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It Oughta Be a Crime

I wouldn't be surprised if they actually have a graveyard somewhere.

Fox, network television's abbatoir of quality programming, has killed more good shows than most networks ever schedule. Look, there's the tasteful headstone for Undeclared, right next to the final resting place of Andy Richter Controls The Universe. Looks like someone's just put fresh flowers on the graves of The Tick and Futurama. And that big crowd over there is the 24-hour candlelight vigil for Firefly, recently exhumed and embalmed, Lenin-like, in a damn fine DVD collection.

That roped-off patch of grass? Oh, that's the plot Fox has reserved for the newest resident-to-be of Cancellation Meadows, Arrested Development. It's the funniest, most finely crafted half-hour of comedy to grace network TV in years, but you wouldn't know it from the ratings. And even though a hailstorm of critical praise got Fox to pick the show up for a full season of Sunday nights, it's likely that come May, Fox will be telling those same critics how Arrested Development was sent to a farm in the country to run and play with all the other sitcoms.

Aside from the fact that no sensible viewer should be asked to watch anything else at an hour when Jennifer Garner is running around in high heels kicking people in the head, there's no good explanation why audiences shouldn't love Arrested Development. All those people who fawned over Seinfeld for its snarky characters and deftly interwoven storylines should be hailing Development as The Second Coming. Creator Mitchell Hurwitz's resume isn't exactly stellar -- The Golden Girls is pretty much the highlight -- but he's struck gold with this study of the staggeringly dysfunctional Bluth family, and the one reasonably honest son trying to hold them together.

Imagine George Bailey of Bedford Falls pushed well past the breaking point, and you've got Michael Bluth. Played to the hilt by Jason Bateman (who knew?), he's decent but not saintly, put-upon but not a pushover. He can eviscerate his relatives a perfectly timed retort, yet never seem smug. And instead of placing him on a pedestal, Hurwitz and his writers wisely make Michael just as unlucky as the rest of the Bluths, cursed to fail again and again in his efforts to save their sorry hides.

Of course, the other Bluths don't help him much. His socialite sister Lindsay is so self-absorbed, she makes Paris Hilton look downright introspective. Yes, actress Portia DiRossi is a dish and a half, but she's got comic chops almost as surprising as Bateman's. DiRossi realizes that "shallow" doesn't necessarily mean "dumb," and gives Lindsay an oblivious sort of dignity that makes her egotism even funnier.

Lindsay's husband Tobias Funke, a disgraced doctor turned disgraceful actor, is played by David Cross of Mr. Show fame. He's a staggeringly funny human being, whether he's explaining his pathological fear of being naked, or just pronouncing his character's last name. (FYOON-kuh.) His willingness to march Tobias wide-eyed and cheery into utter disaster leads to some of the show's biggest laughs.

Then there's Will Arnett as Gob (pronounced Job, in the biblical sense), the eldest son and failed magician. He whirs around on a Segway -- useless wealth, laziness and general superfluity all condensed into one handy symbol -- and makes the sort of dramatic gestures and stagy eyebrow movements that one can only hope David Copperfield leaves onstage.

Lazy and stupid though he is, Gob is a model adult compared to Buster (Tony Hale), the perpetual grad student of the family. A doughy tadpole of a man, prone to panic attacks and fainting spells, Buster looks like the type for whom tying shoelaces is a challenge akin to climbing Everest. I can't even begin to describe the ongoing subplot involving his sweetly squeamish courtship of Liza Minelli -- it's too sublimely odd to put into words.

Meanwhile, Lindsay and Tobias's daughter Maeby (Alli Shawkat) is a budding criminal sure to do the family proud. And Michael's son George Michael (Michael Cera) is constantly torn between his good-heartedness and his horrified, hormone-fueled infatuation with his cousin Maeby.

At the root of this twisted family tree: mother Lucille (Jessica Walter) and incarcerated father George (Jeffrey Tambor), both living in some separate cosmos where criticism cannot reach them. Lucille's martini-fueled malice makes Joan Crawford look like June Cleaver. When she's caught upbraiding a Mexican housekeeper for some poorly planned vacuuming, she huffs, "These people didn't sneak into this country to be our friends." George, meanwhile, seems to be having the time of his life in prison, whether savoring ice cream sandwiches or considering membership offers from various gangs. With his laid-back delivery and general air of weariness, Tambor strikes a graceful balance between shrewd and stupid.

All this insanity is captured in shaky-cam documentary style by directors Joe and Anthony Russo, making good on the promise shown in their feature film "Welcome To Collinwood." And it's narrated with gentle, soothing reproach by the show's executive producer, Ron Howard, in a final touch of comic class.

There are so many reasons to like this show. The writing piles calamity upon calamity with merciless joy, always neatly circling back to snatch defeat from the jaws of a potential Bluth family victory. The actors don't say their lines and then wait stiffly for canned laughter; the unforced ease with which they toss quips back and forth makes the show feel more honest, and allows them to cram half again as many laughs into any given half hour. And best of all, the Bluths are more characters than caricatures. They're all allowed to be human underneath their general awfulness, which keeps Arrested Development from veering into Seinfeldian self-loathing and mean-spiritedness.

Give Fox the credit it deserves. Whereas Firefly was shot full of the wrong meds and then hastily smothered with a pillow, Arrested Development is enjoying world-class life support by comparison. It has a plum time slot behind Malcolm In The Middle, a prominent spot on the Fox Web site, and plenty of on-air promotion. All it needs is a bigger audience.

So come on, America. Do you really want to watch socialites throw cow dung at each other? Do you need to see another iron-throated malcontent murder pop-songs on American Idol? And for Pete's sake, do you want to live in the same world as My Big Fat Obnoxious Fiancee?

I can only hope the answer is "no." And yet, while I watch Arrested Development, the same thought keeps running through my head: someday, after it's cancelled, this is going to be great on DVD.


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