“There’s always money in the banana stand. Where is that from, is that from something?” – Michael Bluth
Let’s talk about the end of Arrested Development. Or rather – let’s talk about the ending of Arrested Development season five, which is also likely to be the end of the show as a whole, because really, where can it go from here?
When the first half of Arrested Development season five first dropped on Netflix, in May last year, it seemed very much as if it was about to become a murder mystery with all of the Bluths as suspects. But as the episodes rolled by it became evident that this wasn’t actually where the focus of the season would lie. Apart from Buster (Tony Hale), who was already in prison, no one really seemed to be under suspicion. The second half of the season, which became available on Netflix earlier this month, was advertised with the tagline ‘One murder. No masterminds.’, from which one might infer that perhaps it was going to focus on the murder after all, but which again turned about to be not quite the case.
No one knew for sure if Lucille Austero (Liza Minelli) was actually dead. It felt probable, knowing the show’s history, that there would be a big fuss and all kinds of confusion and then she’d turn up alive and well at the end of the series and normal service – as normal as the Bluths ever are – would be resumed. And yes, some of the show is about her murder, but it still focuses suspicion solely on Buster, who is eventually acquitted. Then in the very last scene of the show (and thanks, Netflix, for spoilering this with your title cards!) her dead body is revealed and Buster says “I did it.”. Now, let’s be clear: the dialogue and the way that the scene was shot could indeed merely be a set up for a turnaround and a crazy reveal in the next episode. But – it seems unlikely. It seems unlikely that there will be a next episode. And so taking this outcome at face value, it feels less like a haha fooled you! double-bluff and more like a betrayal.
The outcome of the original run of the series was that, contrary to expectations, the Bluths weren’t really the bad guys. Dysfunctional, mean, narcissistic and stupid, yes. But actually evil – no. And as awful as they were, as viewers we kind of liked them. It always felt as though they had some redeeming features, even with all the highly questionable things they did. Even Gob (Will Arnett). Well, OK, maybe not Gob. So to have one of the Bluths actually murder someone – well, it’s pretty horrible. And this seems to be one of the issues with this series: that viewers still need to feel a sense of affection towards or connection to the characters on screen and at this point the Bluths are merely irritating and alienating. Perhaps it was inevitable; they are, after all, a family falling apart, and the set-up of the show requires that they can’t be allowed personal growth. But inevitable or not, it still feels unnecessary.
But without fixating too much on endings (too late!) the other problem with season five is – well, pretty much everything. The structure is too fragmented. The plots are all over the place and they never feel as though they really come together in a totally satisfactory way. The replacement of missing characters with others adds nothing to the show, and the gap left by Portia de Rossi’s Lindsay Bluth is not adequately filled by Maria Bamford’s Debrie Bardeaux or Kyle Mooney’s Murphy Brown, as fine as their performances are. Tobias (David Cross) creating a fake family is one of the many things that sounds good in theory but just doesn’t play out well in practice.
Flashbacks, for example. Although it does eventually become clear why we’re being treated to long, unfunny scenes from the Bluth kids’ childhoods, it still doesn’t validate their inclusion. We know that the Bluth kids turned into the monsters they are because of their terrible parents. We never needed this to be made explicit because it was right there in their current actions. If these scenes are only there for the implications of the Buster storyline then it just seems like bad storytelling. And where is the comedy? Dark and caustic set against levity is fine, but cruelty without comedy does not a sitcom make.
The other use of flashbacks is as a recap of what the viewer has literally just seen, with narration over them in case you are really stupid, or really not paying attention. And speaking of narration, why – WHY? – do we need the jokes explained to us. At the end of episode nine, George Senior (Jeffrey Tambor) tells Lucille “I’m going to have a ball” and in the next scene we see him hiring an inflatable ball. You make the connection and it’s amusing. So do we really need narration that explains “He was having a ball!”? Geddit! GEDDIT!? No, seriously – do you get it? Because I can explain it to you if not… Contrast this with the genius of the original run’s throwaway Lucille/loose seal gags, and the images of hands everywhere just before Buster loses his, and the true extent of what Arrested Development has lost becomes clear.
But not everything is quite so heavily handled and certain aspects of the writing do indeed have a lighter touch, where the humour is quick and keen. There are some genuinely good moments, and some of it, thankfully, still feels like the show that we know and love. Michael Cera and Alia Shawkat are absolute stars as George-Michael and Maeby, with flawless performances and actually some good material to work with. Sadly some of the other cast members seem to have lost their sharpness, and although this is in part down to the quality of the script perhaps that’s not all it is.
In my increasingly despairing reviews of the first half of the season I said that Arrested Development can’t just be people being mean to one another, it has to be funny too, and aside from its structural mess this really is season five’s main failing. It now mostly just feels tired and lazy. And this is where Arrested Development is a victim of its own success, because a weaker show would not be held to such high standards and could possibly get away with a three or even four star review for what it has created here. But shows have to be judged by the bar they have previously set themselves and this one is just nowhere near reaching it. You made a huge mistake, Arrested Development. Goodbye forever.