Television: The Great Wit Hope

Fox's Arrested Development is remaking the sitcom. Will anyone watch?

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In looks and structure, Arrested Development is like a 30-min. drama, just a hilarious one. In most network sitcoms nowadays, the wisecracking characters are aware that they're being funny. The oblivious Bluths are funny despite themselves. "To these characters," says Jason Bateman, who stars as straight-arrow son Michael, "what's happened to them is an absolute tragedy. If they knew people were laughing, they'd be deeply offended."

So Hurwitz cast a brilliant group of character actors, such as Tambor (sidekick Hank Kingsley on HBO's Larry Sanders Show), David Cross (of HBO's Mr. Show) as George's fey doctor-turned-actor son-in-law Tobias F√ľnke and Will Arnett, who steals his every scene as rebellious son Gob (pronounced like the biblical Job), a preening, self-absorbed magician. The most traditional sitcom actor is Bateman (Silver Spoons), whom Hurwitz was reluctant to cast for precisely that reason. "But he came in and gave this dry, confident performance," Hurwitz says. "There aren't many actors who will throw away those lines without giving you a big wink."

Granted, a lot of people have come to need the wink to tell them what to laugh at. And Arrested Development draws a dark picture of family relations: "What we have is not a family," Michael tells his son in the season-two opener. "It's a bunch of greedy, selfish people who have our nose." But the show is no more avant-garde than, say, Seinfeld, and it's less misanthropic. At some level, the Bluths need one another; they are the only ones who know what it is like to be Bluths. "We're not saying, No hugs, no lessons," says Hurwitz. "It's about people trying to grow as human beings but whose development has been arrested because they had money."

After all, people have happily watched a brainy, densely layered dysfunctional-family sitcom on Fox for 15 years: The Simpsons. With that in mind, Fox moved Arrested Development to the slot right after its cartoon powerhouse. The move, on top of the Emmy, should give TV's best comedy its best chance--and maybe its last. However much Emmy hardware Arrested Development wins, it ultimately needs to make money. "This is a business," says Arnett. "The Coke commercials are not filling the gap between our segments. We are filling in the gap between the Coke commercials." Back in the makeup trailer, Tambor (who has thankfully added a pair of shorts over his briefs) says the Emmy, by telling mainstream viewers it's "safe" to watch, will allow the sitcom to sell enough soda to survive. "We turned from the little engine that maybe could," he says, "into the little engine that could." Do yourself a favor and get on board.

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