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In its season premiere, Arrested Development strains to find a new start

Illustration for article titled In its season premiere, Arrested Development strains to find a new start
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The last new episode of Arrested Development debuted a little more than five years ago, which isn’t as long as the gap between seasons three and season four (seven years and change there) but is still a significant amount of time. And so “Family Leave” can’t be blamed for indulging in a little catch-up, even if the mode of TV distribution the fourth season helped to usher in is implicitly designed to eliminate the need for such things. It’s a full five minutes (plus some awkward sound mixing between Ron Howard’s voiceover and the flashback audio) before season five is really rolling, and even then, we’re still back in time: After the introduction of Michael’s latest, sure-to-fail plot to rid himself of the Bluths, the bulk of “Family Leave” plays out in the immediate aftermath of the family’s momentous Cinco De Cuatro, rehashing enough story threads that I wound up feeling like the one who was hungover and/or punched in the face.

It’s a weird episode, beholden to the story Arrested Development told last time around, while doing the work to reconnect the show with its ensemble-forward past. It’s in the spirit of the Fateful Consequences remix, but if you’re coming to “Family Leave” immediately after “Cinco De Cuatro III,” you’re getting updates on events that are still fresh in your mind. The script seems to tacitly soothe any impatience this might breed with Michael’s almost-parting words to Lieutenant Toddler (Rebecca Drysdale): “I think it’s worth the wait.”

With the family scattered once more—most of the Bluths are either in Mexico or on the way there—Michael hatches a scheme to get them back to Orange County. For reasons of… extreme pettiness, I guess? The Forget-Me-Now is dulling any sense of urgency he might have about Lucille II’s disappearance, causing him to drop suspicious evidence all around Balboa towers, from the vaguely threatening note he leaves on the penthouse door to the wig in his messenger bag. Unlike “Family Leave,” he has no recollection of Cuatro, and therefore no impulse to get the hell out of Dodge beyond the usual desire to flee his family. But this is one instance where George Sr., Lucille, GOB, Lindsay, and Tobias have beat him to the punch.

“Family Leave” moves in narrative fits and starts, with no good sense of where this is all going. It’s like GOB and George Sr. (apprehensively engaging in some sex tourism to prove their straight, male virility) and Lucille and Tobias (setting up therapy shop down Mexico way after an escape from Austerity) have all been sidelined south of the border while the show figures its Michael shit out, but he just winds up going around in circles. The brightest spots of the premiere are those that attempt to deal with the direst of season-four consequences: Buster’s eventual arrest for Lucille II’s murder, and George Michael socking his father in the face. Michael’s discovery of a wet-suited Buster in the attic is the clip Tony Hale couldn’t find the right words to describe on Conan, and it really is Arrested Development at its difficult-to-describe best: The brief sentiment of Michael’s father-son scuba memories interrupted by pratfalls, the visual non sequitur of Buster in the gear, and the perfectly Buster conclusion that an aqualung would prevent him from gagging on bug poison.

Like the phone call between George Michael and Maeby (“One of those double-headed bondage things with the curly choke leash.” “That’s probably a landline.” “Ew, gross. She put her ear on that ?”), the scene in the attic is what I want more of from Arrested Development. This is what got me into the show in the first place: Zippy writing, big characters, strong performances, relationships twisted beyond repair. When those pieces shine through, I’m reminded why I’m still watching the show, why I greeted news of a fifth season with great anticipation. There’s no other show that could do that tangent about Dad Fights and its spinoff series, That’s What, Son; there’s nowhere else to get that Lucille-Tobias switcheroo where she starts out ridiculing the beachgoers and ends up talking about Tobias—who winds up out there, among the beachgoers.

But that’s few and far between in “Family Leave,” an episode that’s 85 percent establishment and reestablishment, and seemingly constructed to deliver information and jokes before fading away over the course of your season-five binge. It’s not the show putting its best foot forward, but there is some promise of a best foot yet to come. Arrested Development just needs to get over the stories it’s already told, and move on to the ones it’s telling this time around. And who knows: Maybe it’ll be worth the wait after all.


Stray observations

  • Hello, and welcome to The A.V. Club’s complete coverage of Arrested Development’s fifth season, which will be rolling out over the next few days. Between this lackluster opener, the New York Times interview, and the sexual harassment allegations against Jeffrey Tambor, I’m all mixed-up about the show’s return. It’s a deeply important show to me, and I really admire the boldness with which season four waded into the uncharted waters of streaming. But I worry that the show is running out of story to tell, and any Tambor-based misgivings I have are being complicated by a plot that has George Sr. and GOB tomcatting around in Mexico (even if it is an overcompensating type of tomcatting that makes the Bluth men the butt of the joke). Let’s all work through these feelings together, shall we? I’ve found these articles, the first by Linda Holmes and the second by Matt Zoller Seitz, helpful on that count.
  • Speaking of George Sr.: Oof, that “his impression of a woman wasn’t going to win him any awards” joke. Would’ve left that one on the cutting-room floor.
  • In the most recent Balboa Bachelor Auction, ice cream with Gene Parmesan went for $1,000, but two tickets to Hamilton minus Michael only netted $500.
  • Michael, signing up for a family self-defense class at the euphemistically named Search, incorrectly surmises that it’s a class about defending the self from the family. His encounter with George Michael outside Rebel’s place is taking a toll on how he communicates (or doesn’t) with his son, too: The voicemail slang of “I wanted to hit you back” just doesn’t work in this situation.
  • The Bluth’s lack of Spanish fluency flares up at the pharmacy: “Happy Five.” “Oh, thank you.” “How’s your Five treating you?”
  • Lieutenant Toddler asks Michael if he knows Tobias’ license plate, which comes back to him after a bit: “It’s A-N-U-S and then for some reason T-A-R-T.” “A new start.” “If you saw it written out, I don’t think that you would—let me try this one on you: A-N-A-L-R-A-P… well, it doesn’t matter.”
  • Lindsay’s barely in “Family Leave,” but she sure could go for a soy Americano.

Managing editor, The A.V. Club