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'Development' may prove arresting

October 31, 2003|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Once you accept that it is going to work a little harder than is necessary to convince you of its eccentricity, there are many, many things to like about "Arrested Development," Fox's latest entry in the Dysfunctional-Family Comedy Sweepstakes. (They've got "The Simpsons" and "Malcolm in the Middle," so they've already won that contest, but why not go for the hat trick?)

For that matter, even the fact that the show works hard -- that it takes as its stylistic and, in some ways, its substantial model "The Royal Tenenbaums" rather than "Growing Pains" -- is something to be grateful for, television being such a habitually underachieving repeater of past successes.

As do several other series this season ("Happy Family," "All About the Andersons"), it concerns immature grown children, although here even the older generation are found wanting. Jason Bateman plays Michael, the only responsible adult member of the Bluth family, which also includes father George (Jeffrey Tambor), a real estate developer about to be arrested for embezzlement by the SEC -- already it is not your standard television comedy -- mother Lucille (Jessica Walter), controlling and contemptuous; and siblings Lindsay (Portia de Rossi), Buster (Tony Hale) and George Oscar Bluth (Will Arnett), "Gob" for short. Buster is a mama's boy who has studied many less than useful subjects (Native American drumming, cartography, 18th century agrarian business) while mastering none; "Gob" is a third-rate magician, who always speaks as if on stage. ("Illusion, Michael," he says when his brother asks him about a magic trick. "A trick is something a whore does for money.")

Lindsay is a kind of society fund-raiser whose current pet cause fights circumcision -- "sounds like you saved enough skin to make 10 new boys," Michael observes. She is married to Tobias Funke (David Cross), a psychiatrist who lost his medical license when he performed CPR on a man who wasn't having a heart attack, and is the mother of Mae "Maeby" Funke (Alia Shawkat), upon whom Michael's 13-year-old son George Michael (Michael Cera) has a large crush.

All of them depend largely on the family fortune. When father George goes to jail and the assets are frozen, they must hang together or hang separately.

Like "The Royal Tenenbaums," the series uses the language of documentary -- narration (by an uncredited Ron Howard, who is also an executive producer, and welcome back, Opie!), photos, film clips, hand-held camera, jump cuts -- without claiming to be one. Improvisation heightens the effect of reality, even when what's happening is no more "real" than an episode of "The Addams Family."

Indeed, for all its willful outrageousness, "Arrested Development" is sort of gripping -- a continuing story that one actually wants to see continue, which is more than can be said of most of the new dramas the season produced.

And it seems likely that the story will go in directions that not only will be hard to predict but may be surprising even in retrospect, because the usual schemas of emotional manipulation in which most TV series indulge mean nothing here.

The cast, drawn from all styles and strata of television comedy, from "Silver Spoons" (Bateman) to "Mr. Show" (Cross) to "Ally McBeal" (de Rossi) to "The Larry Sanders Show" (Tambor) -- is uniformly excellent. The show is a true ensemble piece, though Bateman -- the show's moral center, which is to say, the character who thinks of something other than himself -- occupies more or less the position of star, and as a perennially underrated actor he deserves perhaps a special mention. He plays Michael as a likable mix of decency and cynicism: an Everyman for our times.

And finally, there is blessed silence where a laugh track once would have inevitably gone. Of all the fictions that television generates, the one that fake laughter makes bad jokes funny is one of the worst. It is just a step from there to the notion, popular among real-life American politicians, that pretending a thing is so makes it so. But television, as a guest in your house, should be above that.

*

'Arrested Development'

Where: Fox.

When: Sundays, 9:30-10 p.m., premiering Sunday.

Rating: The network has rated the show TV-PGL (may not be suitable for young children, with an advisory for coarse language).

Jason Bateman...Michael Bluth

Portia de Rossi...Lindsay Bluth

Jeffrey Tambor...George Bluth, Sr.

Jessica Walter...Lucille Bluth

David Crosse...Tobias Funke

Michael Cera...George Michael Bluth

Will Arnett...Gob Bluth

Tony Hale...Buster Bluth

Alia Shawkat...Maeby Funke

Creator, Mitchell Hurwitz. Executive producers, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, David Nevins, Hurwitz. Directors, Anthony and Joe Russo.

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