, from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle movies to Show Dogs to Flaked. Well, probably not that last one. I’m still not convinced anyone watched Flaked, not even the people at Netflix who gave it 2 seasons.
In the years since I first picked that shirt up, I’ve garage saled, I’ve moved, and I’ve donated plenty of clothes to Goodwill, yet “Illusion” has always stuck around. For one thing, the shirt, which used to run a little big on me, fits perfectly now. So, there’s that. For another thing, it’s a potent reminder of just how thoroughly I adored Arrested Development.
Back in the day, finding an unlicensed pop culture shirt wasn’t quite as easy as it is now. No, that shirt is the result of far too many hours spent searching the web in the days before BustedTees or TeePublic. I did it because at the time Arrested Development seemed like the invigorating, mainstream breakthrough of some kind of alt-comedy revolution.
The original run.
Fox gave Mitchell Hurwitz a network sitcom and for three seasons (2003-2006) he turned it into a highly cinematic, pretzel-shaped loop of callback gags, vaudeville bits, internet memes before that was even a thing, and rich people being so very, very stupid.
Debuting just a few months after the invasion of Iraq, Arrested Development was very much a show influenced by the times, leading with silliness while packing a mean, satirical punch. As TV critic Alan Sepinwall argues in TV (The Book), “Arrested Development was always a vicious satire of the head-in-the-sand thinking that got America into that mess overseas,” with Michael Bluth’s embezzling real estate tycoon father eventually revealed to be little more than a conman who stumbled his way into dirty deals with Saddam Hussein.
Hurwitz and Dan Harmon behind him with Community (2009-2015) were like the nuts running the nuthouse during the last great stand of the American sitcom, allowed to experiment in ways previously thought impossible, mostly because none of the higher-ups seemed to be paying attention to them.
But in pop culture years that was a long, long time ago. Now, newer audiences know Tony Hale for Veep, Jeffrey Tambor for Transparent and his various scandals, Jason Bateman for a real mixed bag of movies (some, like Game Night, good, others, like The Switch, bad) and TV shows (Ozark), Alia Shawkat for Search Party, Jessica Walter for Archer, Michael Cera for countless movies, including several where he plays himself, and, since I brought him up even though he has nothing to do with Arrested Development (other than his cameo in season 4), Dan Harmon for Rick & Morty and NOT Community.
Arrested Development clearly served as a great talent incubator, and though its ratings were always anemic it had enough famous fans to get everyone plenty of work post-show. Moreover, the way Fox canceled the series and burned off the final 4 episodes on the same night opposite The Olympics contributed to a victim narrative (the network done them wrong!) that elevated Arrested Development into a cause celebre. That helped fuel talks of a revival for nearly a decade before it finally happened in 2013 on Netflix, one of the streamer’s first big moves into original programming after just Lilyhammer (talk about a surefire future answer to a trivia question everyone will miss) and House of Cards.
But the Arrested Development that came back was not the same one that left. Largely due to scheduling reasons with the busy cast who did the new season in their free time from other jobs, Hurwitz mapped out a newer and far more experimental version of the series which took 15 extra-long episodes to do what the series used to do in just one single episode. The old A, B, and C plot structure where the characters separate for their own hijinks before finally coming back together at the end, often surprised to discover just how intertwined their stories had been from the start, was suddenly expanded and stretched across an entire season. Each character got several episodes entirely to themselves, usually with extremely limited interaction with any of the other headline cast members.
A thoroughly ensemble comedy suddenly turned into a series of showcase episodes for each individual character, largely robbing us of seeing these people bounce off of each other. At least it was something new. The series to that point had always hinged on Michael’s desire to leave the family behind, and here, finally, was a season about these bunch of co-dependent idiots striking out on their own.
But something was obviously missing. Arrested Development’s core appeal comes down to the comedic alchemy of putting that cast in the same room together. It’s often the same basic joke – family members says something insane/insensitive/cruel/ignorant, Michael dryly undercuts them in the verbal equivalent of an annoyed eyeroll – but when it’s that cast you can’t get enough of it.
I found season 4 frustrating, but also intriguing. Freed from the constraints of network television, Hurwitz did something different and went to darker places, ending the season on a real gut punch – well, actually, a punch to the face.
