The newest addition to FOX’s Sunday night lineup is being hailed as the fall season’s best comedy. The obvious lack of competition for such an accolade notwithstanding, Arrested Development is at the very least a refreshing twist on the stale situation comedy genre. At the very best, this latest venture from Imagine Television (also responsible for 24 and Sports Night) is a shining beacon pointing toward a brighter future for network TV at a time when bar-raising pay cable stations like HBO are setting higher standards for quality programming with popular and critically acclaimed winners like The Sopranos and Sex and the City, diverting potential viewers away from the hapless networks left in the dust.
Arrested Development‘s strong ensemble cast is led by sitcom vet Jason Bateman in a very funny turn as Michael, the level head of the Bluth family. Michael has had to take over the family’s bankrupt business empire following the unanticipated incarceration of Bluth patriarch George Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor), whose questionable accounting practices have led to the court’s seizure of the ample family assets. As single dad to his own son George-Michael, Michael has little time for corporate damage control, let alone babysitting the rest of his extended kin, a motley crew of spoiled brats suddenly faced with living sans the privilege of an expense account. The excellent supporting players include Portia DeRossi as Michael’s shopaholic sister Lindsay, Will Arnett as frustrated magician George Oscar Bluth II (Gob, for short—but pronounced like the biblical Job), and the always funny David Cross as Michael’s pathetic brother-in-law Tobias.
In a television landscape dominated by (supposedly) unscripted reality shows, Arrested Development‘s hand-held camera shots, fast-paced editing, and connective narration (provided by co-executive producer Ron Howard) effectively parody the reality genre. Sharp and irreverent, the show even comes across at times like a small-screen version of Christopher Guest’s “mockumentary” films (Waiting for Guffman, Best in Show). Few more smartly-scripted comedies grace the airwaves, outside of perhaps The Simpsons, alongside which Arrested Development appropriately sits in FOX’s Sunday schedule.
Among the show’s more inspired, unconventional zaniness to date: George-Michael concocts absurd scenarios to fulfill his yen to lock lips with his free-spirited cousin Maeby, Tobias continually finds himself in awkward situations that insinuate his latent homosexuality, and a clever flashback reveals the origin of a defective product George Sr. once attempted to shill alongside Richard Simmons.
As with many of its offbeat TV forebears (Twin Peaks, Wild Palms, The Ben Stiller Show), it’s likely that Arrested Development will have difficulty finding—and keeping—an audience. An increasing focus on guest stars (including Liza Minelli’s upcoming stint in a multi-episode arc) may help to draw the extra attention this struggling babe of a program needs, but time will tell whether or not this promising new show’s further development will be, in the end, arrested—by cancellation.