Arrested Development has one of those punny, premise-on-a-platter titles -- like ''Heavens to Betsy'' or ''Attila the Honey'' (which don't exist, but you know someday they will) -- that usually heralds bad news. Fortunately, the new Fox comedy, created by Mitchell Hurwitz and executive-produced by Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, is gloriously atypical, most notably for how it elicits deep, involuntary diaphragmatic convulsions. I don't know about you, but I'm not used to laughing out loud alone in front of the TV. Honestly, I was startled.
Even more startling is how ''Development'' is the only new comedy to take aim at some of the juiciest game to waddle into our view in ages -- the lifestyles of the very rich and very larcenous (think Enron, Tyco, and WorldCom). The sitcom follows an emotionally stunted clan whose wealthy real estate developer pater, George Bluth (the peerless Jeffrey Tambor, who as a jailbird provides one of this fall's funniest scenes), gets arrested for ''defrauding investors and using the company as his personal piggy bank,'' as a chirpy local newscaster puts it. The bust occurs moments after George passes over his son Michael (Jason Bateman) for the job of CEO, giving it instead to his shallow socialite wife, Lucille (Jessica Walter), a cold lush who indulges her kids' every material whim and then eviscerates them emotionally. The family, unmoved by the arrest, only truly falls apart when they discover that the company's assets have been frozen.
The Bluths are the picture of a filthy-rich American family, at least judging by the pictures one sees in the New York Times Style section. Eldest son GOB (pronounced Job, played by Will Arnett) is a rage-filled magician with a second career in seething resentment. Michael's twin sister, Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), is a chic, knee-jerk ''rebel'' who married an obsequious, inept psychiatrist of ambiguous sexual orientation (the hilarious David Cross) to annoy her parents. (When we first meet Dr. Tobias Funke -- pronounced Fyoon-keh -- he has lost his medical license and is embarking on a new, exciting career as an unemployed actor.) Youngest son Buster (Tony Hale) is a perpetual grad student who still lives with Mom and suffers from panic attacks. Michael's 13-year-old son, the gawky and eager-to-please George Michael (Michael Cera), develops an uncomfortable crush on his spunky cousin, the counter-rebellious Maeby (Alia Shawkat), who mock-encourages George Michael's incestuous flirtations to freak out her folks.
Not one of them could survive a day without help from Michael, the only functioning Bluth, but they almost have to when he decides to take a job in Arizona. Their initial elation (Michael's first act as CEO would've been to take away company credit cards) quickly subsides into panic. Eventually and inevitably, he relents, and the characters settle into the familiar groove of getting on each other's nerves. This is accomplished quietly, through lingering, disbelieving stares, awkward silences, and the kind of deft physical comedy that never involves tripping over a sofa. Instead, we get George burning his hand while pitching a kitchen death trap called the Cornballer (legal only in Mexico) on Richard Simmons' show or Tobias weeping uncontrollably in the shower.
''Development'' is set in Orange County, which has lately enjoyed an on-screen revival (or maybe just a vival) that is richly deserved. Shot in digital video and freed from the enhanced indulgence of a studio audience, the show romps in McMansionland and finds plenty to laugh at: grad students practicing Native American drum rituals, maids on public transportation carting racks full of furs for storage, and housing developments with names like Sudden Valley.
The blithe decadence of it all (''The SEC is making him out to be some kind of mastermind,'' Lucille complains, ''which, believe me, he's not. The man can barely work our shredder'') is underscored by dulcet narration from Howard, sounding just like Richie Cunningham. The evocation of ''Happy Days'' is a nice touch -- a reminder of the middle-class values we cherish in theory and in syndication. The Bluths aren't immune to that myth -- ''What have we always said is the most important thing?'' Michael asks his son. The boy thinks for a moment. ''Breakfast.'' ''Family,'' corrects Michael. ''Family, right. I thought you meant of the things you eat'' -- and we can relate.