The season was so divisive Hurwitz recently recut the entire thing into a more standard 22-episode format which completely abandons the Rashomon thing he tried out 5 years ago. Plus, this way, they can get to 100 episodes faster and score big in syndication and not to have to worry about those season 4 episodes being too long or unruly for daily reruns.
The new season.
Now, the first 8 episodes of season 5 are here, with the final 8 set to drop sometime later this year, and Arrested Development is back to feeling exactly like Arrested Development again. The plots interconnect. Every episode ends on a cliffhanger. A family member is in jail (Buster this time). Michael’s holier-than-thou attitude is as shaky as ever (it’s kind of his fault a mostly innocent Buster is in jail-it’s, as always with this, complicated). The elder Bluths are still manipulating their kids and grandkids. Maeby’s still running her long-cons and planning ways to shame her father and mother. The clever pop culture references, double entendres, and mile-a-minute punchlines are back in full force.
More importantly, the cast is all here and actually interacting with one another. Other than Portia De Rossi, the scenes in which they’ve had to film around someone who clearly wasn’t there at the same time everyone else was are kept to a minimum this season. They’ve even tried out some new pairings, putting Tobias with Lucille as her court-appointed therapist to predictably hilarious results given her rather well-known hatred of him and his inability to pick up on normal social cues.
Yet, the return to form is part of what depresses me about the season. Through an overly convoluted mess of timeline management, the entire season takes place in 2015 on the eve of Trump’s presidential campaign, meaning the characters have only progressed a couple of years since the last time we saw them. It feels like Hurwitz was locked into this by season 4’s cliffhanger, but also by his desire to mine the comedy from the fact that the fictional Bluth’s had the idea to build a wall between the US and Mexico well before Trump ever stumped about it on the campaign.
Whether 3 or 5 years have passed between seasons, shouldn’t the characters have progressed just a little bit? Isn’t it kind of sad watching a late twenty-something Maeby still up to her old tricks with her parents? Ditto for George Michael and his ongoing inability to stand up to his dad and confusion over his feelings for Maeby (I’ve honestly lost track of whether they are or are not blood related). Should the question of whether or not Michael will ever leave his family behind still hang over everything? How many more soap opera-esque, God-they’re-so-cartoonishly-corrupt secrets can George, Sr. and Lucille have?
The show’s title has always been a bit too clever by half. Arrested Development literally refers to George Sr., a real estate developer, being arrested in the opening seconds of the pilot and metaphorically refers to the emotional state of all the characters, most obviously Buster, whose infantilization puts that Millennial who was sued by his own parents to shame. So, it might seem silly of me to now complain about the characters still being stuck in the same old cycles. The show’s not called Growing Up, after all.
That’s not to discredit the smaller ways in which the season does progress the characters. Lyndsey reaches an epiphany about her lifelong need for acceptance from her mother. Maeby shifts out of her schemes for parental attention and into a hilarious con in a retirement home, which is a lovely showcase for Alia Shawkat’s comedic range. George Michael does build to a point of trying to confront his dad. But, at another point, several of the characters emotionally regress instead of handling the conflicts before them, and the show turns it into a pretty big punchline (spoiler: George Michael’s re-enactment of Star Wars kid makes a comeback).
This all pales in comparison to the various ways in which season 4 attempted to advance the series beyond what it once was. Season 5 resets the show to its default settings, and the result is a more conventionally entertaining batch of episodes that often come surprisingly close to matching the original three seasons in quality. But, it’s been over a decade since we first met the Bluths. We’ve had to say goodbye multiple times. It’s starting to feel like, as funny as they still are in their perpetual arrested development, the goodbye might finally need to be permanent.
THE BOTTOM LINE
In TV (The Book), Alan Sepinwall and Matt Zoller Seitz ranked Arrested Development as the 5th best sitcom of all-time, 15th best TV show, period. Apart from the off-screen controversy with Tambor, season 5 doesn’t do much to affect those rankings, one way or another. It’s Arrested Development, back to being itself, not quite as funny as before, but still capable of inspiring its fair share of laughs. However, all these years later these characters are still roughly the same people. That’s certainly a classic sitcom trope, where nothing really ever changes, but it’s also depressing.