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‘Arrested Development’ Season 5 Is Extremely Self-Aware—and Also Not Self-Aware Enough

The new season is eager to make up for its self-perceived mistakes, albeit not the ones now at the forefront of the audience’s mind

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Up until a few months ago, all I ever wanted was an Arrested Development that was back to its old self. With Season 5, one has finally arrived—but it’s come at the worst possible time. There’s something very Arrested Development about the whole situation, something I’d be able to appreciate if it weren’t so disappointing.

After an all-too-brief original run from 2003 to 2006, Mitch Hurwitz’s beloved cult comedy enjoyed a second life as a GIF treasure trove and all-purpose internet darling, then a third as an early demonstration of Netflix’s benevolent omnipotence. In a way, the 2013 season of Arrested Development, technically the show’s fourth, predicted the ensuing wave of sitcom revivals: Fuller House, also on Netflix, as well as Will & Grace, Murphy Brown, and the freshly canceled Roseanne on broadcast television. There were key distinctions between the new Arrested Development and the reboots that followed—chiefly that the original show was not a crowd-pleasing multicam whose return might harken back to a more unified era of television. It was a niche series being brought into the time it was initially ahead of.

Consequently, Hurwitz tried for something more ambitious and experimental than a straightforward nostalgia grab. Working around the conflicting schedules of a cast that since graduated to a new level of stardom, the fourth season was structured as 15 supersized episodes, each one following a single character over the same period of time. The gambit was an admirable attempt to create something specific to streaming television, then a brand-new category. It was also a convoluted slog that tried to make up for absent intracast chemistry with a dense, twisty, impossible-to-follow plot. About halfway through, I started to think about pressing play on a new episode with grudging obligation rather than excitement, and I wasn’t alone: Reviews were sharply divided, settling in the intervening years around a consensus of “novel but flawed.”

The fifth season of Arrested Development, which debuted earlier this week, is everything Season 4 was not. The Bluth family saga is back to the snappier rhythm of its early years; the dialogue is a grab bag of catchphrases and callbacks: “Marry me!,” “analrapist,” “Steve Holt!,” George Michael’s passion for Star Wars, and Tobias’s never-nude cutoffs all appear in the first eight episodes of an eventual 16. Arrested Development has always been heavily self-referential, but the addition of a substantial time gap makes those references feel more like the knowing winks in every other resurrected touchstone. Season 4 was truer to Arrested Development’s groundbreaking reputation, but Season 5 is the instantly gratifying comfort food I didn’t know I wanted. It doesn’t add anything new to the show’s mythos, but it successfully conjures the old. The show’s young, binge-watching target demographic may consider itself above the cheap ploy of carbon-copying a childhood favorite, but it turns out we’re just as capable of being pandered to as everyone else.

The problem with evoking past highlights as a narrative device, however, is that it relies on an unsullied memory of what’s being evoked. Between Season 5’s announcement in the spring of 2017 and its premiere this week, news broke that tarnishes that memory: Two transgender women, former assistant Van Barnes and actress Trace Lysette, who had worked with actor Jeffrey Tambor on the acclaimed Amazon series Transparent, said Tambor, who plays corrupt patriarch George Bluth Sr., sexually harassed and verbally abused them. (Tambor has denied their stories.) Following an investigation, Tambor was fired from Transparent, but production on Season 5 was already under way. Plenty of skeptical onlookers weren’t buying it, but the building blocks of a redemption narrative were in place: the Transparent dismissal provided a sense of finality and closure. By the time Arrested Development returned, Tambor and Netflix presumably hoped, the actor’s arc would have reached its we’ve-addressed-this-let’s-move-on phase.

Then a routine promotional interview went horribly awry. During a group discussion with the cast, excluding Portia de Rossi and Michael Cera, New York Times reporter Sopan Deb asked whether Tambor expected to be involved in a potential sixth season. What followed was a cringeworthy exchange in which Tambor and his male colleagues, particularly Jason Bateman, equivocated and appeared to excuse Tambor’s verbal abuse of actress Jessica Walter, who plays his character’s wife, Lucille. “In like almost sixty years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set,” Walter said, audibly choking up. “We’ve all had moments,” Tony Hale added seconds later.

The problems with the interview itself have since been well-documented, and Bateman has apologized. But now, Arrested Development’s latest season is more than the abstract reason the disastrous interview happened in the first place. It’s a real piece of lighthearted entertainment, one that’s hard to reconcile with what’s now known about the environment that gave rise to it.

Separated from Lucille and wallowing in depression, George Sr. plays a relatively minor role this season, a fact that might have made Tambor’s presence easy to overlook. But true to fourth-wall-busting character, Arrested Development is intent on reminding us of the real world—just not to the effect it was aiming for. “George Sr.’s impression of a woman wasn’t going to win him any awards,” narrator Ron Howard winks in an early episode. As with last season, Howard is now an onscreen character; he plays himself, complete with meta jokes about his relationship with producing partner Brian Grazer. If, as viewers, we’re meant to be conscious of at least some aspects of these stars’ real-life personas, how can we not think of the uglier ones?

Arrested Development comes off as eager to make up for its self-perceived mistakes, albeit not the ones now at the forefront of the audience’s mind. The first two chapters are essentially spent digging the show out of the plot morass of Season 4, hastily getting the viewer up to speed via flashback before moving on to a new set of harebrained schemes, like getting Lindsay (de Rossi) elected to Congress or Maeby (Alia Shawkat) posing as a senior citizen to get free housing. Even more dramatically, Hurwitz recut the entire fourth season into shorter, more conventionally structured episodes, which were uploaded to Netflix on May 4 under the name “Season 4 Remix: Fateful Consequences.” The new edit has replaced the original version of the season, effectively erasing it from the show’s history. The gesture gives the impression of an unspoken apology: Hurwitz swung, he missed, and he’d like to make it up to us by going back to the way things were before.

Creative mistakes are different from those related to workplace misconduct. The stakes of the former are subjective artistic value; the stakes of the latter involve lives, livelihoods, and entrenched power dynamics. It’s nonetheless jarring to watch Arrested Development work so diligently to make up for one type of misstep when the other, by virtue of timing—after the season was written, before it was released—goes entirely unaddressed.

There are no straightforward answers for how to approach Arrested Development in light of recent events. Anecdotally, I know many people who’ve opted to skip the new season entirely, and the conversation around it has felt muted; if I had to place bets, I would wager that the back half of Season 5, for which Netflix has yet to announce a release date, will be Arrested Development’s final batch of episodes. But while it’s relatively easy to decline to engage with this latest chapter of the show’s long, strange history, it’s difficult to simply delete Arrested Development’s imperfections in order to retain our happy memories of the original show—precisely, it turns out, what Season 5 is asking us to do. You can’t go home again, not even to the model home at 1 Lucille Lane.