Revival culture has had its ups and downs, but here might be the biggest downside for TV fans: acknowledging that once-beloved series were not only better consigned to the past, but haven’t aged well. The latest show to challenge us is “Arrested Development,” and on so many levels, it has proven difficult to enjoy this once-beloved show.
On May 29, just days before the end of Emmys eligibility, Netflix released the first eight episodes of “Arrested” Season 5. Right before that, however, came a now-infamous New York Times interview where the cast (save Portia de Rossi and Michael Cera) opened up about the on-set atmosphere. Inspired by questions regarding star Jeffrey Tambor’s behavior on the “Arrested” set as well as “Transparent,” Jessica Walter said that in her entire career, she’d never been treated as badly as she was treated by the actor. She was even heard audibly crying in the released audio.
Actors are not their characters, of course, but the more you think about Walter crying in front of her male castmates, and them being oblivious (admittedly in the moment) as to what she was going through, strikes a sharp contrast to her role on the show. Lucille remains as biting and crisp as ever, but watching the new episodes, it’s tough to keep reality out of the picture. It’s Lucille Bluth’s job to make the men cry, after all — not the other way around.
A week before the Times interview was published, the vibe of the cast on the red carpet for the Season 5 premiere was decidedly familial, if guarded on certain issues. (Tambor skipped the red carpet except for photos, and no audience questions were taken during the subsequent panel.)
Jason Bateman told the Times that “this is a family and families, you know, have love, laughter, arguments — again, not to belittle it, but a lot of stuff happens in 15 years.” And indeed, many have pointed out that families can be quite dysfunctional and even disruptive. But while that’s always been a component of the show’s comedy from the beginning, seeing it in real life makes the show itself feel less funny.
It isn’t limited to the questions of what really happened on set, though. While Season 5 includes plenty of touches that highlight what were always the show’s greatest strengths (including a rich depth of callbacks and buried references that reward eagle-eyed viewers), it still feels like it’s missing something. And that something may be Maeby Funke (Alia Shawkat) in charge.
In Season 2, happenstance results in Maeby getting a job as a producer at Tantamount Studios, after she turns the coverage she’d made a studio reader write about “The Old Man and the Sea” (to sub as her book report for English class) into the Jude Law-starring adapation “The Young Man and the Beach.”
Over the course of Seasons 2 and 3, we got only the briefest tastes of Maeby’s blossoming career (despite her lack of a high school diploma) but they were true highlights of the show’s early years.
Saeed Adyani / Netflix
What the Maeby-as-studio-exec storyline lent “Arrested Development” was more than just the opportunity to make meta jokes about the silliness of Hollywood (never a hard target). Its razor-sharp commentary on the culture of the industry and all its biases and vulnerabilities was the sort of satire only a deeply-engrained industry veteran could ever execute — which is why we see it so rarely, given how potentially dangerous it could be.
And for the record, that commentary included at least one not-so-subtle poke at the sexual exploitaiton that happens in the industry, after Maeby nimbly shoots down Mort’s (Jeff Garlin) initial advances:
Mort Meyers: Did you get the stack of scripts that I sent you? ’Cause you certainly look well-rested.
Maeby: Marry me.
Mort Meyers: Ha! I need your notes on those tomorrow. You want to have a drink?
Maeby: Yeah. Why don’t we ask your wife to come with us?
Mort Meyers: Okay, then, I’ll see you tomorrow.
What’s so fascinating about that moment is how even to a teenager, what Mort is setting up (though admittedly backing down on quickly) is painfully obvious. It points both to the show’s depiction of Maeby as perhaps the savviest member of the Bluth family… but also serves as a bit of wish fulfillment. For so many women, that sort of suggestion has gone quite differently, with unimaginable costs.
However you might feel about the overall narrative, one of Season 4’s most grievous sins was how it handled Maeby as a character, literally regressing her to the role of unambitious high school student who even gets duped by her underage love interest (only finding out after she technically commits statutory rape).
And while in Season 5, Maeby is back to her con artist ways, her lack of ambition has reduced her to hiding out at an old folks’ home, making fun of how old people struggle with smart phones and trying to avoid having sex with Ed Begley Jr. It makes you miss Maeby at her best, in charge and empowered.
It’s been years since we’ve really seen that version of Maeby. Instead, the show’s focus has been on the Bluth boys’ weird love lives and father issues. They’re all funny at times, but the balance is off, and it makes the ultimate result hard to get enthusiastic about — especially when we think about what happened behind the scenes, and what came before.