Arrested Growth undercuts its personal legacy with a tragic finish to season 5

Arrested Development’s fifth season doesn’t necessarily have to be its last. One of the most beloved, influential sitcoms of the 2000s has returned from the dead (or the near-dead) twice before: first when Netflix aired new episodes in 2013, seven years after Fox canceled the show, and then again in 2018, after creator Mitchell Hurwitz reconvened his busy cast, in hopes of satisfying the many fans disappointed with his more ambitious, experimental fourth season. The first eight episodes of season 5 arrived on Netflix last May. The final eight debut on the streaming service this Friday. Nothing has been announced about a potential season 6 — either pro or con.

But c’mon. At this point, is there anyone out there who doesn’t think Arrested Development is done?

After all, the first half of season 5 landed with a thud last year, generating surprisingly little buzz, aside from the terrible publicity generated by an awkward New York Times cast interview, which made an embarrassing public dispute out of the volatile on-set behavior of one of the show’s stars, Jeffrey Tambor. That interview happened not long after the Emmy-winning Amazon dramedy Transparent severed ties with Tambor, following an investigation into his alleged sexual harassment of co-workers on the show. Some Arrested Development actors were ready to rally around their colleague… but not all were.

So the cast may not be eager to work together again. That’d be a problem. Here’s a bigger one: based on its last eight episodes, the show isn’t worth continuing. Last year’s eight episodes weren’t great, but they weren’t terrible. But season 5’s second half essentially plays out the same storylines, many of which began during the underrated season four. Still, there’s no obvious reason why these episodes should be so painfully, tediously unfunny.

Like the show’s previous seasons, the second half of season 5 contains too many subplots and running gags to cite. There are three main storylines: Bluth family patriarch George Sr. and matriarch Lucille are trying to save their construction business by building a Mexican-American border wall. Their son Michael tries to salvage both the family fortune and his relationship with his own son, George-Michael, by supporting George-Michael’s fraudulent privacy software company, Fakeblock. And Michael’s brother Buster tries to escape prosecution in a missing-persons case involving longtime family friend Lucille 2.

Other long-running storylines get less screen time. The third Bluth brother, Gob, still wavers back and forth on whether he should say he’s gay, to help his magic career. His brother-in-law Tobias is still homeless and jobless, foraging for food and shelter with a couple of flighty actors, one of whom is his son. Tobias’ daughter Maeby is still posing as an elderly lady to take advantage of the facilities at an upscale senior living center. Maeby’s mother Lindsay disappeared midway through the season’s first half, and it’d be a spoiler to address any potential role she might have here.

All these tangled, absurd narrative arcs are meant to serve two functions. Since its debut on Fox in fall 2003, Arrested Development has been a scathing satire of upper-class privilege, painting the Bluth family as self-absorbed, overconfident, underqualified boobs who’ve survived as long as they have due to an extremely lax moral code, plus American society’s deference to those who carry themselves as rich and important. In other words, this show was a parody of Trumpian arrogance long before the Trump family rose to political power.

This element of Arrested Development still mostly works. Perhaps because reality now seems freakier than fiction, the series’ takedown of the American aristocracy doesn’t feel as inspired or subversive as it did back in the early 2000s, when it was deflating the cockier George W. Bush-era swells. Nevertheless, jokes at the expense of clueless software magnates and opportunistic bigots still sting.

But this show became a critics’ darling and cult favorite in its original run not just because of what it was about, but because of how Hurwitz and his creative team put their stories together. Drawing inspiration from The Simpsons, Mad magazine, and Wes Anderson movies, Arrested Development in the early going was a visual and aural marvel, with sight gags, puns, double-entendres, callbacks, and slapstick shtick filling nearly every second of screen time.

And that’s what this series has lost. Not for lack of trying, understand. Arrested Development still aims to be manic and wacky. But like aging athletes losing their strength, Hurwitz and his cast and crew seem to have lost some of their speed and intensity. Their jokes lack the sharp snap and wicked curve of old.

The root of all these ills may lie in the show’s much-maligned fourth season. When Netflix offered Hurwitz a chance to bring Arrested Development back, he faced a cast with irresolvable scheduling conflicts. So he completely reconceived his format, ditching the original seasons’ complicated, sprawling plotting in favor of more focused, character-driven episodes, each serving as tiles in a larger narrative mosaic.

The results were hit-and-miss. Some of those individual episodes (“Colony Collapse,” “Off the Hook”) are among the funniest in Arrested Development’s entire run. Others are clunky and overstuffed. Either way, while Hurwitz still delivered an uncommonly sophisticated sitcom, even many of the season’s defenders noted that this wasn’t the same show. The crazy, intricate structure is too integral to the comic vision.

So Hurwitz tried — too hard, in retrospect — to bring the old magic back, first by recutting season 4’s episodes into a more familiar Arrested Development form, then by following that project up with what was supposed to be a fifth-season return to “normalcy.” Yet these final eight episodes (and the eight that preceded them, for the most part) still feel off. Even with more of the cast sharing scenes, the episodes still seem cobbled together from moments caught on the fly between the actors’ other projects. Ron Howard’s narration — and some blatantly obvious post-production dubbing — has to do more work to connect all the dots.

The end of season 5 isn’t a complete washout. Each episode features one or two quotably funny lines or memorably kooky ideas. (The best setpiece in this batch involves a stellar team of lawyers known as “The Guilty Guys.” It’s best for fans to experience the payoff for that themselves.) The MVPs of season 5’s first half were Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat, who’ve developed into distinctively soulful, effortlessly hilarious young actors. They’re both still a treat to watch, even when the material isn’t so good.

But what’s missing here, to a depressing degree, is a sense of purpose. Even the most respected, successful producers and writers don’t get that many opportunities to make TV shows. The best find a way to make the most of any vehicle, filling it with whatever themes or ideas or emotions have been on their minds. These last 16 Arrested Development episodes suggest Hurwitz has mainly been thinking about Arrested Development: perhaps pondering its glory days, wondering how to recapture them. This show has always been self-referential. Now, it’s downright solipsistic.

In the years following Arrested Development’s first cancellation, multiple single-camera sitcoms sprung up that adopted some of its style and sense of humor — most notably, NBC’s Emmy-winning hit 30 Rock. These days, fewer TV comedies work this vein. Even producers Tina Fey and Robert Carlock’s 30 Rock follow-up Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt just aired its final episodes.

This would’ve been a good time for Arrested Development to prove there’s still some pop in this old formula of complicated cringe-comedy with nested in-jokes. Instead, the creators have produced something so flat and stale, it may make fans wonder why they ever liked this series in the first place. If this does turn out to be how Arrested Development ends, then in a weird way, the show is going out making the same point it always has: just because a cultural institution has influence and a notable name, that doesn’t mean the executors know what they’re doing.

The second half of Arrested Development season 5 arrives on Netflix on Friday, March 15th.

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