When “Arrested Development” was canceled in 2006, it was before the wave of reboots and nostalgia that pop culture is currently riding, and so, even with the possibility of a movie hanging in the Hollywood ether, fans doubted we would ever spend time with the Bluths again. And then something miraculous happened—Netflix resurrected the show for a 15-episode adventure in 2013 and fans were, well, divided. Knowing how difficult it would be to get the entire cast together at the same time, the producers split the season’s narrative up into character-specific episodes. A few of them (Gob, Maeby, Michael) worked better than others (Lindsay, George, Tobias), but all of them lacked two of the elements that elevated the show’s amazing first three seasons: the chemistry of the entire ensemble and the way the writers intertwined their often ridiculous subplots in every episode. The good news about season five, which debuts in two chunks—eight on Tuesday, May 29, and another eight on a future date—is that the entire cast shares several scenes together. Overall, it’s more coherent and consistent than season four (at least the seven episodes I’ve seen) even if it’s not as inspired as the prime of the series. We need to start coming to terms with the realization that it won’t ever be quite that transcendent again, but this season is still often pretty funny.
Critics of season four who consider that year convoluted can point to the recap at the beginning of season five because it takes about a full five minutes to catch us up. Yes, Mitchell Hurwitz and Troy Miller have decided to pick up relatively where that year left off instead of wiping the slate clean, although that’s in keeping with the history of the show—season four started by filling in what happened immediately after the FOX series finale too. Two narratives from season four are key in season five—the fate of Lucille 2 (Liza Minnelli), who was trying to take over the Bluth Company and has now disappeared, and the love triangle with Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), his son George Michael (Michael Cera), and Rebel Alley (Isla Fisher), the daughter of Ron Howard, who plays himself and returns to narrate.
The further that season five gets away from the missteps of season four, the more it works. Most of all, it’s just great to see the whole cast together in several scenes, including some amazing ones in Lucille’s apartment. It really settles in around episode three, which includes an incredible series of Bluth impressions by Tobias and another sexless relationship for Gob. There are way less star cameos as in season four, and even the references feel more organic and less desperate.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the writers spend a lot of time over these seven episodes with Cera and Shawkat, who have developed into fantastic performers on other shows and in film. They’re both great in season five. George Michael trying to be a jerk in episode five to annoy Rebel is perfect—he says, “Take it, jerk” even as he’s tipping (something his grandparents would never do)—and Maeby has another alter ego that allows Shawkat to show off her excellent timing. Of course, Bateman is still the anchor as the man-child who always threatens to leave his family but can never actually do it. As good as Bateman is, he’s arguably too front and center in these seven episodes as some of the supporting characters don’t appear as much as you hope they will. I think Ron Howard has more screen time than Portia De Rossi—they still don’t know what to do with Lindsay in the reboot seasons.
Overall, this feels more like a proper return for the Bluths than season four. The structure allows for more interplay between ensemble members who will forever be associated with these characters, no matter what else they do. It may not be enough for fans burned last year (or those boycotting because of Jeffery Tambor’s alleged behavior on this show and Transparent) to come back into the fold, but there’s more to like here than most modern sitcoms. And just as Michael Bluth can never quite get to Phoenix, it’s difficult to give up on the Bluths forever. I never will. They’re a family built on grudges and unbreakable ties. As Lucille Bluth says, “We forget but we never forgive.” Or something like that.