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ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT: Season Five, Part One ✭✭✭✩✩

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Should we be dancing like happy chickens, or have they made a huge mistake? COME ON!

Huge gaps between seasons don’t help Arrested Development; a comedy with a rich and complex narrative that juggles dozens of subplots and running gags, while also having to service a large ensemble cast with a wide range of supporting players and returning guest stars.

When it began on Fox as a weekly series in 2003 (that’s Bush and Blair era — yikes), Arrested Development failed to find a big audience and was cancelled after three seasons. It was only really kept around because it was a critical favourite, but was network TV actually the best place for a show like this?

One it went off-air for seven years, eventually revived by Netflix in 2013, creator Mitch Hurwitz faced an unenviable mixture of problems. There are were the glaringly obvious ones, like having to find ways around the in-demand cast’s availability issues. This forced his hand into adapting the show’s format so episodes ran to varying lengths, with many focusing on just a few characters at a time.

It didn’t work very well, with obvious body doubles being used, atrocious greenscreen inserting actors into scenes they weren’t present for, and editing used to combine separately filmed scenes together. It was a strange patchwork of television.

But something people don’t often mention is how, after seven years in limbo (with only rumours of a movie adaptation to cling to), only the diehard fans even remembered half of what happened during its original run. Not everyone watches TV shows multiple times, and you can’t really expect ordinary people to binge three seasons of TV just to prepare.

It definitely helps that flashbacks and exposition are built into Arrested Development’s format, delivered by affable narrator Ron Howard, but even his dulcet tones and reminders become a bit tiresome and sometimes only add to the confusion. Oh, and poor Howard has been asked to do some considerable heavy-lifting during the Netflix era.

Half the fifth season arrived last month, taking everyone by surprise because there was no forewarning. I didn’t even know they’d filmed it.

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It’s been 5 years since the last season… 12 years since the show was cancelled… an astonishing 15 years since the show premiered… and we’re still kind of watching the same story about a dysfunctional family of formerly wealthy oddballs. And I’m now unsure Arrested Development was built for having considerable gaps between its seasons. Netflix wisely re-released the fourth season a few weeks ago (which Hurwitz recut closer in style to what the older episodes were like), but for those who’ve just patiently waited years for more Bluth madness… it takes awhile to acclimate to them. And for season 5’s own storylines to really bed in.

In early instalments of this season, there’s even a scene showing the aftermath of George-Michael (Michael Cera) punching his father Michael (Jason Bateman), during which the actors age five years. That was quite some punch!

The good news about season 5 is that the ensemble are mostly back together, although Buster (Tony Hale) spends many of his early scenes just with Michael present, and then segues to intimate prison scenes. It seems like he filmed the majority of his stuff over maybe a week.

Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) is the biggest absence felt, despite her character now running for Congress, which opens up a lot of opportunities she’s simply not around for. It’s very strange. To be fair, de Rossi did quit acting and informed Hurwitz of her decision way before he put pen to paper, but he wrote Lindsay into the show anyway and she was too gracious to step away entirely. However, Lindsay’s reduced involvement means her husband, Tobias Fünke (David Cross), seems adrift for much of these 8 episodes. He’s thrown a storyline about having a long-lost son, Murphy-Brown Fünke (Kyle Mooney), but it echoed too strongly what they’ve already done with Gob (Will Arnett) and his son Steve Holt. Maybe that’s the point and it’s setting up a punchline to come in the remaining batch of episodes.

I have a feeling Hurwitz could make Arrested Development season 6, even if the cast all died in a plane crash.

Indeed, he may have to do it at least without George Snr. (Jeffrey Tambor) next time. If there is a next time, considering the actor’s alleged misconduct on the set of Transparent and his fiery outbursts with screen wife Jessica Walter — which came up during a notorious New York Times interview with the cast. A moment that reflected poorly on Bateman and Hale, who rushed to defend Tambor and downplayed what happened with Walter despite her tearful recollection happening in front of them. There were apologies afterwards, which I’m sure were genuine, but the bad taste stopped the pre-publicity campaign in its tracks. Netflix cancelled the cast’s planned appearances in the UK.

Is this season a return to form? Oddly, no.

I didn’t hate the fourth season as many did, perhaps because I didn’t spend years waiting for it with inflated expectations. I only started watching Arrested Development in 2011, so my first viewings almost dovetailed with its Netflix revival. I thought it was a brave and inventive way of making TV for the ‘binge-watch’ era (back when people were just getting to grips with the possibilities of video-on-demand), and considering all the obstacles the writers still managed to deliver some excellent episodes.

Some of my favourite moments of Arrested Development come from season 4. None of my favourite moments are in season 5… well, so far.

While it’s an undeniable positive to have most of the cast appearing in each episode again, I found my attention drifting more often than not. None of this year’s storylines interested me too much, and the characters themselves weren’t doing anything that had me giggling.

There’s stuff about the Bluth’s awarding themselves a ‘Family of the Year’ trophy that doesn’t go anywhere meaningful, the ‘who killed Lucille 2?’ mystery I expected to define the season is a muddle nobody takes seriously, a big event like Buster going to jail hardly raises an eyebrow, and there are continuing threads from season 4 that make this feel like season 4.5— like G.OB doubting his sexuality because of his Tony Wonder crush, and the fact Michael and his son both dated Rebel Alley, Ron Howard’s (fictional) daughter.

Too much of season 5 feels laboured right now, frankly. Like the joke’s run its course. I remember the thickening plots and ordered chaos of Arrested Development being bracing and devilishly clever to watch unfold, but here I was either confused or vaguely bored. But it was still nice to see these characters, and there are certainly some good moments and amusingly surreal goings-on. Maybe the remaining 8 episodes, due later this year, will find a way to bring this all together — as we’re admittedly only getting half the story right now.

Cast & Crew

writers: Mitchell Hurwitz, Jim Vallely, Richard Day, Evan Mann, Gareth Reynolds & Maggie Rowe.
director: Troy Miller.
starring: Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Alia Shawkat, Tony Hale, David Cross, Jeffrey Tambor & Jessica Walter.

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