Show, Interrupted

Arrested Development lingers between death and resurrection.

Today’s announcement that Showtime is considering picking up the Fox series Arrested Development is a tempting promise, a frustrating tease, and, in some strange way, a disappointment. After all, there’s a certain nobility in standing by in martyred protest as a beloved but ratings-challenged show is quashed by a cruel, insensitive network. Just look at the 1999-2000 series Freaks and Geeks. Sure, it was a bummer when NBC pulled the show after only 12 episodes (the remaining six were eventually shown, three of them by NBC, the last three in reruns on the Fox Family Channel). And I’ve never forgiven That ‘70s Show for being the other nostalgic high-school-themed series that premiered around the same time and somehow managed to survive … and survive … and survive. To this day, the second I hear that butchered Big Star song that serves as the show’s opening theme, I run for the remote control.

But look at it this way: We’ve had to watch the ’70s Show gang grow up into seedy B-list celebrities, dating Lindsay Lohan and marrying Demi Moore and punking Justin Timberlake and whatnot, while the cast of Freaks and Geeks will remain forever preserved in amber at the most heartbreakingly awkward stage of adolescence (even when they do show up as young adults in other roles; I can’t turn on Kitchen Confidential without nearly weeping at the sight of John Daley, the erstwhile Sam Weir). Similarly, if AD ceases to exist, we’ll have two perfect seasons on DVD and a third on the way, along with 6 Emmys, a bouquet of critical valentines and the undying love of a fervent, if limited, audience. Why does a TV show have to last forever to be of value? Isn’t ephemerality inherent to the very nature of the medium?

If Arrested died right this moment (before we even got to see Scott Baio return next week as the Bluth family attorney, the deliciously named Bob Loblaw) at least the blow would be swift and merciful. Watching Fox let the series agonize in slow motion has been like watching the Democrats in the 2004 election. It’s almost like Fox wants to dangle the show by its tail over a slow-burning flame. First they moved it from Sunday to Monday nights, ruining any bump it might get from similarly themed sitcoms like The Simpsons and Family Guy. Then, only a few episodes into the third season, they interrupted Charlize Theron’s five-episode guest stint for over a month, pre-empting it with either football games or Prison Break reruns and effectively ruining any momentum the show might have gained in its new time slot.

The San Francisco Chronicle ’sTim Goodman speculated that Showtime might be a good home for AD back in mid-November, when Fox, in essence, axed the show by failing to pick up the “back nine” (the last nine episodes of the 22-episode season.) According to Goodman, a source at HBO told him bluntly that “we don’t take anyone’s sloppy seconds” (Whoa! Stuck up much, Home Bitch Office?). But, as the second-place premium cable network with more critical accolades than subscribers, Showtime could be looking for a built-in fan base to follow their show upward on the cable dial, perhaps as a Sunday night lead-in to the just-renewedWeeds.

The endgame of Arrested Development recalls the 2004 Democratic campaign, not only in its hangdog masochism, but in its idealistic attempts at grassroots organization: fan blogsonline petitions, even a “Save Our Bluths” website that encourages enterprising AD fans to wear Arrested Development T-shirts and sign their e-mails and message-board postings using the show’s characters as icons. In a gesture toward this DIY fan ethic, Fox gave viewers the chance to sign an online loyalty oath pledging “never-ending loyalty and allegiance to the best comedy on television” and promising to watch every episode in the second season. But, as this item in the New York Times magazine recently  pointed out, these kinds of faux-populist overtures may be Fox’s way of getting off the hook for its own bad intentions—hey, we tried to let you guys save your precious show. Not our fault if you didn’t love it enough.

Don’t get me wrong: I’d be delighted if AD were scooped up by Showtime for a fourth season (though my initial review  of the pilot was more diffident than raving; Arrested Development is an acquired taste that takes awhile to grow on you.) But maybe some TV shows, like some relationships, were never meant to last. Instead of plodding on for 10-plus seasons and retiring in a comfy haze of nostalgia and clip shows, maybe AD should live fast, die young, and leave a good-looking, and very funny, corpse.