Arrested Development: season five review – offscreen drama mars modest recovery

There are moments in the new series that recall the glory days of the Bluth clan, but a recent interview incident may make it difficult for viewers to stomach

The Bluths are back – if not quite on form then at least a lot closer to it than last time we saw them.

For the uninitiated: the Bluths are the dysfunctional, once-wealthy, morally-then-actually bankrupt family whose adventures were first charted via a chaotic, fragmented mixture of narration, dialogue, handheld camerawork, flashbacks and flashforwards, offbeat, onbeat and unquestionably surreal jokes in three glorious seasons – 2003-06 – of the sitcom Arrested Development. Never normal enough to become a big hitter, the fine work of creator Mitchell Hurwitz, executive producer (and omniscient narrator) Ron Howard and the ensemble cast became a cult hit.

Jason Bateman anchored the whole thing as Michael, perhaps the only sane, ethical Bluth, trying desperately to keep the family ship afloat. Alas, the rest of his relatives were bent on holing it beneath the waterline. From a narcissist (sister Lindsay, played by Portia di Rossi) and a con artist (father and head of the Bluth Corporation George, played by Jeffrey Tambor) to a delusional misfit (brother and failed magician Gob, played by Will Arnett), a mummy’s boy (brother Buster, played by Tony Hale), a sociopath (Jessica Walter, as mother Lucille, the quintessence of Wasp savagery) and a pair of dreamers (Michael’s sweet son George Michael – portrayed by Michael Cera, the sweet son of all comedy muses – and Alia Shawkat’s Maeby, the daughter of Lindsay), the Bluth clan were the gift that kept on giving.

Watch the trailer for season five.

If I am lingering too long on the golden age, forgive me. What came next, in 2013, was a poorly judged, overambitious season four, the 15 bloated (largely single-character, to accommodate the actors’ many commitments) episodes of which were remixed into 22 more standard instalments earlier this month to little better effect. What has happened in the past week or so – more of which later – is arguably worse.

Season five – the first eight episodes of which were released on Tuesday – is … not too bad. It is fine. It has, as the mystery of Lucille Two’s disappearance begins to force the Bluths to intersect again, despite Michael’s increasing weariness, moments that recall the glory days. These are usually in the fleeting realisations, hopes and despairs that cross Bateman’s perfect everyman face and in lines such as “I can hear Mother blinking”, as well as in Lucille’s ongoing intellectual struggle with how her “put all rapists and murderers on one island together” solution to society’s ills would pan out. But the pacing is off, the chemistry not quite what it was. Too many lines that once would have been oblique, glancing, featherlight suggestions now stomp on to the screen and shout their arrival before collapsing fatally in a heap. Gob and George faking libidinous intent on a Mexican road trip was particularly painful.

Michael Cera in Arrested Development
Michael Cera in Arrested Development. Photograph: Saeed Adyani/Netflix

Not as painful, of course, as what has unfolded offscreen. In an extraordinary publicity interview with the New York Times, a reporter alluded to a reference Tambor had made elsewhere about losing his temper with Walter, who confirmed the incident, noting that in 60 years of working she had “never had anybody yell at me like that on a set”. Bateman and other male co-stars then defended Tambor and attempted to smooth over the incident as Walter became tearful. Bateman has since apologised, but it is an astonishing vignette that spawned outcry and forensic dissections of the many vexed contemporary issues it encapsulates.

Does it – should it – affect our viewing of the programme? Some people will be able to bifurcate things perfectly. The art is one thing, its creators are another and never the twain shall meet during the 27 minutes of each show. For others – including me – the division is more porous. I watched the five preview episodes before the story broke, but I find it hard to envisage sufficiently suspending my disbelief to enjoy the rest. I don’t need actors to be saints, but listening to a group of men gloss over the distress of a female colleague in favour of supporting the man who admits her claim reveals so much about them – and about us – that I think I may be done.


Lucy Mangan

The GuardianTramp

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