From its premiere in 2003 until its cancellation in 2006, Arrested Development became one of those TV shows that transcended its own medium into a unique type of cultural importance. Even the “I don’t watch TV” crowd watched Arrested Development. It was a daring experiment in episodic TV, with mathematically intricate storylines, deeply layered running gags, and an affinity for puns that’s only recently been overtaken by NBC’s The Good Place.
Arrested Development challenged the notion that audiences weren’t smart enough to pay attention and pick up on the details. Its audience rose to that challenge unequivocally. Though it never really killed in the ratings, it boasted one of the most passionate fanbases of its era. Had it been around long enough to see the rise of social media, it could’ve found a new audience. Instead, the show lived on through countless GIFs, quotes, and video clips.
Netflix decided it was bringing the show back, and premiered the fourth season back in May 2103. Its approach to storytelling had changed entirely. It was the same Bluth family, but now spent entire episodes dedicated to a single character’s perspective. It didn’t go over super well.
The problem with season four was that it was too ambitious. A four-dimensional string of episodes designed specifically around the still-burgeoning binge-watching phenomenon, it suffered from debilitating pacing problems and episodes that were uneven in both tone and length. Still, once it got going, it was a compelling experiment. It just took five or six episodes to get there.
Recently, creator Mitch Hurwitz re-cut season four into 22 tightly-packaged episodes, now dubbed “Fateful Consequences,” to try to retrofit his grand experiment into an almost network-ready package. Now in chronological order (more or less) he even spliced in pauses for would-be commercial breaks, despite the fact it’s a Netflix series. While it seemed to be a ploy to win back over so many viewers that were alienated by season four’s initial run, its true purpose was to get viewers acclimated to the series’ would-be return to form with season five.
Devoid of most of its subtleties, season five relies heavily on what “Fateful Consequences” sets up. Mainly, the Bluths foray into politics. Given that the Bluth family were initially a thinly veiled allegory for the Bush family, it would make sense to weave the current political climate into the storyline. Especially considering that much of season four revolved around the planned construction of a U.S./Mexico border wall.
Rather than take a more nuanced approach, which Arrested Development used to be known for, the show puts Trump’s 2016 campaign front and center. While much of popular entertainment has woven its stories around that of the current administration, here it comes off as needlessly obtuse.
Similarly, Ron Howard’s back playing himself as well as providing the narration, and boy does season five like to point that out. Again and again. And again. Serving as the ultimate reminder of how far the show has strayed from its original sense of humor.
Beyond that, while season five mostly succeeds at imitating its earlier seasons, fails to deliver in its own right. Sure, there are great moments, thanks to the actors’ individual strengths and unique on-screen chemistry, but I watch it twice and am still struggling to figure out what exactly it was “about.”
Ultimately, it’s Maebe’s storyline that ends up standing out, mostly because Shawcat seems to be having the most fun with it all. The ever-changing dynamic between her and her cousin, George Michael (Michael Cera), remains one of the show’s most oddly sweet storylines. Despite it all the nefarious activity that it entails.
Still, looking at “Fateful Consequences” leading straight into the show’s fifth season, it’s hard not to see it as background noise. The kind of show you put on in the background while you do literally anything else besides pay attention to it. These are characters that we loved at one point, despite (or because of) the fact that they were all genuinely terrible people. Now they’re just vague caricatures of their former selves, squabbling their way through a plot that’s overly-contrived but under-delivers.
It also doesn’t help that the actors who play these genuinely terrible characters aren’t exactly handling the allegations against co-star Jeffrey Tambor very well. Such a recent, and very public, PR blunder, isn’t exactly winning back any fans who might have jumped the stair car along the way.
Fifteen years ago, this was the show that pushed the limits of the medium, a pre-Peak TV entry that expected more out of its audience — and got it. Now, it’s a faded version of its former self. A once-great experiment on the small-screen now running on fumes, parading out a familiar roster of characters delivering familiar taglines like a rock band touring on a greatest hits album.
Arrested Development Season 5 is currently available to stream on Netflix