[Editor’s Note: The following review contains spoilers for “Arrested Development” Season 5, Part 1, including the ending.]
By the time the first half of “Arrested Development” Season 5 draws to a close, one thing is clear: For better or worse, Mitch Hurwitz’s show is trapped in the past. Viewers can take that literally (since events take place during 2015) or figuratively, given how many of the new season’s jokes are callbacks to classic quips from the original series.
The past can work to the series’ advantage — like when George Michael (Michael Cera), thinking Murphy Brown died, exclaims “Fuck you, 2015!” as if that was a bad year (cough2016cough) — but it’s also an additional problem. Given all that’s happened off camera with “Arrested Development,” it’s impossible not to bring some of those feelings into watching the new season, especially when Hurwitz invites them in with gags about Jeffrey Tambor’s role on “Transparent.” More troubling for longtime admirers of “AD” is the New York Times’ recent interview detailing Tambor’s verbal abuse of Jessica Walters, which forces fans to consider if some of their favorite scenes were created while one (or more) of these actors suffered.
These reactions are going to hit everyone differently. While television is subjective in general, outside circumstances like these polarize personal opinions more than just about anything the internal narrative could do. Will some people no longer be able to watch “Arrested Development”? Absolutely, and they’re 100 percent in the right to make that choice. Will others still find a way to enjoy watching the new season? Yes again, and that’s OK, too. So perhaps the only way to accurately judge if the season is a success — on its own, onscreen merits — is remembering what scenes made you laugh; scenes that successfully transported viewers to a blissful state of entertainment without relying on past yuks to draw out nostalgic goodwill.
This critic would argue there are enough of these moments to make Season 5 a solid upgrade on Season 4. The callbacks aren’t eyeroll-inducing, and the new material is stronger, smarter, and just plain funnier than before. Still, what’s here isn’t necessarily enough of a step forward to ensure a full-on return to form — not yet, and perhaps not ever. Only the first half of the season is available now, thus implying at least eight more episodes, but one has to wonder if that will be the end of the road, for reasons onscreen and off.
But let’s start with how “Arrested Development” improved from its old self. As mentioned in our spoiler-free review, the first episode of Season 5 (“Family Leave”) is the only one that’s insufferably clunky. So many character arcs need rejiggering and so much smoothing over needs to be done to get things back on track it’s honestly impressive only one episode gets hung up on Season 4’s broken bones. To frame Episode 1’s faults, think about how much narration is in the last episode vs. the first — Ron Howard’s lines have to be down at least 50 percent.
The course correction is worth the growing pains. Michael (Jason Bateman) slowly switches gears from a conniving man-child back to the mature moral center he typically strives to be. His main objectives are to figure out what happened to Lucille Two (so he can protect the family from itself, per usual) and to repair the relationship with his son, George Michael. These are classic Michael character choices, and his recurring promise to leave the family and never come back earns a couple of laughs at the sake of the past, instead of because of it. The first big success of the season comes when Buster (Tony Hale) surprises Michael in the attic, as Hale’s masterful turn as the ultimate mother’s boy (Motherboy?) continues to impress.
Herein begins a streak of consistently funny moments from cast members who haven’t been (or become) problematic. Hale’s Buster gets sent to prison and hearing him mention joining the “blacks only” table at “recess” is more than enough reason to put him in an orange jumpsuit for a few episodes. Lucille No. 1 (Jessica Walters) refuses to visit him there, which creates a welcome buildup that pays off in their first prison meeting during the 5A finale. Meanwhile, Walters is given ample opportunity to play the mysterious puppet master who may or may not know that Lucille Two may or may not be alive. Her dominance of an estrogen-infused George Senior (Jeffrey Tambor) feels like fitting onscreen payback for their offscreen issues (at least as fitting as can be, given it’s all fake).
That being said, two characters stand out in terms of bringing the laughs: Maeby (Alia Shawkat) gets back into the long-con game, first taking a trip to Mexico with George Michael and an unrecognized Steve Holt (Justin Grant Wade), and later infiltrating Lucille Two’s retirement home by pretending to be an elderly woman. Where Season 4 struggled to progress Maeby beyond her role as an underage film executive (which had to happen since the joke doesn’t work when she’s old enough to actually do the job), Season 5 finds a sweet spot for Maeby’s questionable morals (thanks to her absentee parents) and expert conning. Her wig, her outfits, her feigned ignorance of all things technical after being nicknamed “Buttons” — it’s all very, very funny, and Shawkat plays it incredibly well. She even elevates the tricky, un-P.C. bits, like saying goodbye to Fox and Friends and preferring to sleep with an underage boy vs. an over-aged man.