Watching “Arrested Development” is a lot like hanging out with an old friend. No matter how long you’ve been apart, you’re always happy to see them. And, like spending time with an old friend, that pull of nostalgia and shared memories makes it easy to fall into the same old routine. But at a certain point, the magic begins to fade. You realize you’re not the same person you used to be — you’ve moved on, grown up, grown apart — and no matter how much you love each other, you realize you’re never going to recapture those good old feelings.
The second part of season five of “Arrested” dropped on Netflix March 15, which brought a number of the series’ long-running story arcs to a dark, rushed conclusion that works well enough as a series finale. This may be the last we ever see of “Arrested Development” — if that’s the case, I have no problem with that.
Since its return in 2013, I’ve struggled as a critic to parse the feelings of nostalgia with my ability to objectively assess the show. As excited as I was to see one of my favorite sitcoms of all time resurrected, nothing in the subsequent two seasons — two and a half, if you count the remixed fourth season that corrected showrunner Mitch Hurwitz’s failed fragmented narrative experiment — surpassed what came before it. But at this point, the latter seasons have only served to tarnish the legacy of this once great show.
Part of that tarnishing came last year when the release of the first part of season five was marred by actor Jeffrey Tambor being fired from the Amazon series “Transparent” after allegations of sexual harassment arose. No such action was taken on “Arrested,” despite cast member Jessica Walter’s revelation that Tambor was verbally abusive to her on set, a revelation which was largely (and disappointingly) dismissed by several of the show’s male cast members.
Behind-the-scenes, controversy aside, the fact remains that the new seasons just aren’t that funny. The original run of the series was a masterclass in whip-smart writing elevated by a terrific ensemble cast. The banter was clever and fast. The jokes were dense and layered. The subtle running gags and callbacks that played out in the background demanded repeat viewings.
While season four was largely a dud, season five was a modest improvement that occasionally showed glimmers of past greatness. That improvement was largely due to getting the show’s large ensemble cast back together, rather than write and produce the season to accommodate their busy schedules, as was done with season four. Only Portia de Rossi, who plays Bluth daughter Lindsay, is absent from the second part of season five. (De Rossi has retired from acting to pursue another career in the art world.)
The biggest problem is “Arrested” is stuck in the past in more ways than one. In a temporal sense, the events of the show are happening somewhere around 2015. The many jokes surrounding the Bluth Company’s efforts to build a border wall between the U.S. and Mexico now feel dated and far less politically sharp than they did when the show started this story arc in 2013. Subsequent jokes about Hillary Clinton’s anticipated election victory and Donald Trump being unelectable feel similarly stale.
The nonpolitical humor is also frozen in time. Callbacks to old running gags and beloved background characters like private eye Gene Parmesan (Martin Mull) rely on fan nostalgia rather than delivering fresh jokes.
Worse, a lot of the humor feels outdated in 2019. The series has always had an uncomfortable tendency to veer into insensitive/offensive territory. The less said about Charlize Theron’s season-three arc as Michael Bluth’s (Jason Bateman) mentally challenged but gorgeous love interest the better.
Season five has featured a similarly unfortunate arc about Gob’s (Will Arnett) supposed homosexuality, which runs him afoul of the fictitious Gay Mafia. While not intended to be homophobic, the jokes fall flat, and the attempt at satire is lost.
The Netflix era of “Arrested” has also been bogged down by telling one long main story about George Sr. (Tambor) and Lucille’s (Walter) border wall, which overshadows the rest of the stories, including Buster’s (Tony Hale), suspected murder of Bluth family frenemy Lucille Austero (Liza Minelli) — a much more interesting arc that adds a layer of darkness to Hale’s already off-putting character. Another highlight is Maebe’s (Alia Shawkat) long-con posing as an elderly woman so she can live in a cushy senior community, a fitting and entertaining development for the character that works thanks to Shawkat’s great performance.
This final frame of episodes works as a conclusion to the series, in as much as it ties up a number of storylines. On the plus side, it repairs the fractured relationship between Michael and George Michael (Michael Cera), long the warm heart at the center of the otherwise cynical show, which had been damaged in recent seasons. However, the closing moments of the final episode leaves the show in a dark and confusing place, as a number of revelations about Lindsay, Buster, Lucille and Gob reframe what we knew about the characters.
As a longtime fan, here’s hoping this is the end of “Arrested Development.” I’m an advocate of shows not overstaying their welcome. I know it’s difficult to know when to call it quits — fans, creators, actors all have a vested interest in seeing something they love (and profit from) live forever — but if the returns keep diminishing, as they have here, keeping a show limping along when the creators’ ideas have clearly surpassed their sell-by date only damages the legacy and squanders the goodwill of its previous greatness.