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Can Arrested Development save the sitcom?

An edgy, Emmy-powered sleeper is ready for its close-up 10/17/2004 08:00:00 PM Eastern

Accepting his Emmy last month for penning the offbeat comedy Arrested Development, creator Mitch Hurwitz confessed to the crowd in Hollywood and to the viewers at home: "This is such a huge honor and, I fear, a giant mistake."

The crowd howled, and Arrested Development walked away with five wins out of seven nominations, including the upset win for 2004 Emmy for Outstanding Comedy Series.

But now, with visibility high and momentum strong after its debut season, the show is nowhere to be seen. Fox is holding it off the air for two months for a better slot. The creator is anxious about the bad timing, and some cast members are openly declaring the show will never be a big hit.

Sitting in his air-conditioned Winnebago, parked next to the bustling Fox soundstage for the show, Jason Bateman, 35, who plays responsible son Michael Bluth, weighs the odds that Arrested can climb out of the ratings cellar. He's afraid it's an acquired taste. "I don't think this show will ever be in the top 10," he says bluntly.

All this dark thinking reflects the acerbic humor and dysfunction of Fox's oddball comedy, whose followers are waiting and wondering: Can a wacky show with abrasive characters, no studio audience and no laugh track get the numbers to succeed on a broadcast network? Or can it go further, as its cultish fans believe, and resuscitate the shopworn prime time sitcom?

The show is based on the backbiting Bluth family, which finds itself without money—or much family love—after the father, George, played by Jeffrey Tambor, is arrested for securities fraud. Michael is the only normal one in the once wealthy family.

Fans love the lightning-fast pacing and the heavy use of visual puns. "I'm a little nervous that people are going to say, 'Oh, this is an elitist little cult show,'" says Tambor, getting ready to do his next scene—which will consist not of dialogue but of practicing tai chi in a ratty bathrobe that continually falls open. ("Close it!" yells Lucille, the family matriarch, played by Jessica Walter. "You look like the window of a butcher shop!")

This season, viewers appear to be increasingly hungry for edgier, more sophisticated fare. Many of the shows taking the biggest chances—like ABC's Lost and Desperate Housewives (the latter created by Hurwitz's friend and former Golden Girls colleague, Marc Cherry)—are getting the biggest buzz and big ratings numbers. But although most critics have raved about the show since it went on the air, Arrestedended up a dismal No. 107 in the 2003-04 Nielsen ratings, bested by heavyweights Everybody Loves Raymond, Will & Grace, Sex & the City and Curb Your Enthusiasm.

"There were other shows that broke the mold, critically acclaimed shows that were ahead of their time and didn't get traction," says Laura Caraccioli-Davis, senior vice president at media-buying agency Starcom Entertainment, citing Sports Night and Denis Leary's The Job. "I think Arrested Development is going to struggle. It's been on the air for an entire year and still hasn't reached the audience it should have."

Even the cast is incredulous at the show's Emmy success. "It was insane, winning an Emmy," says Tony Hale, who plays the neurotic professional grad student, Buster. "We were such underdogs."

But the euphoria that surrounded the Emmy accolades quickly evaporated in the face of a major scheduling conflict: For anyone who wanted to sample the show, Arrested Development wasn't on the air, and wouldn't be, for a total of two months. Because Fox is carrying baseball playoffs, the launch date for the second-season premiere will be Nov. 7, and there will be only one daytime Arrested marathon slated on cable's FX. No Fox reruns are scheduled in prime time.

"To me, it seems like a misstep," says executive producer Hurwitz, a sitcom veteran.. "We've talked to everyone [at the network] we can talk to. I just hope the people who are curious are going to be curious in a month and a half, or whenever we get back on the air. I fear that [their curiosity] will wane a bit."

"It's personally very frustrating to me," Hurwitz adds. "I've gotten so many e-mails and calls from people I haven't seen in years who saw the Emmys and are calling, saying, 'Please, I want to see it. Where is it?'"

The one place it will be is in stores. Arrested's first-season DVD will be released this week, on Oct. 19. But viewers who have never seen the show may be reluctant to shell out $39.98 to sample it. Hurwitz believes the show should have been spliced into the schedule immediately.

"He's never mentioned 'misstep' to me at all," says Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman. "If he's calling it a misstep, I would have to take exception. We have no choice."

The problem, from Berman's point of view, is that Arrestedcan't be neatly sandwiched into post-season Major League Baseball, which is delaying the start of Fox's entire fall slate. "It would be fantastic if we were premiering our shows in September, after we had won the Emmy," she says. "What we didn't want to do was throw repeat episodes on the air with no promotion, with nothing behind them, so they could perform in what is probably the lowest-rated part of our year."

Bottom line, Berman believes, is that Hurwitz's scheduling strategy would do more harm than good. "People could stand on the sidelines and go, 'Oh, this show is never going to get any ratings. It just won an Emmy, and, look, it's doing a 4 share."

It's easy to understand why the crew is anxious. The creative team remembers far too vividly the agonizing months preceding the fall-season announcements when they didn't know if their show would survive. "We found out about the second-season pickup 36 hours before it was announced at the [May] upfronts," says Bateman, who sweated out the last weeks before the commitment for another 22 episodes. "It was down to the wire."

"We had to take a hard look at the numbers, and the numbers were not great but not a disaster, either," says Berman. "What I started feeling good about was that people were asking me questions in the supermarket about it: 'Oh, I saw that show twice and now I can't miss it,' that kind of thing. You can't ignore that as a programmer; you just can't."

So the pickup came, and more good news followed: Arrestedwould get a highly coveted new timeslot, 8:30 p.m. Sunday, after The Simpsons. In the past, such network shuffles have made all the difference to such shows as Cheers, Seinfeldand Everybody Loves Raymond, which subsequently rocketed in the ratings. How much did Arrestedwant that time slot? "We were begging for it all last year," says Bateman. "Nowhere else on the network is our audience more perfectly set up than after The Simpsons, because those people are trained to look for the minutia."

Postings on an Amazon.com Web site for the Arrested DVD seem to confirm that assessment. "Not only would I watch it religiously on Sunday nights, but I would videotape it and re-watch the episodes 3-4 times because it seemed like every time I watched it again, I would catch onto something new that I didn't see before," wrote T. Nguyen from Woodside, N.Y.

On the set, Hurwitz is constantly teasing and tweaking, asking his actors to "try it this way." As they wait for the two shoulder-mounted digital video cameras to reposition, another Arrestedwriter gooses Hurwitz, hoping to get a rise out of him. "What does the double buzzer mean?" asks consulting producer Jim Vallely, referring to the familiar sound he knows full well signals the end of a take. "And why is this newspaper in Spanish?" Hurwitz turns on him in mock annoyance. "Oh, Jimmy, so many questions. Which could be a sign of massive intelligence. Or massive stupidity."

It could easily be a line in the script. "Hurwitz has the courage of his comedy," says Walter. "And luckily, the network supports him most of the time. We're not cable, so we can't go that far."

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