‘Arrested Development’ season 5 takes strides toward old brilliance

Saeed Adyani/Netflix/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.0/5.0

“Arrested Development” has had a tough time on the air. Its first three seasons, although critically acclaimed, didn’t manage to secure a big enough following for the show to get picked back up by any major network after Fox canceled it.

Even when Netflix picked up its fourth season a decade after the show’s 2003 premiere, “Arrested Development” was plagued by cast scheduling issues. The season was thus presented in an insular format that isolated the characters from one another, a choice ignorant to the fact that the show’s best work resulted from the screwball antics that came from sealing the cast in the same space.

The fourth season is almost as widely reviled as its predecessors are loved. As a result, many viewers went into the fifth season with cautiously low expectations — expectations that weren’t helped by preceding controversy. When Netflix released the first half of the season on May 29, though, its quality was a pleasant surprise. To some extent, the fifth season hasn’t managed to measure up to the first three. Yet by returning to the old format and strategically writing out some of the fourth season’s most lackluster storylines, the fifth season finds its legs, catalyzing the show’s trek back to its legendary former glory.

If season four felt like the house of a hoarder, season five can be compared to the pared-down digs of a KonMari method enthusiast. While side characters have long been a strength of “Arrested Development,” season four went overboard with its bloated plots — enough so that even Terry Crews couldn’t quite make his own storyline feel exciting. By trimming unnecessary side characters away and centering the Bluths to face each other, season five brings back the acclaimed dysfunctional familial interactions of the old “Arrested Development.”

One of the season’s greatest strengths is allowing the characters to grow and develop — especially the youngest ones. On television, children’s growth is often ignored; at best, these characters tend to remain inorganically static. Remarkably, “Arrested Development” figured out how to let its children grow and change realistically.

The interplay of responsible — if overbearing — Michael (Jason Bateman) and his meek, dutiful son George-Michael (Michael Cera) was consistently humorous in the earlier seasons as George-Michael was often steamrollered by his well-intentioned father. As George-Michael entered adulthood, though, he was smartly rewritten into a young man nearing the same devious untruthfulness of his elders. And as usual, Cera’s apt portrayal of George-Michael feels so natural that it’s hard to tell whether he’s playing a character at all.

Arrested Development/Saeed Adyani/Netflix/Courtesy

Saeed Adyani/Netflix/Courtesy

George-Michael’s cousin and long-term love interest Maeby (Alia Shawkat) is now a logical continuation of the chronic liar she was as a young teenager — her cons, now more sophisticated, matured with her. Shawkat’s comedic timing continues to impress in Maeby’s storyline as we watch her grow.

Given her well-executed maturation, however, one of the season’s major disappointments was the fact that Maeby’s storyline leaves her connected to the main family only through George-Michael. Her attempts to sabotage her superficial mother are sorely missed as Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) spends much of the season off camera. George-Michael and Maeby’s oddball romantic tension has always been entertaining, but Maeby’s character works best when she has multiple characters to play off, insult and hoodwink. As a result, both an interesting character and a talented comedian end up completely underutilized.

If the season’s strengths lay in its character dynamics, most of its weaknesses are in its plotting. It’s easy enough to tell that the characters are ramping up toward some great spectacle in the midseason finale. While the spectacle is worth the wait, the awkward pacing leading up to it possesses much less finesse.

To be fair, however, this is only the first half of the season. With any luck, now that major plot points are in play, the pacing in the second half of season five will pick up. With strong character writing already in its arsenal, season five could absolutely still hold up to its predecessors.

Sahana Rangarajan covers TV. Contact her at [email protected].