Review: 'Arrested Development' Season 5 vs. 'Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt' Season 4
Probably the best a sitcom can hope for in the outrage era is to escape an onslaught of think pieces after its premiere, and that’s something that both the first half of the fourth season of Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt and the first half of the fifth season of Arrested Deveopment have managed to do (although, AD didn’t fare as well on its publicity tour, obviously). Neither show has made a significant departure from previous seasons, although Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt feels more vibrant and socially relevant (and funny), while Arrested Development feels like a show trying to return to its 15-year-old roots while also insisting upon clinging to its inferior (and largely forgotten) fourth season.
In that regard, Arrested Development often spends too much time in its first eight episodes relying on Ron Howard’s narrator voice, which once supplied wry commentary to the proceedings but now feels like an overused main character asked to do too many things: Make joking asides; provide ample exposition; and keep all the timelines straight. I love Ron Howard, but there may be too much of him here, especially since he (and his family, including Bryce Dallas Howard) continue to play characters on the show. Instead of winking at you from afar, the meta-humor of the fifth season pulls you aside and points out all the jokes you should be enjoying.
It doesn’t help, either, that the fifth season is a continuation of the storyline that began in the 2013 season, and though it may be part of the joke (I don’t know because Ron Howard didn’t pull me aside to explain it), it’s often jarring to see the show jump back and forth between characters who have noticeably aged over the last 5 years despite the fifth season picking up exactly where the fourth left off.
That’s not to say that the fifth season isn’t enjoyable — no one combines cluelessness and dry wit better than Jason Bateman, and creator Mitch Hurwitz is still a master of wordplay — but it all feels a little dated, like a 2005 time capsule that’s been opened up 13 years later, and what once felt new and exciting feels less so. GOB, for instance, is in love with Ben Stiller’s magician character and is wrestling with his sexuality; a tired storyline enlivened only briefly when he seeks guidance from a closet conversion company before realizing that they actually convert spaces into closets. (Having two characters on the show, including Tobias Funke, in the closet may also be gilding the lily on this subject).
I’ll also concede that all the scenes between Lucille and George feel weirdly charged because of what we know from the press tour, and I found myself frequently trying to determine which scene may have been responsible for the Tambor meltdown. I will grant this, however: Maeby Fünke is granted the best storyline, where she pretends to be a senior citizen and finds a home in an old folks’ community, and Alia Shawkat and her poorly applied lipstick absolutely nails it. However, George and George Michael’s on-again, off-again relationships with Isla Fisher’s character (an illegitimate child of Ron Howard) is played the hell out.
Still, while the comedy does feel dated, there’s also something somewhat refreshing about essentially watching a sitcom from the pre-Trump era (even if there are occasional echoes of Trump in Lindsey’s Congressional run — and Portia de Rossi’s limited availability due to her retirement is worked into her storyline). The fact that Arrested Development refuses to move into this new era is both to its benefit (there’s nothing divisive about it) and a detriment (it lacks relevance).
Overall, I’d say the season is mildly amusing, occasionally hilarious, and sometimes a drag.
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, meanwhile, feels like a show that knows that it’s worn out its premise and is turning a corner toward its endgame. Kimmy is growing up, and though her comedic points of reference are still in the 1990s, she’s coming to terms with the changing world. There’s a lot of #MeToo stuff in this season — and a lot of digs at systemic sexism (“It’s not my fault! Why are men so believed!” a hapless college kid says, defending himself after he slut-shames Xanthippe Voorhees), while Kimmy also has to come to terms with her white privilege (and learn how to use it for good). After Kimmy rants about how there’s no way a person who spent 15 years in a bunker could be privileged, there’s a great scene where Titus illustrates white privilege by example (Kimmy, for instance, can walk out of a store wearing a fur coat she took off the rack, while Titus is accosted for thinking about trying on the same coat).
The best storyline, however, sees Kimmy attempt to reframe her own narrative after a Netflix-style true-crime documentary suggests that Jon Hamm’s Richard Wayne may be innocent — the third episode, in fact, features the entire documentary and, again, fuck you, Steven Avery. After Kimmy is outed by the documentary and asked to write a book about her time in the bunker, Kimmy refuses, because she doesn’t want to be defined as a victim. INCELS are also tackled here, hilariously by a Bobby Moynihan character, who feels burned by all the women who keep rejecting him at work (he works in a store that sells wedding dresses, so the women he hits on — by massaging their shoulders — aren’t exactly available).
Elsewhere, Titus has embarked on a more serious acting career in order to win back Mikey, and a suddenly penniless Jacqueline White becomes his talent agent (her business, “White Talent,” works out of an office in Kimmy’s job at a play space for kids). Titus also has a run-in with Greg Kinnear, which leads to a pitch to a TV executive (and my favorite line of the season, “We’re producing Katherine Heigl’s second-to-last chance and it’s going straight to series pre-canceled and you would be perfect for the guy who walks down long hallways with her.”) Carol Kane’s Lillian Kaushtupper spends most of the season picking up the pieces after the death of her boyfriend (and by that, I mean, trying to get laid) until she meets her dead boyfriend’s daughter, played by Busy Phillips, who may have a recurring role in the latter half of the season).
Kimmy Schmidt tackles a lot of contemporary issues, but it never forgets to be funny in doing so. In some ways, the show feels like it’s in its last gasps, but it’s trying to ensure that it dies while saying something relevant and making its audience laugh. It doesn’t feel as fresh as it once did — the ’90s jokes are getting kind of tired — but Tina Fey also channels a lot of her anger and outrage with sexism, white privilege, and Peak TV into consistently great comedy. I’m excited to watch the back half, while also appreciating that it’s time for the show to end. The back half of Arrested Development, meanwhile, I will endure — and maybe even enjoy occasionally — while also hoping that Hurwitz doesn’t decide to continue beating this dead horse for another season or beyond.
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