Reporters weren’t shouting questions at press conferences. Flags weren’t lowered to half-mast or burned in protest. There were just a few lines in the papers noting that Fox had decided not to order more episodes of Arrested Development, a show averaging only 4.3 million viewers this season.
But to the few who watched, nay, worshipped that kinky single-camera series about the Bluths, a pathologically deluded Orange County family, it felt like this event merited 24/7, where-do-we-go-from-here? treatment. The network’s confirmation last week that it wouldn’t pick up the second half of Arrested’s third season signals the apparent burial of a national comedy treasure. Rarely can such a term be applied to a show barely in the top 100, but this was a comedic comet of Halley-like proportions, a once-in-a-Blue-Man-Group treat.
From its plucky opening music to its fake scenes from next week’s episode, Arrested proved a brave new riff on the dysfunctional-family sitcom. Story lines unfolded with algebraic precision. Meta-gags and self-referential jokes popped up everywhere (Scott Baio replaces Henry Winkler as the Bluths’ lawyer!). The series cloaked ferocious social commentary in absurd goofiness while celebrating a motley clan of characters that included a shady real estate patriarch who sealed a deal with Saddam to build shoddy houses in Iraq, a matriarch who chose liquor over parenting, a mama’s man-boy with a hook for a hand, and a horribly hair-plugged psychiatrist-turned-wannabe actor who went undercover as the family’s Mrs. Doubtfire-esque housekeeper. Of course this show had no chance of survival.
But it did more than survive. Arrested consistently topped critics’ lists. It nabbed five Emmys, including best comedy series in 2004. (This year, three of the five comedy-series writing nominations were for Arrested episodes.) The only thing missing was a couple extra million viewers. ”We all really enjoyed what we were doing,” says Jason Bateman, who plays voice of reason Michael, via e-mail (he’s recovering from throat surgery). ”That was the tough part — we never knew when Family Services was going to come take our baby.” Indeed, creating laughs under a cloud of low ratings and cancellation threats was not always (to quote episode 43) a fun, sexy time. ”It does wear on you, because you’re always trying to put a positive spin on it,” says Will Arnett, a.k.a. oblivious illusionist Gob. ”You’re constantly saying, ‘Yeah, we did come in fourth overall, but we were No. 1 with unicorns.”’
Alas, even that demo wasn’t enough. ”The fan base is unquestionably one of the most loyal in TV — it’s just too small,” laments Fox Entertainment president Peter Liguori, explaining his ”incredibly painful” decision. (Still, he leaves the door ever so slightly ajar by saying, ”We’ll air the show in December and see what happens.”) The situation fills series creator Mitch Hurwitz with mixed emotions; he says he’s ”in a state of denial” and hopes for a last-minute solution, but recognizes the realities of the business: ”It’s frustrating, but why should we assume that when you try something different it will immediately be accepted?”