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TV Review: 'Arrested Development' develops some laughs

Sunday, November 02, 2003

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette Editor

Easily the most bizarre, inventive sitcom of the fall season, Fox's "Arrested Development" wrings laughs from the strange, the uncomfortable and the inappropriate. It's not your typical sitcom, but it is a welcome addition to the prime-time landscape.

"Arrested Development"

When: 9:30 tonight on Fox.

Starring: Jason Bateman.

Jason Bateman ("The Hogan Family") stars as Michael Bluth, widowed father of a 13-year-old son, George Michael (Michael Cera), and heir to a family business.

Michael's father, George (Jeffrey Tambor in his best role since "The Larry Sanders Show"), heads the family's development business that includes planning tract house communities (Michael and his son live in the attic of a model home) and running a frozen banana stand in Orange County, Calif.

Each episode is narrated by Ron Howard, the film director and former "Happy Days" star who is an executive producer on "Arrested Development." Tonight's premiere is set at George Sr.'s retirement party, which turns into a disaster long before he's arrested for defrauding investors.

Michael's sister, Lindsay (Portia De Rossi), returns to town with her emotionally unstable husband, Tobias (David Cross), and uniquely rebellious teen daughter, Maeby (Alia Shawkat), who stirs the interest of her cousin, George Michael.

Lindsay spends money like crazy and works full-time as a fund-raiser for pet causes, including an anti-circumcision movement (H.O.O.P. -- Hands Off Our Penises).

Brother Gob (Will Arnett) is an aspiring magician with an insecurity complex and brother Buster (Tony Hale) remains tied to the apron strings of family matriarch Lucille (Jessica Walter), who's despondent over her fox stole, which is missing a foot.

"You've got to remember," Michael tells her, "you're going to be splattered in red paint and that tends to distract the eye."

The entire Bluth clan is a dysfunctional mess, but in such an over-the-top way it's not off-putting. When Michael gets passed over to replace his father as head of the Bluth empire, he decides to strike out on his own.

"No hard feelings, adios, see you when the first parent dies," he says by way of farewell.

Lucille is a withholding, controlling harridan. At lunch with her daughter, she criticizes her meal saying, "You want your belt to buckle, not your chair."

But unlike the mean-spirited humor in so many new sitcoms, "Arrested Development" doesn't grate because its characters are almost cartoonish, making them easier to laugh at.

And though it lacks the heart of "Scrubs," "Arrested Development" does borrow that show's technique of quick cuts and short, inserted tangential scenes.

Created by Mitchell Hurwitz ("The John Larroquette Show"), "Arrested Development" has one glaring problem: It may be too smart a show for Fox. Scheduling it in the "Andy Richter Controls the Universe" memorial death slot doesn't help.

Like "Andy Richter," "Arrested Development" is a single-camera show, meaning it's not shot in front of a studio audience and has no laugh track. But there are laughs to be had, beginning with every time Michael says his son's name, George Michael, which brings to mind the British singer.

Some will accuse the show of going for cheap laughs with the incest jokes between George Michael and his cousin, but young actor Michael Cera has such an innocent face, all is easily forgiven.

Actually, the acting is uniformly good, particularly Jason Bateman. Yes, he of "Silver Spoons" and "Teen Wolf Too" has developed a keen sense of comic timing. He's the normal character on this show, the audience's entry into this cracked family, but he's not the straight man, throwing out snappy lines and revealing his character's own idiosyncrasies.

Tambor, so good as a lovable loser on "Larry Sanders," is much less a loser here, even though he spends subsequent episodes in prison. Instead, he's just a loon who looks at his sentence as a vacation.

"I'm having the time of my life," he says with utter seriousness.

With its depiction of a warped, absurd family, "Arrested Development" is worth watching for fans of out-there comedy. The big question will be whether the show is able to get arrested in the ratings or falls into the abyss like its time slot predecessor.


You can reach Rob Owen at 412-263-2582 orrowen@post-gazette.com . Post questions or comments to www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Forum.

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