Arrested Development

TV critics have been unusually united behind the question, “Why aren’t more people watching Arrested Development?” Though it garnered Fox a rare Best Comedy Series Emmy last fall, Arrested couldn’t bring in big ratings in the plum post-Simpsons time slot. Several weeks after completing an abbreviated second season (Fox cut its episode order from the standard 22 to 18), the show’s fate remains in limbo. The network won’t announce its fall lineup until mid-May, and meanwhile is spending untold millions promoting any and every show created by Seth MacFarlane.

Only a few series (Freaks and Geeks, Undeclared, My So-Called Life, Andy Richter Controls the Universe) have delivered first seasons as good as Arrested‘s. And none lived to see a second season, much less the chance, however slim, at a third. It’s as if coming strong out of the gate is a liability: many of the best recent comedies (Simpsons, Seinfeld) took a few years to hit creative peaks.

Not so with Arrested, which springs unexpectedly from former Golden Girls writer Mitchell Hurwitz. A faux documentary, it follows the ongoing saga of the Bluths, a wealthy, spoiled family nearly brought down by their patriarch’s (Jeffrey Tambor) shady business dealings. And I do mean saga: with about a dozen major characters and another dozen recurring guests (Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Liza Minnelli, Judy Greer, Amy Poehler, Ian Roberts, and Henry Winkler have stepped in and out of the show over its 40 episodes), Arrested is dense. So was Seinfeld, particularly near the series’ end.

I mention Seinfeld because Arrested is the only live-action sitcom to advance the form since that ’90s megahit. By dispensing with life lessons, family exchanges, and serious love interests, Seinfeld followed its own comedic muse, to a result both real and surreal. Arrested crossbreeds that same sharpness and surrealism with the more complicated dynamics of a “family” sitcom, but without the pesky kids. (There’s also no pesky laugh track, but plenty of extra sight gags, wordplay, and in-jokes.) The family’s “children” are grown and saddled with insecurities, equal parts childish and sadly-adultish.

“Good” son Michael (the peerlessly deadpan Jason Bateman) struggles to teach his family lessons, to do the right thing, only to be undone by the farce and selfishness of those around him. This season, those influences took their toll, and Michael’s own actions were increasingly selfish. This was clear in his passive-aggressive opposition to teen son George Michael’s (Michael Cera) relationship with religious zealot Ann (Mae Whitman). The show is fearless (occasionally perversely so) in its willingness to make the likable Michael — the heart of the show — as foolish as his lazy siblings.

Of those siblings, brothers Gob (Will Arnett) and Buster (Tony Hale) were given especially meaty storylines in Season Two. After a lifetime at his mother’s side, Buster rebelled and joined the army, though he stopped short of serving (he skipped training in favor of gaining prowess at an arcade claw-machine). In another fit of resistance, he jumped into the ocean unsupervised, only to have his hand bitten off by a seal. It was replaced with a hook, and as of the finale, his hand is not reattached.

As Buster grew into his own storylines (he was often the weak link in Season One), Gob, obnoxious yet secretly eager to please, was better integrated into his brothers’ stories. The magician became less involved in his own work and more interested in helping Michael and Buster (while furthering his magic career). The late season reveal of Gob’s part-time ventriloquism act, a hilariously inept effort with a black puppet named Franklin, was one of the show’s most inspired moments. Gob’s belief that his work with Franklin could maybe “break down racial barriers” is touchingly clueless, a quality Arnett has explored with bravado. In the finale, Gob reconciled with Michael via serenade: Warmth crept into the scene as his heartfelt, off-key rendition of Bryan Adams’ “Everything I Do” progressed into awkwardness and hilarity.

These familial breaks and bonds are woven through soap opera-style storylines adorned with running gags, repeated themes, and twists that make the show feel almost circular. Though this led to a little too much repetition in the second season, especially as the Bluth company presidency revolved from Michael to Gob to sister Lindsay (Portia di Rossi, brilliant though underused as a spoiled layabout). It was a rare instance of Arrested‘s freewheeling changes curdling into formula. These reiterations are the show’s closest link to the traditional sitcom, where characters face essentially the same problems, with rephrased quips, every week.

This is a minor complaint. Only one thing impedes Arrested‘s ascension to Seinfeld‘s vacant throne: mass approval. The show gets as much press for its bad numbers as its astounding quality. I am not immune. Writing — nay, thinking — about Arrested fosters in me two unproductive urges: to describe how hilarious the show is, and to beg people to watch it. The latter may seem useful, but this critics’ tactic never works.

Seinfeld was, in many ways, the last of its kind; in the years since its demise, TV audiences have become more segmented than ever, making the idea of a single sitcom attracting upwards of 20 million viewers each week obsolete. Fox would probably be happy with a fraction of those numbers; less than 20 million, say, but more than the six million who watch Arrested regularly. One wishes that Fox would embrace the segmentation; is it better, after all, to produce a show that attracts 10 million viewers a week and slowly alienates (or simply bores) its audience, or one that all evidence suggests will stay hilarious, and thusly hang onto its six million loyal, happy, and grateful viewers?

In the meantime, theories will fly about why Arrested Development hasn’t achieved mainstream success; it’s too dense, it’s too smart, it’s too strange. These are all ways of saying that it’s too good, that it’s a specialty show that can’t survive on a profit-driven major network. Perhaps Fox should do something both revolutionary and oddly Bluth-like: lower its expectations and re-evaluate what it considers a success.