Dan Snierson
April 02, 2004 AT 05:00 AM EST

Why aren’t people watching ”Arrested Development”?

Okay. When I scream ‘MICE,’ you open the box and start stuffing some shirts down your pants.”

This is what happens when Arrested Development invades an upscale Los Angeles boutique. When a broke princess named Lindsay takes a job as a shopgirl so she can five-finger all the outfits she craves. When her disgraced doctor husband, Tobias, who works here as a security guard, is about to bust her ass. And when a Segway-riding magician, Gob, drags his teenage nephew, George Michael, into a nutso plan to outshoplift his sister.

”Shirts?” a befuddled George Michael asks Gob.

”Yeah, you’re right,” mutters Gob (like the Bible’s Job). ”Lindsay got a whole outfit. Maybe some pants and shoes, too.”

”Are we shoplift — ”

”Miiiiiiiiiiice!” yells Gob, knocking the box of rodents out of his nephew’s hands and cramming merchandise into the helpless boy’s clothes.

And this is what happens when you ask the actors on this Fox ”family comedy” to explain the lesson behind this scene.

”Kids are way too trusting, ”says Will Arnett, who plays Gob. ”They’re like, ‘Ohhh, I’m an infant! My mom’s gonna have milk in her breast!’ Guess what? Maybe she won’t. Learn it now.”

”Kids should shoplift,” says David Cross, a.k.a. Tobias. ”Adults should not. Adults go to jail. Kids get a slap on the hand and sent off with a life experience they can turn into an E! True Hollywood Story.”

Actually, the lesson is this: Throw down some whip-smart, whimsical laughs and you’ll shake up the staid family comedy format while stealing unanimous raves from critics. And the timing couldn’t be better: With three major comedies signing off this season, there’s got to be a prominent place in the TV landscape for Arrested Development — narrated by executive producer Ron Howard, no less — right? Perhaps not: At this moment Arrested ranks No. 107 out of 159 shows. Yep, a series voted the best show on the air in a Television Week survey of critics draws an average of only 6.3 million viewers, making it just about the lowest-rated Big Four sitcom (thank God for The Tracy Morgan Show and Oliver Beene). ”The show’s more famous for being reviewed well, ”says series star Jason Bateman, ”than it is for being watched.”

Here’s what the masses are missing. This mock docu-series — about an oddball Orange County family whose real estate company is in shambles — offers up the most delightfully deluded characters on TV: George Bluth (Jeffrey Tambor), the patriarch in prison for deceiving the SEC, spends his slammer time becoming a Super Jew and recording inspirational videos. His vodka-soaked wife, Lucille (Jessica Walter), suffers from acute country club withdrawal. Their son Buster (Tony Hale) is a pathologically regressed grad student; another, Gob, is a hammy illusionist who impulsively married a seal dealer. Their lazy, cause-obsessed daughter, Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), can’t be bothered with her hubby, Tobias, a hopelessly untalented aspiring actor with nudity issues, or her sneaky daughter Maeby (Alia Shawkat), who’s raising money for her ill (and nonexistent) twin sister, Surely. Meanwhile, a third Bluth brother, widower Michael (Bateman), is trying his darnedest to save his family from bankruptcy — and themselves — while raising his earnest son, George Michael (Michael Cera), who harbors an unfortunate crush on cousin Maeby. All of this is done without a laugh track, without moralizing, and without an obsessive need to tidy up loose ends after 22 minutes.

The freakery doesn’t end there. Arrested throws guest-casting curveballs galore: Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a fake-blind lawyer! Liza Minnelli as Lucille’s socialite rival (also named Lucille), who seduces Buster! Carl Weathers as Carl Weathers, Tobias’ stingy thespian coach! Labyrinthine story lines involve the brothers battling over a Spanish-language soap opera star, Buster coercing little George Michael into scoring medical marijuana for Lucille (the Minnelli one), and Lucille (the original one) accidentally adopting a Korean boy during a drunken fit. Can we even call this a family comedy? ”It’s really a family tragedy,” corrects Bateman. ”This is deadly serious to all these idiots. ”Explains series creator Mitchell Hurwitz: ”We’re not doing this thing just to be different. It really does come out of a desire to do a funny show. [Traditional sitcom] stuff stops being funny because you know what’s coming. We wanted to be a little more surprising than that.”

Having incredibly willing actors certainly helps. ”Yesterday I found myself protesting the war in a small cage full of protesters,” notes de Rossi. ”I was dancing around a pole with barely anything on, being hosed down by rednecks. I mean, you just never know.” Yet for all its innate wackiness, Arrested often forgoes hey-look-at-me! yuks for more subtle absurdity. (Lindsay: ”I care deeply for nature.” Michael: ”You’re wearing ostrich-skin boots.” Lindsay: ”Well, I don’t care about ostriches, Michael.”) ”That’s the only way it can be funny,” says Arnett. ”If we were to play up every piece of writing and hit every scene over the head, we might win a Razzy. We are dangerously close to being the worst show ever made. Mitch is our captain who guides us through these very shallow waters.”

Perhaps a little too shallow. Maybe it’s the tricky Sunday-at-9:30 time slot (The Sopranos, Alias, and Law & Order: CI are all competitors) or the complex, interweaving plots that make it hard for new viewers to catch up (”If you miss a word in the first act,” notes Bateman, ”three of four jokes fall flat for you in the second and third acts”), but Arrested’s low ratings are disturbingly similar to those of shows that ended up in Fox’s Cool Comedy Crypt (Andy Richter Controls the Universe, The Tick, Undeclared). ”We seem to be getting famous for that,” says Fox Entertainment president Gail Berman, who admits Arrested’s numbers are ”troubling.” Still, she insists the network isn’t abandoning hope — yet. ”Look, I love this show,” she says. ”We’re trying to figure out every possible way we can help it.” Last week, Fox gave Arrested a plum post-American Idol slot, but it lost almost 60 percent of Idol’s audience, netting 9.6 million viewers.

You don’t need Mr. Seacrest to announce the obvious here. A challenging, cleverly layered show (”It presupposes a trust and tolerance of an audience,” notes Tambor) that admirably strives to avoid tired comic formulas is fighting for its survival, while the Yes, Dears of the dial enjoy their 74th seasons. ”It would be a real shame if they didn’t let us try one more season,” sums up Arnett. ”And I don’t mean that in the sense like we’re doing America a favor. But I feel like at the end of the day, if this show can just reach 150 million people, we’ve done our job. You know what I mean?” Keep reaching, guys.

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