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Josh Reviews Arrested Development Season Five!

September 16th, 2020

After watching the re-edited version of Arrested Development’s fourth season, which I found surprisingly good, I was excited to move on and watch the fifth season, which I’d never seen despite being a huge fan of the series.   Netflix released season five in two parts: the first eight episodes were released in May, 2018, while the final eight were released in March, 2019.  I’ve now seen them all.  I wish I had a better report to share.

I strongly believe the three original seasons of Arrested Development stand proudly among the pantheon of the greatest TV comedies ever crafted.  Those three seasons are near-perfect television, and they give me endless pleasure whenever I rewatch them (which is fairly often).  The series was resurrected by Netflix in 2013 for a fourth season that not many people liked.  I think I liked that season more than most (click here for my original review), but it was clear that it was an enormous step down from the brilliance of the original run.  An all-time great TV comedy had become merely good.

A major problem with season four was its structure.  Creator and showrunner Mitch Hurwitz was brave in experimenting with the structure of the show, leaning into the possibilities to be found in the brand-new-at-the-time idea of a streaming service releasing a complete season of a show all at the same time.  He also had to deal with the logistical problem that the series’ stars were now all successful performers in their own right, busy with their own projects, and so not all available to be in the same place at the same time to film the new season.  And so the fourth season of Arrested Development was structured so that each episode focused on a single Bluth character, off on their own adventure.  This might have been an interesting idea on paper but I felt the execution suffered.  This structure robbed the series of one of its greatest joys: seeing this ensemble bounce off of one another.  (It also revealed a flaw that many of the Bluth characters couldn’t sustain their own episode.)

I was surprised and pleased to see that, around the time when the first half of season five was released, Mr. Hurwitz completely re-edited season four, turning fifteen often-lengthy solo-character episodes into twenty-two normal-length episodes each featuring many if not all of the Bluth family ensemble.  I have never heard of a full series of TV being so substantially reworked!!  I thought this was a great idea and I quite enjoyed watching this new version.  It was still a far cry from the greatness of the three original seasons, but it felt far more like the show than the very different original season four had.

And so I was excited to move on and watch season five, which I’d thought had been generally well-received and described as a major step up from season five.  (Looking back at some reviews now after having watched the season and written my own review, I see that the latter half of that statement might have been true, but the first one not so much.  It seems most critics quite disliked this season.  Sadly I can understand why.)

I am very bummed to report that I thought that season five of Arrested Development was mediocre at best.  I’m not sure the season is better even than the original season four.  That at least felt like it had some energy and original ideas, even if I didn’t think the execution worked.  These new episodes do “feel” more like the show than the original season four episodes do.  I’d say they’re at about the same level of quality as the re-edited season four episodes.  They flow relatively smoothly from those restructured season four episodes, and they feel mostly consistent in style and tone.  I enjoyed watching these season five, and I laughed a lot.  But taken as a whole, I am sad to say that they were a let-down.  These episodes are nowhere near the quality of the original seasons.  And the ending of the season was, for me, a complete disappointment.  (More on that below.)

What works?  This cast is, as always, terrific, and it’s a delight seeing these great actors back inhabiting these characters.  The season is structured to try to keep the main ensemble involved in each episode, which was the right choice.  I thought Maeby wasn’t well-used in season four (and unfortunately in the re-edited version, because of how her original stories were structured, she’s absent from large chunks of the season), but I was pleased she had so much fun stuff to do here in season five.  (Her scam of pretending to be an old lady living in a retirement village was terrific, and gave her a lot of fun things to do.  I was also happy to see her back together for a number of scenes with George Michael, with her generally giving him terrible advice as to how to run his FakeBlock company.)  I quite enjoyed the flashback scenes that ran through the final few episodes, showing Michael, Buster, Lindsay, and GOB as kids.  (Cobie Smulders was fantastic as a younger version of Lucille!!)  There were lots and lots of great moments and gags, from Tobias’ many new weird looks (the way he painted his mustache orange/pink to try to hide it so he could imitate Michael was a classic) to the many new different types of hands/appendages given to Buster (including but not limited to: a super-large hand, a robotic Terminator-looking hand, an African-American man’s hand, and a foot).  I’m happy that maritime law came back into play.

Dermot Mulroney was hilarious as Dusty, a beach-bum former lawyer with whom Lucille strikes up a relationship.  I was pleased to see Ben Stiller back as Tony Wonder, and his possible death-by-concrete was a great mid-season cliffhanger moment.  (Even though, like many of this season’s stories, it was milked for a long while and then wrapped up way-too-quickly at the very end of the finale.)  I like seeing both Stan and Sally Sitwell (Ed Begley Jr and Christine Taylor) again, as well as Kitty (Judy Greer) and Barry Zuckerkorn (Henry Winkler) and Steve Holt (Justin Grant Wade) and Gene Parmesan (Martin Mull) and many other familiar faces.  I laughed a lot at D.A. Lottie Dottie (Frances Conroy), another terrific Arrested Development silly character name.  In that same category: I enjoyed Lt. Toddler (a very funny Rebecca Drysdale), who was investigating Buster.  I was happy to get one final appearance by the late James Lipton as Warden Gentles.

What doesn’t work?  First of all, it often seemed to me that the show had lost the sense of how to use these characters.  I am all for taking TV characters in new directions rather than having them forever be stuck in amber.  But watching season five I often found myself thinking that the show didn’t really know what to do with many of the characters.  Michael had gone from being the likable every-man at the center of the show to just as flighty and irresponsible and self-centered as all the other Bluths.  (This as a problem in season four as well.)  George Senior basically turned into Oscar — which could have been a funny idea, but as executed resulted in his spending most of the season sad, depressed, and ineffectual, none of which wound up being very funny.  Lucille seems to get more irredeemably evil, to the point that the show suggests for a long stretch that she might have killed her own mother.

