Is Rupert Murdoch bipolar? It would explain why his network, Fox, seems to specialize in two such wildly different kinds of programming. On the one hand, there’s the glitzy exploitation schlock (T&A like Beverly Hills, 90210 and Melrose Place or, more recently, bottom-feeding reality shows like The Simple Life and My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance). On the other hand, Fox also boasts a proud tradition, since its first days on air, of what might be termed dysfunctional family programming: sly half-hour comedies that subvert the clichés of the old-school sitcom while ultimately upholding its values. Shows like Malcolm in the Middle, King of the Hill, and the incomparable Simpsons (arguably one of America’s greatest pop-cultural achievements and the only reason many of my friends have a television at all) use bright, kinetic formats to suggest that the best way to love your family (or your country, for that matter) is to bust on it endlessly and hold nothing sacred.
The Fox sitcom Arrested Development (Sunday nights, 9:30 p.m. ET), which premiered last fall and has just been picked up for another season, belongs firmly in the latter category, even if it never achieves The Simpsons’ (or even Malcolm’s) level of antic hilarity. The setup takes a full episode to establish: Michael (Jason Bateman), the favored son of wealthy real estate developer George Bluth Sr. (Jeffery Tambor), has spent the past 10 years toiling thanklessly as the sole honest employee in his father’s corrupt business. But when the time comes to make Michael partner, George Sr. instead hands the title to his irresponsible socialite wife, Lucille (Jessica Walter). Minutes later, Pops is arrested by the SEC for fraud and whisked off to the slammer (hence “Arrested Development,” get it?). As the Bluth clan continues to whine and dine on the company tab, it’s up to Michael to manage their rapidly dwindling fortune and all-around mishegass. His siblings include sister Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), who shows her distaste for the family money by squandering it on vanity do-gooder events; oldest brother GOB (Will Arnett), short for George Oscar Bluth II, an amateur magician who takes himself way, way too seriously; and Buster (Tony Hale), the baby of the family, an impotent mama’s boy and perpetual grad student whose only blow for freedom is to start up a queasy December/May romance with his mother’s best friend/rival Lucille (played to a cringe-worthy T by Liza Minnelli.) Fans of the dearly departed HBO comedy series Mr. Show will wriggle for joy when that show’s co-creator, the wildly funny David Cross, appears in a supporting role as Michael’s feckless brother-in-law, unemployed psychiatrist Dr. Tobias Funke. Unfortunately, at least as of this writing, he hasn’t been given all that much to do. Cross’ sense of humor is far too radical and unhinged to be shown to its best advantage in a single-character role (though since Cross’ character has decided to pursue a career in theater, we may eventually get to see him act out a bit.)
Bateman is appealingly beleaguered as Michael. A former child star from the sitcom Silver Spoons, he has one of those eternal man-boy faces, like Michael J. Fox’s, that are perfectly suited to the role of small-screen good guy. In fact, Arrested Development was executive-produced by another eternal man-boy, Ron Howard, who also provides the bone-dry voice-over narration. The show feels slight upon a first or second viewing, less knee-slapper than head-scratcher, but as the season goes on, jokes begin to re-emerge and weave together. A throwaway line from the beginning of one episode will develop into the main theme of the next, while a standard sitcom putdown will suddenly open onto a psychologically rich back story. The show also throws out its share of red herrings; for example, each episode ends with a segment previewing some absurd plot developments in the next week’s show. It took me several weeks to realize that these clips are entirely fake—glimpses of a story line that will never develop.
Arrested Development is a young series still establishing its rhythm, and its ratings have been disappointing despite warm reviews. I’m not sure if I’ll keep watching or not, but I can’t help but hope that the show be afforded the chance to flourish as part of the overall television ecology. After all, The Simpsons can’t last forever, and when it finally goes off the air (not yet, oh Lord, not yet!), Rupert needs some smart, quirky shows in its place, to keep Fox from turning into My Big Fat Obnoxious Network.