During a Nov. 15 appearance on “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert,” “Arrested Development” star Alia Shawkat revealed that Season 5 of the cult sitcom had just wrapped filming. Unfortunately, that announcement was sandwiched between two dark media scandals featuring members of the show’s ensemble cast.
The first was a series of tweets from comedian Charlyne Yi on Oct. 15, who accused David Cross (who plays eccentric Tobias Fünke) of making racist comments toward her. Cross’ apology was cynical, blaming the incident on playing a “southern redneck character” that she didn’t understand, and lashing out against social media followers who called him out on the incident. Then came two allegations of sexual harassment leveled against Jeffrey Tambor (“Arrested’s” cruel patriarch George Bluth Sr.), one from a former assistant and the other from a fellow “Transparent” actress.
“Arrested Development” has always been a gonzo comedic sandbox — even though it’s packaged like a semi-traditional sitcom, it’s a uniquely dense celebration of wordplay, callbacks, and brilliant cameos ranging from Julia Louis-Dreyfus to Seth Rogen joining in on the fun. But the towering comedic highs are built on a solid foundation of its main cast, the nine-member Bluth family: Tambor, Cross, Shawkat, Jason Bateman, Portia de Rossi, Will Arnett, Michael Cera, Tony Hale, and Jessica Walter.
As an uneven fourth season — in which busy schedules prevented as many scenes in which the ensemble acted together — proved, the rich interconnectedness of the cast’s chemistry and plotting allows for the series to hit its highs. But now, with a cloud of misconduct hovering over two of said cast members, the show’s fifth season could tarnish the show’s legacy.
First off, it’s critical to think of the victims. Netflix was quick to fire Kevin Spacey from “House of Cards,” after allegations of his sexual harassment of numerous people, including some who worked on the show, came to light. That sent the right message to Spacey’s victims, who won’t watch as the actor profits both fiscally and with the heightened profile the show provides. Considering that Tambor’s actions are being taken seriously enough at Amazon to potentially write him out of the fifth season. Here, however, the show is already shot (and scripts long finished). There’s no way to unplug Tambor’s character’s arc without dismantling many other elements.
Comedically, this offscreen behavior from both actors spoils the perfect interconnectedness of the cast, which hinges on lovable actors getting laughs by acting spoiled and self-centered. The cast is able to get away with bad behavior onscreen largely due to riffing on the personas they have created through their careers, from Bateman’s everyman and de Rossi’s debutante to Arnett’s cad. Tambor’s George Sr. is a greedy man, but lovable because he’s portrayed by an actor who was a father figure to the alt-comedy scene, via his portrayal of Hank on “The Larry Sanders Show.” Similarly, Cross was brilliantly cast as the clueless Tobias Fünke because it was such a contrast to his whip-smart standup, and work on “Mr. Show.”
Since so many of these inspired choices work because of their pivot on public perception, they can be torn down because of it, too. George Sr.’s office-womanizing ways become less funny once it becomes clear that the actor, who has a wife and kids, appears to have been engaging in similar behavior at his workplace. Regarding Cross, think of the climax of Season 3 episode “Mr. F,” which spins into a brilliant satire of “Godzilla” movies by flipping a number of stereotypes. The joke lands thanks to tight writing and knowledge that the cast is smart enough to realize they are upending these offensive generalizations. But after learning about Cross’ racist taunting of a woman of color, the scene in which Tobias is stomping around on a model town takes on a more uncomfortable tone:
Modern sitcoms are full of people who let their id do the talking, as it’s liberating to watch the characters from “You’re the Worst” or “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” act out their worst impulses and buck social norms without repercussion. But those series work because it’s generally understood that all of the actors are playing a wholly fictional character. Consequently, a modern-day “Seinfeld” reunion season would be haunted by to Michael Richards’ notorious racist outburst. There’s a reason why Mel Gibson couldn’t star in a “Curb Your Enthusiasm”-esque series: The bad behavior seems all too real and loses any laughs when it appears to amplify how the actor really thinks.
Alt-comedy fans have done a lot of growing up recently, with Louis C.K.’s multiple sexual harassment allegations rightfully taking down one of comedy’s most innovative and experimental minds. At this juncture, it’s hard to see a winning endgame for Netflix. If the show carries on, it’s accused of profiting off of men who harass women. Cut scenes and edit scripts, and that comes at the peril of its unique and tightly wound comedic rhythm. Pull the plug, and it would seem to an unfair punishment to both the cast and crew as well as the fans become collateral damage. Netflix, it’s your move.