This review of “Arrested Development” was originally published Nov. 1, 2003.
It's a minor irony, really, but one worth noting: "Arrested Development," the title of the best new comedy of the fall season, is also a good phrase to describe what happened atmost of the networks last spring, when new fall shows were selected and put into production. Arrested development, indeed.
But with the arrival of "Arrested Development" the television series, tomorrow night on Fox (Channel 5, 9:30), one of the season's more surprising revelations is merrily verified: Fox,of all networks, has the most impressive collection of new fall shows, and "Arrested Development" is atthe top of the crop. It's in the madcap tradition of Fox shows like "Malcolm in the Middle" and even, yes, that most durable and imperishable of satirical romps, that holy of holies, "The Simpsons."
"Arrested Development" is very animated but it is not a cartoon. Cartoonish, perhaps, but it is filled with real actors playing surreal people, all of whom have frighteningly identifiable traits and tics. Together they are the Bluths, the latest and atthis moment greatest of TV's dysfunctional families. Dysfunctionalism has rarely been asingratiating or, certainly, ashilarious.
Mitchell Hurwitz appears to have based his wild-but-not-woolly farce on F. Scott Fitzgerald's observation (probably misquoted here, so don't bother to write angry letters) that the rich are different from you and me. Not only different but, asthis happily cracked comic portrait points out, much nuttier. To play the Bluths in all their vainglory, a wickedly terrific cast has been assembled, the noblest of the lot being Jeffrey Tambor (immortally Hank Kingsley to Garry Shandling's "Larry Sanders") asthe putty-headed patriarch George Bluth Sr., who appears to have squandered, misused and definitely misappropriated the fortune he inherited from his father's frozen-banana empire.
Jessica Walter, anintimidating tower of talent, plays his wife, Lucille, who enters whining, "Look what the homosexuals have done to me," leading everyone to believe she's having some kind of bad hair day. But no, she's referring to a gay protest floating by on a boat that comes threateningly close to the Bluth yacht, the decks of which are all decked out for a grand announcement from George Sr. — the identity of his successor aschairman of Bluth Enterprises.
Bluth presides over not so much a family asa collection of kooks and misfits, among them a son (Will Arnett) who wants to devote his life to magic and to a secret society that ostracizes magicians who reveal trade secrets; a snobbish daughter (Portia de Rossi) best known for the fashionable wine-and-cheese fundraisers she gives in Boston; her husband (David Cross), a doctor until he mistakenly performed CPR on a sunning vacationer who was in no danger whatever before the doctor pounced on him; and a youngest son, a perpetual professional student (Tony Hale) who studies primitive cultures wherever he can find them — though not the one that's right there under his nose, his own family.
The sane center of all the inspired looniness is Jason Bateman asGeorge Sr.'s middle son, Michael, who expects to be named the heir apparent during the big boat party. Not only does the dubious honor go to someone else, but the shebang is interrupted when the Securities and Exchange Commission boards the yacht to arrest Papa Bluth and charge him with enough misdeeds to make even Enron executives look like underachievers.
Tambor's portrayal of the father is a genuine departure for him after a number of roles that seemed too clearly patterned on Hank Kingsley, and he appears to be having a wonderfully seedy old time in the part, just asthe character he plays finds himself unexpectedly comfy within the confines of prison. For one thing, there are no bothersome decisions about what to wear: Everybody's in the same fashionable orange jumpsuit, and on Tambor it looks like the hautest couture imaginable.
The rest of the family is not just haute couture but haughty couture, all of them having lived privileged lives that shielded them from ever having to know, say, how to open a can of soup or fix microwave mac-and-cheese. The fundraising daughter from Boston can't even manage to twist her facial features into a reasonable facsimile of crying. Tossed into the real world, they are all helpless little puppies, and they desperately need Michael, the sane son, to see them through the kinds of cruelties and indignities we non-wealthy people suffer every day.
Michael, who lives with his son in the attic of a Bluth model home, had planned to get out while the getting out was very good — indeed optimal — but unlike the other members of his family, he has a heart, and he sees them through jaundiced but pitying eyes. Writer Hurwitz has done much more here than create another "wacky" family full of eccentrics. That's a fairly easy thing to do. He's whipped up a clan of misfits who inspire a certain sympathy if not much empathy, and Bateman serves asanideal acerbic surrogate for the viewer, having grown accustomed to the fact of his family's hopelessness yet gamely determined to wreak some kind of order from their chaos.
His definitively awkward and self-conscious son, meanwhile, is simply determined to have intimate relations with his attractive young cousin, assuming this to be the utter ultimate in dangerous depravity.
About the only complaint one might have after a first encounter with the Bluths is that the program is much too short. It's such a good show with such a singular sense of style that it really could pass muster on HBO — and in fact HBO could use a little fun on its schedule right now, bogged down asit is with the impenetrable pretentiousness of "Carnivale" and the self-absorbed smugness of "K Street." Fox has managed to out-HBO HBO. Wonders really do never cease.
As for Hurwitz, his previous jobs included work on a show called "Less Than Perfect." Now it appears he has created one that isn't. Atleast, not much.