Emmy-Laden Sitcom Arrested Development Finally Bites Dust

In times of trouble, it’s sometimes comforting to look to the words of a television mom, the kind of woman you’d welcome into your heart, your hearth, your living room. A woman like Lucille Bluth:

“You don’t need an immigrant in mother’s old stirrup pants to be happy!”

 

Lucille screamed that in the middle of the 14th episode of the second season of Arrested Development (officially, “Immaculate Election”), when she walked in on her son Buster in bed with the family’s Hispanic maid.

You also don’t need Arrested Development to be happy, even though it was a little exotic and a little familiar and just generally a nice thing to watch on a Monday night in.

At least, you’d better not. Because just like poor Lupé, the show’s been canned.

On Nov. 10, Fox announced that it would not be ordering the last nine episodes of the third season.

“I can’t say there was shock and surprise,” said David Nevins, the executive producer of the show and the president of Imagine, the show’s production company. “This is a show that has been on the brink from its very first airings.”

Which might explain why so many fans and critics were ready to leap on the announcement so quickly.

One group of fans has gathered a few thousand signatures to a stolidly worded online petition (“Whereas, the first season of Arrested Development was nominated for seven 2004 Emmy awards and won five … ”). Another is planning a mass banana-mailing, in reference to the Bluth family’s frozen banana stand, to Fox headquarters in Los Angeles as an expression of dismay. “They did the same thing last year,” said a network spokesperson.

Indeed, rumors of the cultish Fox sitcom’s demise have been exaggerated before.

“This is something that is not unexpected,” said David Cross, who plays analyst turned failed actor Tobias Funke on the show. He was reached Tuesday at a crash pad in Los Angeles, one day before filming resumes on what are now, most likely, the last five episodes of Arrested Development ever. “What I’m trying to do now that I know the show is cancelled, and hopefully I can do this by next year, is to become the head of programming for one of the major studios.

“Short of that,” he said, “I don’t think we’ll have any luck.”

But Fox did give the show 45 episodes—generous, by contemporary standards—to develop a large enough audience to remain on the air. When the network announced at its upfront presentation last spring that it would pick up the low-rating sitcom for a third season, advertisers cheered.

It helped that heavyweight Ron Howard, who narrates the show, lent his support, and it didn’t hurt that CBS chairman Leslie Moonves was running around scolding critics for their dismissal of more proletarian shows like that network’s Yes, Dear, goading them to keep writing about “how great Arrested Development is.”

“The television business is not a charity, and it’s not simply a public service,” Mr. Nevins said. “That many dedicated fans, passionate fans, and that prestige has value to a network and value to advertisers. I think that’s why it stayed on.”

But then why did it come off?

“This show had supporters inside the building at Fox as well,” Mr. Nevins admitted, crediting Gail Berman and Fox Entertainment president Peter Liguori for sticking with the show as long as they did, despite low numbers.

Very low. This fall, only four million people watched each half-hour episode. That’s not enough to sustain a prime-time series on basic cable. That’s not half-enough to sustain a prime-time series on basic cable.

Who’s to blame? The usual villains: Fox, which didn’t do much to promote the show; Nielsen, whose measurements are screwy; America, whose tastes are.

Pity the poor television critic, then, who has lost his show, and also lost a little of his confidence in his ability to deliver crowds to good TV shows.

“Lord knows I tried,” wrote The Salt Lake Tribune’s Vince Horiuchi in a column published Nov. 14. And he “wasn’t the only one. Television critics around the country opined about the funniest sitcom on American television, but our cries were met with nothing but viewer apathy.”

Harumph!

The Television Critics Association, in addition to crowning the sitcom best new program of the year and best comedy at its 2004 awards ceremony, has churned out rounds of laudatory press at the beginning and end of each tenuous season. TV writers are not usually activists. But from the start these columns took on the look and feel of campaign mailings in the days before an election.

“[P]lease, please watch Arrested Development,” groveled The Washington Post’s Tom Shales at the end of a Nov. 22, 2003, column in which he raved about the show, which had premiered earlier that month. “It’s the kind of show you want to tell everyone about and yet keep to yourself,” wrote The New Yorker’s Nancy Franklin—“if the network finds out how good it is, it may get cancelled.”

Now that it has been, things have gotten rough.

“How’s your mental state in all of this?” a concerned reader asked San Francisco Chronicle critic Tim Goodman over the weekend.

“Not good,” Mr. Goodman wrote in a Nov. 14 column.

One British entertainment blog headlined the news: “Fox’s Arrested Development Cancelled: Retards More Influential Than Thought.”

One disenfranchised viewer, “Ben K.,” who lent his support to the movement via online petition yesterday, explained: “I blame America.”

Thousands like Ben K. have crowded message boards and online petitions in the last week, savaging everyone from Rupert Murdoch to Pamela Anderson, star of Stacked, a Fox show that is not cancelled. But even before this latest disappointment, the sect of die-hard Arrested Development fans has felt a little Waco-like (dark similes for dark days). Unlike Seinfeld, to which the show is often compared for its pretzeling plots and its current-event spoofs, Arrested Development is virtually impenetrable if you haven’t been watching from the start. Everyone is friends with someone like George Costanza. But who can relate to analyst-therapist (“analrapist”) Tobias Funke?

You’ll end up in a conversation with a friend or loved one who isn’t a fan of the show and therefore can’t remember the time Michael and George Bluth Sr. were in the prison visiting area talking about what went wrong with Buster, why he never really grew up, and then the camera pulls back and it turns out Buster is sitting right there with them, yawning and complaining that boy, they’re just “blowing through naptime,” aren’t they?

“Wait, who’s Buster again?” the friend or loved one will say.

Well, you’ll explain, he’s the youngest biological Bluth son, except technically his real father is George Sr.’s identical twin brother Oscar. He’s the one who slept with the maid (remember?) and lives at home with his mother, who enlisted him in the Army, but he never went to Iraq because his left hand was bitten off by a loose seal (get it?) in a yellow bowtie. Naturally, the loose seal belonged to his brother Gob (pronounced “jobe”), an illusionist and layabout, who inherited it from his wife, whom he met once, married on a dare and whose character shares a number of personal traits with Pvt. Lynndie England.

Suddenly it is less difficult to understand why Arrested Development had trouble recruiting new viewers.

“I’m not going into the who’s who of the show,” wrote Ray Gustini, a heartsick entertainment columnist for the University of Wisconsin’s Badger-Herald, summing up this frustration in his column this week. “Either you know it or you don’t.”

If you do, then you’re left wondering what will become of the Bluth family. For what it’s worth, Mr. Cross anticipates Tobias will go on to be cast as James Lipton in a film adaptation of Inside the Actor’s Studio, a role he’ll take very seriously despite the obvious fact the movie’s a farce. “He’ll become a hipster icon” as a result, Mr. Cross said. “He’ll go on Oprah.”

As to the others, it’s anyone’s guess. And we may never know.

“Unless someone comes up with a show called Blarrested Blevelopment, or something,” Mr. Cross offered.

Unless.