(CNN)"Arrested Development" is back, after an experimental fourth season that the parties appear to be tacitly admitting didn't entirely work, given that the producers re-edited the episodes. Returning to more familiar terrain, the show remains amusing, while delivering what feels like diminishing returns.
'Arrested Development' returns with more dysfunctional fun
It's worth remembering this "semi-original series," as it's cheekily billed, didn't survive on Fox because critical accolades far outweighed its ratings. Funny, quirky and irreverent, it seemed made for a premium platform, and Netflix opportunistically swept in with a stay of execution.
On network TV, it felt like a risk-taking outlier when it premiered in 2003. That's far less true in today's rarefied world of streaming, as the latest season comes five years after the last, at a moment when Netflix is awash in original programming.
Viewed that way, "Arrested" remains fun -- thanks largely to the modest kick of seeing the talented gang back together -- but plays like more of an afterthought, both in the context of its new home and in general.
The new season is loaded with self-referential gags, including a few aimed at Ron Howard (who again narrates the show) and his producing partner in Imagine Entertainment, Brian Grazer. There are jokes about "Imagine dollars," which only work in the company's gift shop; "paying off the Hollywood Foreign Press," the group that hands out the Golden Globes; and "a Han Solo origin picture," which Howard of course directed.
The new season (five episodes were viewed) also incorporates politics, with members of the extended Bluth family finding their way to Mexico -- including the particularly amusing pairing of George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) and son Gob (Will Arnett) -- seemingly determined to sour U.S.-Mexican relations more than the current administration. (Tambor remains in the show despite the sexual-harassment allegations against the actor that sidelined his acclaimed Amazon series, "Transparent.")
As usual, at the core of all the silliness resides Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), trying to make sense of his crazy family, which includes being caught in a twisted love triangle with his now-grown son, George-Michael (Michael Cera).
The writing is alternately wry and outlandish, delivering jokes and sight gags at a rapid clip. Referring to daughter Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), who launches an improbable congressional run, Bluth mom Lucille (Jessica Walter) says in her customarily passive-aggressive fashion, "I've never been less ashamed of her."
For committed fans, who have followed the series through thick and (ratings-wise, mostly) thin, the latest comeback might feel like visiting an old friend. Still, the long layoff and a renaissance among premium half-hour series have made the experience pleasant enough, but less of an occasion than it was in the past.
Amid a wave of TV nostalgia, rather, Netflix has served up another sort-of reunion, featuring a group of gifted performers whose exploits since "Arrested Development" premiered amounts to a comedy all-star team. (Bateman and Arnett, notably, starred in and produced their own Netflix series vehicles, "Ozark" and "Flaked," during the production lapse.)
For some admirers, getting the gang back together alone will be worth celebrating, but enthusiasm for the fifth season will likely depend on how much you missed it. If the answer isn't "a whole lot," then the time investment is perhaps best measured in Imagine dollars.
"Arrested Development" premieres May 29 on Netflix.