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A comedy holding its breath

The critics love 'Arrested Development,' and it's up for seven Emmys. Now it just needs viewers, so Fox is trying to broaden its appeal.

August 15, 2004|Lynn Smith | Times Staff Writer

Afew weeks ago, sitcom writer Mitchell Hurwitz had a brief Sally Field moment. His offbeat freshman show, "Arrested Development," was nominated for seven Emmys, including best comedy, on the heels of taking top honors from the Television Critics Assn. He said his first happy thoughts ("Wow. They really like us.") were followed by mild panic ("What do you think they like? What should we do now ...?").

Despite the show's success with critics, "Arrested Development" remains Fox's lowest-rated comedy. A riches-to-rags story that follows the lazy, selfish relatives of an Orange County land developer after he is jailed for fraud, the unformulaic comedy was renewed only at the last minute and is being cautiously retooled for its second season.

The situation reflects the fundamental riddle faced by many creators in network television comedy: How do you make a hip, intelligent sitcom for the biggest possible audience? No one really knows the answer, of course, particularly now that "Seinfeld," "Friends," "Frasier" and "Sex and the City" have departed. Sitcoms are now dangerous terrain, where rewards are often commensurate with risks but where success for a newcomer can bring its own problems. The same talent and wit that win writers like Hurwitz and his team critical praise can at the same time alienate the mainstream audience they need to survive on network TV.

After his inner debate, Hurwitz concluded the best path is for the writers to keep themselves laughing and keep taking risks. "They're little risks, but that's the first thing you stop taking when you try to please a big crowd," he says.

Executives, meanwhile, are working hard to quash perceptions among potential viewers that the documentary-style show is too quirky, too highbrow, or too serialized. While the show has of-the-moment pay cable sensibilities (hand-held video, no laugh track and complex, overlapping story lines), executive producer David Nevins, the president of Imagine Television, and others associated with the show insist that "Arrested" is a mainstream family comedy.

"It's safer and more conventional than it actually appears," Nevins says.

The character of Michael (played by Jason Bateman), the most "normal" of the adult siblings, will become more prominent this season, both in the show and in its marketing and promotion, Nevins says. "Part of what has been pushed out there is the perception of the show as this crazy collection of crazy characters. I think it's very important that people feel they have a center that they can relate to and understand and hold on to," he says.

Bateman "has a bit of what Tom Hanks has," he says. "He can be the straight man and still be funny. He's able to be a little bit petty and mean and still be very likable. And he's got a big heart." The audience has a "comfort zone" with him, Nevins says.

"I'm your tour guide," Bateman says of Michael. "I'll walk you out before it gets too weird."

"Arrested Development" is the struggling brainchild of Imagine's co-chairman Ron Howard and veteran comedy writer Hurwitz.

Nevins, a former executive at NBC, had worked with Hurwitz ("The Golden Girls," "The John Larroquette Show") on the short-lived "Everything's Relative," a precursor to "Arrested Development," and introduced Hurwitz to Howard. "He's got an original comedy brain and was schooled in traditional sitcoms," he says of Hurwitz. "They hit it off instantly," Nevins says.

Howard, a child star of sitcoms ("The Andy Griffith Show" and "Happy Days") who now directs films, says he had the idea to blend the best of traditional sitcoms with the new, more cinematic "grammar" of reality shows. "I thought we could take this video technology and a docu-reality approach to a half-hour comedy and do something that would be visually different, that would allow for a wider range and type of jokes -- visual, editorial, musical, in addition to what sitcoms usually offer," says Howard, who also produces television shows such as "24" and "Wonderland."

To Howard's approach, Hurwitz added the story of the Bluth family, whose members are thrust awkwardly together in the lone model home on one of the Bluth Development Co.'s terraced hillsides. The title refers partly to the family's curtailed building projects and partly to the four adult siblings whose emotional growth was stunted by wealth and narcissism.

"As miserable as they are now, I like to think they're becoming better people," Hurwitz says. "But not so much better that they're not funny anymore."

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