As rollouts go, the very short press blitz for the new season of “Arrested Development,” the first eight episodes of which are streaming on Netflix (with more to come at a later date), was downright Bluthian. First, on May 4th, the show’s creator, Mitchell Hurwitz, released a recut version of the experimental and polarizing fourth season, from 2013, turning its original fifteen episodes, which each focussed on a single family member, into twenty-two shorter, more conventional episodes. On Twitter, Hurwitz said that the purpose of the recut was partly artistic, but joked that it was also a nod to commerce, as it bumped the episode total of the series closer to eighty-eight, which is the typical threshold for selling syndication rights. But whatever fan excitement that might have accompanied the release of semi-new “Arrested Development” material was tempered by news from the Hollywood Reporter that members of the cast were in a dispute with the show’s studio, 20th Century Fox Television, demanding that they be paid for the increased-episode count of the rejiggered fourth season.
Then, on May 23rd, during an interview with the Times, Jessica Walter, who plays the gin-pickled Bluth matriarch, Lucille, spoke through tears about the verbal abuse she experienced from her castmate Jeffrey Tambor, who had been fired from the Amazon series “Transparent” after being accused of sexual harassment and bullying by multiple co-workers. (The allegations were made while filming for “Arrested Development” was underway. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, Tambor denied the allegations of sexual harassment but has admitted to onset misbehavior. “Lines got blurred. I was difficult. I was mean,” he said.) “In like almost sixty years of working, I’ve never had anybody yell at me like that on a set,” Walter said of Tambor, who was sitting nearby as part of a group interview. The Times story, owing to the way that Walter’s male co-stars downplayed Tambor’s behavior and seemed to diminish her response to it, went viral—it had all seemed obtuse and awkward and cruel, the kind of thing that’s funny when the Bluths do it on TV, and not funny at all in real life. Amidst swift backlash, the actors Jason Bateman, Tony Hale, and David Cross each apologized for their tone-deaf remarks, and Netflix swiftly cancelled a scheduled press tour in the U.K. Like one of Gob Bluth’s lousy illusions, enthusiasm for the new season, and good will for the show more generally, suddenly went poof.
For those hoping for the smoke to clear, so that they might view the new season simply as itself, Season 5 of “Arrested Development” offers no such easy escape. In the first episode, the narrator, voiced by Ron Howard, describes a scene in which Tambor’s George, Sr., dons a red wig as a disguise. “George, Sr., soon realized his impression of a woman wasn’t going to win him any awards,” Howard says, in a meta-joke about Tambor’s Emmy-winning role as a transgender woman on “Transparent.” “So he took off for Mexico in his trailer to forget his shameful mistakes.”
The series has long made hay of the meta-narratives surrounding it, and often laughed bitterly at its own expense. During its original run, from 2003 to 2006 on Fox, it often commented on its own failure to capture a wider audience and took jabs at the network for not supporting it. Season 4, on Netflix, reused footage from the original series, but watermarked it as the property of Fox. Yet the latest nod to the reality surrounding the show seems flimsy and unfun. Perhaps it is that, in the era of #MeToo, the show lacks the language to address Tambor’s alleged “shameful mistakes.” By its nature, it is dismissive, and petty, and mean. It mocks the very idea of emotional growth or accountability or atonement, which is good for comedy, but bad for catharsis.
Outside events have overtaken the new season in other ways, as well. There is the matter, as with all things these days, of Donald Trump. There’s no hyper-competent Michael or robot-handed Buster (Hale) in the White House, but there are some marked similarities between the Bluths and the current First Family. George, Sr., is a philandering real-estate tycoon. His daughter, Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), is a vapid and phony do-gooder, who supports political causes with her grating and inept husband (Cross) merely to throw parties. His son Gob (Will Arnett) is a preening and insecure disappointment, whose purpose in life seems to be to try, and fail, to earn his father’s love. The family’s motto is “I need a favor.”
The show thrived in its earlier seasons as a satire of Bush-era incompetence and the idiotic malignancy of the Iraq War, largely because the jokes about building McMansions in Iraq or the government mistaking a close-up photograph of testicles for evidence of W.M.D.s (“those are balls”) were so outlandishly surreal. The fourth season, which was released two years before Trump announced his candidacy for President, anticipated his rise with a now uncanny-seeming plot about the Bluths buying land on the border with Mexico and propping up a xenophobic candidate in order to profit by building a wall.
Yet while “Arrested Development” would seem like the perfect show to skewer Trump—Howard’s corrective narration, in which he contradicts the onscreen lies of the family members, has become a meme in the Trump era—joining the resistance would just be a little too on the nose. “We have to deal with the Trump thing, because they were building a wall …” Hurwitz said, in a recent interview with Deadline. (This season shows a clip of Trump’s announcement speech, with Lucille looking on admiringly when Trump claims he’ll get Mexico to pay for the wall. “That is a clever twist,” she says.) But the show does so with glancing blows, taking on the symptoms of Trumpism rather than the man himself. “What emerged was this idea of retreating to the safety of old ideas,” he said, referring to the Trumpist notion of making America great again as a “fear of the future” and a desire to “retreat to familiar experiences.” In Season 4, each of the Bluths had tried to reinvent his or herself by setting out alone and leaving the suffocating resentments of the family behind. Yet, failing on their own, as they so often failed together, “suddenly they were pulled back into the things that ultimately made them unhappy, but that were safer,” Hurwitz said. The world rejected the Bluths as individuals, so they all came home.
And so, this season, they find themselves more or less back to square one. Gob, who has been rendered a bit brain-dead by an addiction to roofies, has been reinstalled as the nominal president of the company. Tobias has returned to his original calling as an analrapist. Michael is, as ever, promising to abandon his family for good—though by now even he has come to notice the joke inherent in his empty threats. Another family member (Buster this time) is in jail—the Bluths have always looked good in prison orange. The whole family has come together to attempt a new bit of public-relations damage control, giving themselves a made-up Family of the Year award. But this is merely a pretense for a renewal of the same old feuds and selfish plots—the same attempts to give each other scares and teach each other terrible lessons. The Bluth ethos has been fully absorbed, too, by a new generation, as Maeby (Alia Shawkat) and her cousin George Michael (Michael Cera) have become the most skilled liars and schemers in the family. (Shawkat, notably, is the star of the new season, donning wigs and makeup to play an elderly woman, and delivering the season’s best lines—“I was just specu-lying”—with a pitch-perfect deadpan.)
Perhaps it is fitting that “Arrested Development” finds itself back where it started—daffy, rough-edged, prickly, and maybe, now, a bit underloved. In 2013, the return of the show was greeted by huge fanfare, marking the completion of its journey from cult status to the mainstream. Yet, when Season 4 came out, it was immediately clear that the show didn’t belong there—it was too self-referential and insular, too experimental, too weird to have true mass appeal. We were never supposed to like the Bluths. This season, they have a new nonsensical motto—“Forget, but never forgive”—which now seems to work on many different levels.