It takes a minute to get your bearings in the peculiar world of Arrested Development's Bluth family. For one thing, they're a bit anachronistic. From Gob (Will Arnett), a magician more David Copperfield than David Blaine, to matriarch Lucille (Jessica Walter), a Dynastyesque grande dame, these characters could be swiped straight from an '80s nighttime soap.
And that's the other thing: Arrested Development doesn't feel like a sitcom. Bare of a laugh track and filmed with a single, often jittery camera, the series looks more like an overblown drama or a gritty documentary not a comedy that features such loopy situations as an inflammatory ''chicken dance'' or a teenage boy driving a car while jammed on Daddy's lap.
Secure in its quality (the show earned a best-comedy Emmy in September), Arrested is shaking up its premise just enough in its second season. Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) and Tobias (David Cross) have embarked on an incredibly unliberating open marriage, and George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) is lamming it from jail as news breaks that the family's development firm, Bluth Co., built homes for Saddam Hussein. The scenario has offered some winky Iraq-war-related jokes. When Bluth Co. completed a new model home, Gob soared into the ribbon cutting on a crane, Dubya-style. (Gob does, after all, stand for George O. Bluth II.) Under a ''Mission Accomplished'' banner, he gave a convoluted, up-with-people stump speech: ''My brother wasn't optimistic it could be done, but I wouldn't take 'not optimistic it could be done' for an answer!''
If status-obsessed Gob is the family Republican, then Michael (Jason Bateman), with his nurturing underdog doormattiness, is the Democrat and they're both smug over the downfall of their dictatorial father, who was spoofed as Saddam, dental probe and all. (And I'm not even going to touch Tobias' ''WMDs.'')
As for Arrested's cast, they've become the best ensemble on TV. Bateman's charismatic straight man is worth three Zeppos, two Abbotts, and a Rowan. Arnett invests his bombastic Gob with unsightly veins of doubt, while Walter whose Lucille has rekindled her affair with George's twin, Oscar (also Tambor) plays her dowager-in-love like a spiteful lap cat, purring one moment, scratching the next. And Michael Cera as Bateman's TV son, George Michael has created a sweetheart. He's an underestimated linchpin for this show.
The writing reminds me of (and this is a high, if random, compliment) Police Squad!, that short-lived TV precursor to the Naked Gun movies, which was packed with raunchy, goofy wordplay. Arrested's banter is so quick, and the delivery so subtle, quips almost need a three-second delay (oh ''Seaward,'' C-word, I get it!). The thick peppering of sight gags was that Snoopy's doghouse in the background? requires repeat viewing to catch them all. Smart, unruly, and very fast, Arrested is the ultimate TV series for our TiVo age.