And while the return to the ensemble structure was great, there were some large holes.  Buster vanished for long stretches of the season (they wrote him into being in prison; was this to cover his lack of availability?) and, even weirder, Lindsay is basically not in the season at all.  She appears in a handful of scenes early on, during most of which which she is clearly and obviously green-screened in and wasn’t actually there with the other actors.  Then she completely vanishes from the show until the finale, where she pops up for less than a minute.  It’s super-bizarre.

The obviously-green-screened-in Lindsay leads me to my next critique, which is that I was stunned at the often amateurish level of the production.  Over and over-again we got scenes in which the actors’ dialogue had obviously been overdubbed, giving us lots of scenes where the actors’ mouth-movements clearly didn’t match what we were hearing.  This was jarring and kept taking me out of the show.  Worse than the obvious overdubs were the many painfully obvious ploys that were (unsuccessfully) used to try to mask that.  (For example, there’s a long scene in one episode in which Michael is driving his car, and it looks like a glare has been CGIed onto the windshield over his mouth, so we can never see his mouth move — presumably so they could ADR new dialogue onto the scene.  Also, there are quite a number of scenes in which someone talks to Buster in a small room outside where his trial is happening, and the scenes are shot from outside a frosted glass window so, again, we can’t really see the actors’ faces so that dialogue could be ADRed in.  These are just two of many examples.)  There are also lots and lots of scenes in which characters pretty clearly weren’t in the same room but were put together through CGI and/or editorial trickery, and also scenes in which techniques were used to try to show a story event (such as all the business around Lucille 2’s possibly getting killed on the stair-car and falling down the steps) but the result wound up seeming, to me at least, unfinished and unconvincing.  I fully understand that it must have been a herculean challenge to try to assemble this busy cast, and I’m sure this show didn’t have the an unlimited production budget.  But still, this is a big-time show for a major streaming platform.  I’ve got to believe they could have done better.  I am scratching my head as to what went down here.

But my biggest disappointment was in how everything seemed to just fizzle at the end.  Despite being cancelled, the original series finale (“Development, Arrested,” which wrapped up season three) was a spectacular ending to the series. It was a fun and funny episode on its own, and it brought satisfying closure to so many of the characters and story-lines.  Sadly, the season five finale does neither.  Many storylines are either wrapped up super-quickly or ignored altogether.  In the former category go stories such as Buster’s trial — I’m not quite certain how Buster or Michael manage to walk away scott-free after everything that goes down.  After many episodes suggesting that either Lucille murdered her mother and pinned it on Buster or that young Buster himself did the crime and that Lucille covered it up (both disturbing possibilities that make Lucille look bad), it all gets quickly swept under the rug with a very fast Lucille-loved-everyone-all-along ending that doesn’t make much sense to me (I’d have to rewatch that last episode to better understand what exactly DID happen with Lucille’s mom) or feel emotionally satisfying.  Speaking of unresolved murders, season four ended with a cliffhanger regarding the apparent murder of Lucille 2.  Strangely, although that mystery weaves throughout season five, the season (and, most likely, the series) ends without ever resolving the question of what happened to Lucille 2 — and they actually double down on the mystery in a very bizarre sort-of cliffhanger at the very end of the finale!  It’s such a weird choice.  I can’t understand it.  Did they think, when making this, that there would be a season six?  (Because it seems hugely unlikely now.)  I’m reminded of the very unsatisfying choices made at the end of The X-Files’ short two-season relaunch run a few years ago.  That show also missed out on the opportunity for long-awaited closure and gave fans an “ending” that posed all sorts of questions will likely never be resolved.

It’s hard to think of a story-line that WAS wrapped up successfully!  The season-long story-line of Lucille and George Senior’s split wasn’t resolved; we don’t know if they got divorced or got back together or what.  We never really saw a resolution to George Senior’s crisis of confidence.  I have no idea the state of the Bluth Company or Sudden Valley or FakeBlock after all of the shenanigans went down.  I don’t really understand if Lindsay won or lost her election, or where she’d disappeared to, or if the Bluths’ wall ever was or wasn’t going to get built.  (Those storylines were also a victim of a few two many back-and-forth reversals over the course of the season.)  I have no idea what happened to either Stan or Sally Sitwell in the end.  I wish we’d gotten better wrap-up with Ron Howard and Rebel (Isla Fisher) and what happened with the movie or TV project based on the Bluth family.  I think Michael and George Michael reconciled at the end, but it seems like that happened off-camera, and we don’t really know what happened to them.  (Was that them in the stair-car in the long-shot at the very end?  Was that stair-car driving AWAY from the family, or back to them?  I can’t believe this wasn’t clear!)  Was that George-Michael and Maeby making out in the final moments of the show?  (We saw a quick-cut-away from afar, featuring two sort of blurry people who were likely stand-ins.)  Why wasn’t that made clear??  Sigh.  Had the season’s many story-lines been pulled together in a satisfying way, that might have elevated what came before.  But the way the storylines mostly just drop makes me feel like none of this was worth it.

Perhaps my expectations are being too high?  I suppose that could be.  But on the other hand, I wasn’t coming into this season as a hater.  I was excited and was in a mind-set of really wanting to enjoy these episode.  In many ways, I did!  As I write this, I am trying to remind myself that, despite the huge let-down of the finale, I did laugh a lot at the episodes that had come before.  This review has come off as so negative, but I do still love this show and these characters and I got a lot of joy from these sixteen new episodes.  I’m glad they exist.  But I have to admit that they’re not what I’d hoped they would be.

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