Too much of a good thing is well and truly a curse. If you need proof, you only need to turn to television. Time and time again, fresh ideas with talented casts have their legacies tarnished by diminishing returns. Shows like Community that redefined television when they began, but didn’t know when to call it quits, die the cruelest death of all: a quiet one. The final season of Community isn’t even that bad, but it fell so steeply from its peak that no one was even around to see it.
It’s with a heavy heart that I admit the same fate seems to be on the cards for Arrested Development. Not that this is much of a surprise. The original three seasons from the early 2000s still hold up as some of the funniest, most intelligent programming ever conceived. It felt like it was made for the Netflix era, but a decade early. Jokes loop back around between episodes in the way that rewards binge watching and repeat viewing. So when Netflix revived it in 2013, it seemed like a match made in heaven.
Unfortunately, it was not. Season four of Arrested Development was beset by scheduling conflicts and lackluster story ideas. The final result didn’t feel anything like the original show. The aforementioned scheduling conflicts meant that each episode focused on a specific character, with very few moments where the Bluth family come together. The dynamics between the main cast are what make the show so special, and season four almost entirely disposed of it. The show even looked and felt completely different. The move to high definition cameras completely changed the show’s aesthetic, which has more of an effect than you might expect. Coupled with the strangely slow pace of the season and the lack of imagination compared to the original run, this makes season four feel… fake. Not even a lazy version of the show we loved like The Simpsons. It didn’t feel like the same show at all.
Season five (the first half of which released last summer, with the final eight episodes released just last week) feels like a step towards the right direction. The main cast spends more time together, storylines are more interesting and there’s more room for some great elaborate jokes and setpieces. These new episodes especially seem to be making more of an effort to capture the spirit of the old show. The bulk of the plot focuses on the Bluth family and any indulgences outside of that are worthy of the time. One of the few brilliant moments in season four is Gob (Wil Arnett) and his bizarre revenge-scheme-turned-romance with his magician rival Tony Wonder (Ben Stiller). They’ve done well to keep this plotline up as it’s the only thing irreverent and downright funny enough to fit into the original show (especially season three, almost the entirety of which was dedicated to James Bond parodies and mocking the British). In fact, Gob is the closest Arrested Development comes to its past glories, by virtue of how committed they are to the silliness. A close second is the Bluth company antics, always a staple of the show and finally back here in full force. In many moments it seems like Ron Howard and Mitch Hurwitz have remembered what made their show so special. Beneath the hilarious wordplay and brilliant use of editing is nothing more than a brilliant sense of character. Arrested Development is ultimately about seven self-obsessed jerks trying their best to be a family. The moments where season five leans into that are easily its best. This is surprisingly also true of the scenes at the start of some episodes which depict a young Bluth family in their summer home which, while relatively short on laughs, provide some genuinely interesting story beats and show off guest star Cobie Smulders, who plays Lucille Bluth almost as well as the great Jessica Walter herself.
But it still feels off somehow. I can’t shake the feeling that even the people making Arrested Development have stopped caring. There’s a certain sloppiness that hasn’t existed in the past and is hard to excuse when a giant like Netflix is funding your show. Almost half the shots are ruined by appalling-looking green screen, for a start. Netflix also makes Stranger Things; it’s baffling to me that no one was available to make these effects look cleaner, especially when there are so many scenes that rely on editing effects (and actually look very good). Not that anything can excuse atrocious camera angles that defy reason. So many shots are covered by random body parts; the back of a head, or shoes for instance. This show didn’t need to be as beautiful as Twin Peaks, but this season looks outright ugly at some points. The same goes for audio editing: some lines of dialogue have been blatantly overdubbed and no apparent attempt has been made to hide it.
Which is why, in spite of how great season five can be in bursts, it’s just hard to be invested in it. Arrested Development has died of old age. Only half the cast is pulling their weight and it just isn’t enough. Walter continues to be a national treasure. Michael Cera and Wil Arnett have also continued to be brilliant. But it’s not enough. Even Howard’s narration, one of the cornerstones of the show’s comedy, has become lazy. Instead of building on plot points and jokes he’s just explaining them over and over again. There’s a moment in the newest episodes (which, by the sounds of it, will likely be the last) where Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman) utters a familiar line: “there’s always money in the banana stand.” For three years, this line defined the show. It’s iconic and it never fails to get a laugh out of an audience that already loves the show. But then Michael quietly wonders where it’s from. The main character of Arrested Development can’t even remember where the show’s catch phrase came from. I don’t think the writers realized how telling that joke wa