Now the story of a classic sitcom that lost its mojo, and the audience that had no choice but to keep coming back to see if it had gotten its act together again.
It’s “Arrested Development,” and I can report that the fifth season — whose first eight episodes arrive on Netflix on Tuesday — eventually re-approaches the manic pleasures of the show’s heyday. Unfortunately, it takes its time getting to that point, and it doesn’t stay long.
The original series, which ran from 2003 to 2006 on Fox, was a comedy miracle, capturing the oblivious entitlement of the wealthy Bluth family with elaborate farce plots and enough inspired coinages to fill a vault.
Netflix resurrected it in 2013. But because the cast members could only commit to brief shooting schedules — and because no one was quite sure what this newfangled “streaming TV” stuff would look like — the creator, Mitchell Hurwitz, devised an origami-folded fourth season, with a hopscotching timeline and episodes built around individual characters.
The result was a noble failure, sluggish and dark, but with flashes of inspired payoff from its unusual structure. (When Netflix released a re-edited version this month, unraveled by Mr. Hurwitz into conventional linear order, all that was left was an overplotted 22-episode story.)
Cut to 2018, when Netflix is spending lavishly and we’ve since learned that the definition of streaming TV is “TV, but more of it.” This time, Mr. Hurwitz has his full cast at his disposal, which is an instant improvement, restoring the show’s old rhythms and dynamics.
But first it has a lot of business to take care of. The opening half-hour isn’t so much an episode as a reference manual, a massive plot download beginning with a five-minute Ron Howard recap. The action accelerates as slowly as a stair car, accreting new subplots like hop-ons.
Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) is running for Congress on a platform of building a wall at the Mexican border. (The series doubles down on this Nostradamian pre-Trump story line from 2013 by employing some flexible chronology, setting the new season in 2015.) Tobias (David Cross) is sporting a dyed-pink mustache. Michael (Jason Bateman) is entangled in an investigation into the disappearance of family friend Lucille Austero (Liza Minnelli). Various family members are fleeing their demons, or one another, in Mexico.
At best, “Arrested Development” is a clockwork of meshing narrative gears, misunderstandings and compounding fibs. But this kind of story can substitute complication for cleverness. Although Season 5 ditches the puzzle structure, it’s still built more as a single long narrative (a streaming-TV tic) rather than tightly plotted episodes.
Things pick up a few episodes in, as the show connects with its heart — that the Bluths can only express love in warped ways — and its engine — that the one thing you can rely on them to do is lie to one another.
And the cast’s talent is in full flower. You don’t need wild story machinations to enjoy Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter) lobbing 80-proof Molotov cocktails of sarcasm, or Gob (Will Arnett) spiraling into self-loathing, or Buster (Tony Hale) being fitted with yet more artificial hands.
More awkwardly, Jeffrey Tambor also returns, despite having been fired from “Transparent,” in which he played a transgender woman, over charges of sexual harassment. (Reports that Mr. Tambor had verbally abused Ms. Walter on set compounded the troubles.)
When George appears dressed as a woman (a plot holdover from Season 4), the voice-over refers to him as “cis male George Sr.,” whose “impression of a woman wasn’t going to win him any awards.” The season was shot mostly before the “Transparent” scandal, but leaving the in-joke makes it feel as if the show is answering controversy Lucille Bluth-style: “I don’t understand the question and I won’t respond to it.”
Alia Shawkat and Michael Cera get some of the best material as intermittently kissin’ cousins Maeby and George Michael. She’s in disguise as a senior citizen in a retirement condo (long story), and Ms. Shawkat — a comedic old soul to begin with — pulls off the ruse brilliantly.
George Michael, meanwhile, is still dating Rebel Alley (Isla Fisher), the daughter of Ron Howard (longer story). He describes Rebel’s family to his father, Michael, who’s also dating Rebel (even longer story): “They’re just such a nice — I don’t want to use the word ‘family’ because they all like each other.”
At moments like that, it feels like old times. If only the episodes didn’t work so hard to remind you of old times. They pile on the quotes and callbacks. At one point, George Michael literally sifts through a pile of old mementos, including the DVD of “Dangerous Cousins,” the Cornballer and his Living Classics Pageant muscle suit.
I’d explain the references, but “Arrested Development” is assuming that anyone who’s made it this far is in it for the references. I’m starting to wonder if TV revivals like this are becoming what superhero franchises are to movies: fan-driven, list-checking exercises whose highest aim is to satisfy existing expectations and thus can never blow your expectations away.
Nostalgia is limiting for a TV series, because it’s always going to be partly conscious of recreating what it was rather than becoming what it could be. I can’t reasonably argue that Season 4 was “better” in execution than this more reliable new season. But it was trying to be something new, rather than something it never could: the seasons of the show that might have existed a decade ago had Fox not canceled it.
All that said, the first half of Season 5 is perfectly fine. Mostly funny. At moments scintillating. It’s a good time as long as you keep in mind what the show is now. “Arrested Development” was once the story of a wealthy family who lost everything. Now, it’s mostly a story about having watched “Arrested Development.”
Streaming on Netflix on Tuesday