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If It's Friday, This Must Be Cancelled

Look, I don't go out of my way to disagree with any of the other folks who opine for your amusement here at TeeVee. Well, except for Rywalt. Because... because... well, you've read his stuff. Plus, whenever we give him the business, his right temple begins to noticeably throb and his face turns about six variations of red. It's kind of funny to watch. We really should post pictures.

The point is, I'm a pretty agreeable person. Amiable. A good co-worker. The sort of fellow who gives his colleagues all the respect that's due them (with the exception of you-know-who). And definitely not a person who derives any sort of pleasure by pointing out the howling errors made by others who may or may not contribute to this site.

That said, the article by young Nathan Alderman -- the piece we kept up for a week while the rest of us finish sleeping off whatever it is we downed over the holidays -- is simply wrong. UPN wrong. Let's-give-Tony-Danza-his-own-talk-show wrong. Wrong wrong.

Oh, not his central point -- that Fox's Arrested Development is a darn funny show and well worth your undivided attention. There, young Alderman was spot on. Highlighting the show's strong points -- superb writing and some fine comic acting, particularly from Jason Bateman and Jeffrey Tambor -- would just be repetitive, so I'll simply nod vigorously at Alderman's endorsement.

Which is not to say that Arrested Development is not flawless -- at this point in the show's lifespan, it can feel a little rudderless at times and there's about one no-account Bluth offspring too many in that cast (I'm looking in your direction, Buster). And the recent TelevisionWeek poll where TV critics hailed Arrested Development as the best show on the tube -- well, that's simply laughable, considering Arrested Development is arguably only the fourth best show on Fox on Sunday nights, trailing the resurgent Malcolm in the Middle, the woefully under-appreciated King of the Hill and the still-funny-no-matter-what-the-disgruntled-fanboys-are-griping-about Simpsons. Just goes to show that New Puppy Syndrome is still afflicting our nation's TV critics at epidemic levels.

But this is simply nitpicking. If Arrested Development had made its debut during a Golden Age of Sitcoms, it would still stand out in a crowd. That it's plying its trade at a time when Whoopi Goldberg is able to hold a terrified nation at bay explains why people are so eager to throw critical hosannas in its general direction, deserved or otherwise. All you need to know about Arrested Development is that if you enjoy laughing with television instead of at it, you really ought to work the show into your rotation.

No, where Alderman's argument goes off the rails is when he contends that Fox is already sizing up Arrested Development for a pine box and a decent burial suit. Like the old man at the beginning of "Monty Python and the Holy Grail" who's not quite dead yet, Arrested Development isn't even within shouting distance of death's door. Fox, it seems, after a lifetime of primping and polishing up new shows all nice and pretty-like only to throw them under a bus the minute the No. 7 Express rolls on by, has finally figured out how to nurture a show. And not in its usual "We picked up Undeclared for a full season -- oh whoopsie, just canceled it" sort of way.

Now, when Fox says it's picked up Arrested Development for a full season, it means an honest-to-God fall-to-mid-May timeframe. Fox is also promoting the hell out of the show. Just look at the network's playoff coverage the last two weeks -- difficult to do, I realize, when Joe Buck and Troy Aikman are anywhere near an open microphone -- where Arrested Development promos blanket the airwaves alongside ads for My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiance. (In case you confuse the two shows, the former focuses on a group of conniving, amoral sociopaths, while the latter considers conniving, amoral sociopaths to be its target audience.) And perhaps most telling of all, Arrested Development airs on Sunday nights -- the Fox scheduling equivalent of a Supreme Court appointment. Once you're in there, you're in until they wheel you out on a gurney. Or until they catch you taking bribes. Whichever.

Consider the case of Oliver Beene. In case you don't remember the show -- and I'm going to assume that sound of crickets chirping means you don't -- it's the one about the kid who reminisces about growing up in the coo-coo-crazy '60s. You know, sort of like the Wonder Years, only without the heartwarming writing. Or Winnie Cooper. Or the vague interest of more than a handful of viewers.

And yet, turn on your TV on Sunday night sometime in February, flip over to Fox, and you'll find Oliver Beene, bright-eyed and busy-tailed and back on Fox to the general puzzlement of nearly folks who think the show has something to do either with that Naked Chef guy or the long-last Brady Bunch cousin. I didn't watch Oliver Beene, and you didn't watch Oliver Beene, and even if we did, we certainly didn't care if it ever drew another breath again. And yet, there it is, back on our TV, like some long-lost relative we had forgotten existed who showed up at our front door and immediately established a permanent residence on our futon. If such a mediocrity as Oliver Beene can claw out a second season, surely a return engagement is in the bag for Arrested Development.

Besides, you want to know when to start worrying about Arrested Development's immediate future? When Fox moves it to any other night but Sunday.

Stroll away from Fox's Sunday night stronghold, and you find a landscape littered with the bleached bones of comedy programs mowed down before their time. For every That '70s Show which has managed to thrive outside of Sunday night's protective embrace, there are dozens of Ticks and Actions and Family Guys dotting the landscape as if it were some sort of scheduling No Man's Land. Stacked up against Fox's non-Sunday track record with comedies, and the Amityville Horror house starts to look like an attractive fixer-upper and your local ancient Indian burial ground seems like a really nice place to build that Chuck E. Cheese you've been thinking of opening. Britney Spears has had better, more lasting luck with marriages than Fox has had with weekday sitcoms.

Just ask poor, dopey Norm Macdonald.

