Why does America hate "Arrested Development"
Once again, another of my favorite TV shows goes down the tubes (no pun intended). Apparently Fox has all but cancelled Arrested Development having passed on the back nine episodes which will end this season with a total of 13; a near guarantee that what is arguably the best show on television will not be back for a fourth season. To be honest, I am grateful and amazed that it made it this far.
Fortunately I am building up my tolerance for this sort of thing what with Fox cancelling both Wonderfalls and Undeclared before either of them could complete their first and only seasons. (But it was NBC that gave me my first taste of true TV land disappointment went it cancelled Freaks and Geeks after 13 episodes.) Both were thoughtful, well-written, and wickedly funny shows that were critics' darlings and suffered abysmal ratings. I'd say that Arrested Development fits into that category quite nicely. Now I could go on and on about how incredible the show is (it is, it reall really is) and should be left on for eternity, but call me cynical, I knew it wouldn't last. Instead I thought I would take a look at what I think are some of the factors that ultimately doomed the show from the start.
I believe that the rise of "reality TV" over the last several years has significantly lowered the bar for programming quality. These kinds of shows have become monsters in part due to their general ratings success but also because of their low price tags. Reality TV is cheap and I mean that in every way possible. There are no stars to pay (save a host here or there), no major writing talent to hire (how hard is it to script 'fat woman screams, embarrasses herself and family') and since most of these shows take place on location, no sets to build. What results is an adverse market for original programming, especially sitcoms which seem to get the least amount of time to prove themselves, where network execs are more likely to take low-cost risks on reality shows as opposed to paying the money to cultivate challenging dramas or comedies. Every now and again they'll take a chance on an idea like Wonderfalls but if it doesn't produce immediately, they can easily (and cheaply) slap together some "Who Wants To Marry a Necrophiliac?" series that can score an easy share for a couple of weeks.
I think it's hard for a satire to make it on network television because a lot of people just don't like the genre. If you're not in on the joke, or worse the butt of it, you're not going to tune in every week (even though you should). Arrested Development took a lot of shots at a lot of different people and things and they did so both brialliantly and indiscriminately. The fact that you didn't know what could happen next was part of the allure of the show. However I think many people just found it to be unfair or mean-spirited however in reality it was quite balanced. For all of the shots they took at the religious right or Republicans in general, liberals and the like were also fair game. But like I said, I guess many people just don't like satire.
Now The Simpsons is a good counter-example to that argument but I think that show (which is another of my all-time favorites) survived the early years because of a unique set of circumstances. For starters Fox was only 3/4 of a network at bestt. It had a chip on its shoulder and was making its mark, at the time, as the anti-network so a show like The Simpsons which ran counter to just about anything else on TV was given a lot of leeway to grow and find itself. Additionally, the show didn't really find its satirical groove until the third or fourth season. Rememeber that in the beginning the show focused a lot on an obnoxious Bart and his anti-authoritarian antics. A lot of the jokes back then were pretty straight-forward so the show was able to endear itself to the general public before it started firing on all cynical cylinders. Arrested Development, on the other hand, was just absurd right from the start. Viewers were immediately hit over the head with the producers' unique vision for the show.
Smart and Referential
As a host on NPR's Fresh Air put it, the show "rewards people who watch a lot of television." It is a very smart show that relies heavily on both referential and self-referential humor. If you're not up on TV knowledge and current events most of the jokes are going to fly right over your head. And in reality who, other than obsessive TV watchers such as myself, really has the time to incessantly watch the television enough to pick up on a scene where the Bluth family attorney played by Henry Winkler jumps over a dead shark (see: Happy Days, Fonzie jumps a shark on his motorcycle). Hell, I even missed it the first time. The payoff for this kind of humor is huge and puts me into hysterics with every episode but if it's not playing to the right audience, I can see how the show could generally be perceived by non-critics and fans as just dumb. That's a shame.
The point of this exercise was not to write a eulogy for the show because a) there is still a small chance it will be back and b) there are far better people to do it. But it is fascinating to note that what made the show so very very good is ultimately what doomed it. I think that measure of irony is a fitting end to Arrested Development.