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'Arrested Development' finds laughs in scandal

Saturday, December 27, 2003

By Frazier Moore, The Associated Press

On the Fox comedy "Arrested Development," one of many things to laugh about is the staircar -- you know, the sort of vehicle that's parked against an aircraft to let passengers board.

Funny thing is, there's no aircraft to go with it. The Bluth Development Co. had to get rid of the corporate jet along with the company limos and other assets. George Bluth, the chairman, has been busted for fraud. He's in big trouble and so are all the shareholders.

"Great," Bluth's daughter, Lindsay, sulks. "Why don't we just take an ad out in 'I'm Poor' magazine?"

As one of few items not confiscated, the staircar provides needed transportation for Michael, the Bluth son who is trying to put the company, along with his squabbling family, back together again.

Now here's the point: If you don't think the occasional glimpse of a two-story-high staircar motoring through flush Orange County, Calif., is a scream, then you haven't seen "Arrested Development," which was saluted last week by the Golden Globes with a best TV comedy nomination. (A mini-marathon of episodes airs New Year's Eve.)

A wicked homage to the scandals of Enron and Tyco, "Arrested Development" is a sendup of high-end vanities, greed and corruption. It's like a building slyly engineered without a straight line or square angle in sight. Everything is askew, which is all the funnier because none of the characters get it.

"The characters are absolutely insane," says Portia de Rossi, "yet you care about them for some reason."

It's partly her doing. She plays spoiled, self-involved Lindsay Funke, whose focus up to now has been hosting lavish fund-raisers for bizarre social causes (stop circumcision of animals!). Lindsay is twin sister of Michael (Jason Bateman), and, like him, remains confounded by their father, George (Jeffrey Tambor), who is heavily involved in the prison softball league.

This is only a sample of the improbable Bluth clan and the show's priceless cast -- which includes, in an inspired recurring role, none other than Liza Minnelli. There's also droll, documentary-like narration from Ron Howard, one of the series' executive producers.

De Rossi, of course, played ice-queen lawyer Nelle Porter on the wacky legal drama "Ally McBeal," which ended its run two seasons ago.

"I hate using a word like groundbreaking," says de Rossi, then using it anyway, "but 'Ally' really was so clever, so innovative, that it was important for me to find a new series that was comparable."

Better yet, sillier. As a sleek, sexy blonde, de Rossi doesn't have the usual looks of a clown, but on "Ally" she exhibited a comic flair.

"I have a very expressive face that I can't quite control," she explains, breaking into a very expressive smile. "That isn't so great for drama, which plays between the eyebrow and the chin, and it'll probably never get me a Cate Blanchett-type role. Since I tend to use my face a lot, I may as well put that to good comedic use."

Lindsay is a delicious role for the 30-year-old former model, who in the mid-'90s left behind her native Australia (and Mandy Rogers, the name she was born with) for Hollywood.

She co-starred in two best-forgotten sitcoms, as well as the 1997 horror spoof "Scream 2," before joining "Ally McBeal" a year later.

" 'Ally' introduced comedy into a one-hour dramatic format," she says. "But it took a helluva long time to shoot. Hours would go by between lighting setups, and you didn't have the freedom to improvise."

By contrast, on "Arrested Development" the lighting is uniform, photographable from any angle, "including the roof and the floor. So when you're on the set you're on-camera. There are no off-camera shoes on your feet."

Huh? "Women do that a lot," de Rossi says with a laugh. "Change from their high-heel shoes to sneakers or something else comfortable when a shot allows it. But here, you're always on camera."

The film rolls -- generally, two cameras are deployed -- and a scene can be performed from start to finish. Along the way, there's ample room for improvisation. "We have great writers, really funny stuff," says de Rossi, "but on the second or third take, we'll try our own things.

"We shoot in five days, comfortably, including all the flashbacks and a million costume changes. The editors: That's where the work is," she adds, flashing another smile. "We're shooting 20 hours of footage for a 22-minute show!"

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