The one-time "Weekend Update" anchor and current Canadian got a full-frontal dose of Fox-style programming savvy when his new show, A Minute With Stan Hooper debuted last fall. In it, Macdonald played a Charles Kuralt-esque TV newsman, whose weekly commentaries are peppered with paeans to the simple joys of small-town living. Swayed by his own prose, the Macdonald character grabs his wife -- played with nearly life-like adequacy by Feminine Comedic Unit 2.1, or as she was dubbed by her creators at U.S. Robotics, Penelope Anne Miller -- and hies himself hither to a small town in Wisconsin. Because this is television, the town is populated by wacky eccentrics, whose off-beat antics never cease to fluster and bemuse our hero.

Fox promoted A Minute With Stan Hooper fairly extensively during the baseball playoffs. It unveiled the show the Wednesday after the World Series ended and broadcast four episodes. Then, after Stan Hooper failed to garner any kind of overwhelming critical buzz or newspaper editorials denouncing it for being an affront to decency -- seemingly the only two ways a program can impress the executives over at Fox -- the network yanked the show from its schedule with the kind of fanfare the Soviets used to shower upon out-of-favor agricultural ministers.

I happened to catch Stan Hooper last month, when Fox stealthily burned off two more installments on a Friday night, thus allowing the show to reach the magical half-dozen-episode threshold. (Only 94 more, and you're in syndication, baby!) As the premise detailed above suggests, Stan Hooper wasn't exactly the most inventive show to hit the airwaves last fall. It fell back to readily on the ol' gee-we-sophisticated-city-folk-could-sure-learn-a-lot-from-you-yokels-and-your-backcountry-ways shtick. Both Stan Hooper installments also seemed to borrow heavily -- and not always successfully -- from the vastly superior Newhart, another series in which a sophisticated urbanite is slowly driven mad by the rustic and bumpkins surrounding him. (There's a reason for that similarity: both Newhart and Stan Hooper were produced by Barry Kemp, who also must one day answer for developing Coach. However, Christian charity and forbearance prevents us from denouncing him for that latter show, even if it's responsible -- no matter how indirectly -- for The District.)

Set aside Stan Hooper's pat premise and its failure to successfully steal from its betters, though, and you're still left with a fairly entertaining show. It's nice to see Norm Macdonald play against type, replacing the smart-alecky blowhard that he normally portrays for a more genial, good-natured brand of blowhard. Macdonald does exasperated incredulity surprisingly well, particularly in scenes like the one in which he's shocked to discover that no one in his new hometown locks their doors at night -- including the local businesses. Driven slowly mad by the townsfolk's insouciance, Macdonald decides to teach them a lesson by robbing the local diner -- and winds up hanging in a giant net for two weeks per the town charter's proscribed punishment for theft. There's no surer laugh-getter than having affable public figure completely lose his shit, and in this particular episode, Macdonald loses his shit with the best of them.

Stan Hooper also features as a supporting player the great Fred Willard, who can milk laughs out of even the most slender of expository lines. The rest of the cast is solid, if not particularly memorable, with even Penelope Anne Miller managing to occasionally escape from the paper bag she normally can't act her way out of.

In short, watching Stan Hooper was a generally pleasant experience. Chuckles were had. No animals were harmed. And I didn't have to draw the shades, lest the neighbors think I was watching something unsavory like porno or According to Jim. If that doesn't exactly sound like a ringing endorsement, consider that you could airlift Stan Hooper to ABC, UPN or the WB and, without improving a thing, it would automatically be the best comedy on their schedules. Perhaps the best comedy to ever air on the WB.

Instead, through a cruel twist of fate, Stan Hooper is on Fox. And, as a result, it's as dead as Dillinger. Those two little-promoted, blink-and-you-missed-'em episodes I caught by accident happened to represent Stan Hooper's last best chance at survival. And, not surprisingly for something that's little promoted or missed once anyone blinks, Stan Hooper missed its shot. The episodes attract Fox's second-smallest audience for a Friday night this season, best only a repeat episode of the chronically unwatched and mercifully canceled Skin. Earlier this month, Stan Hooper joined Skin in the boneyard.

The reason, of course, that Fox chose to burn off episodes of Stan Hooper on a Friday night was that it has plenty of airtime to fill. The network canceled one of its Friday night comedies, Luis, before anyone 'round these parts could even muster up the strength to review it. And Fox's other Friday night show, Wanda at Large, was seemingly renewed at the end of last season just so the network could can it right before the holidays.

Well, Fox's viewers aren't stupid, their embrace of The Simple Life notwithstanding. They keep seeing shows like A Minute With Stan Hooper barely outlasting the lifespan of a fruit-fly, and pretty soon, they're going to figure out that if a new Fox comedy isn't flanked by The Simpsons on one side and Malcolm on the other, they'd probably be wise not to get too emotionally attached to the newbie. So they don't watch, the show tanks in the ratings, and Fox executives furrow their brows and pull the old show off the schedule in favor of some new cannon fodder. And thus, Fox's misshapen circle of life begins anew.

I'm sure that the lesser demons who run things at Fox whenever Rupert is busy reigning over Hades can produce reams of data that prove I don't know what I'm talking about -- that canceling shows that don't immediately dominate their timeslot is a sound strategy, that audience goodwill is a myth, and that viewers love to invest time and attention to a show only to see it eradicated as if on a whim. Why show any patience in developing new shows when you've got 15 seasons' worth of Simpsons reruns to plug those holes that invariably crop up on any network's schedule?

The problem for Fox is that, increasingly, those holes are called "Monday through Friday." And as good as Arrested Development may be, it's just one half-hour on a network that's increasingly holding its schedule together with repeats, reality shows, and dead air.


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