A comedy holding its breath

Times Staff Writer

Afew weeks ago, sitcom writer Mitchell Hurwitz had a brief Sally Field moment. His offbeat freshman show, "Arrested Development," was nominated for seven Emmys, including best comedy, on the heels of taking top honors from the Television Critics Assn. He said his first happy thoughts ("Wow. They really like us.") were followed by mild panic ("What do you think they like? What should we do now ...?").

Despite the show's success with critics, "Arrested Development" remains Fox's lowest-rated comedy. A riches-to-rags story that follows the lazy, selfish relatives of an Orange County land developer after he is jailed for fraud, the unformulaic comedy was renewed only at the last minute and is being cautiously retooled for its second season.

The situation reflects the fundamental riddle faced by many creators in network television comedy: How do you make a hip, intelligent sitcom for the biggest possible audience? No one really knows the answer, of course, particularly now that "Seinfeld," "Friends," "Frasier" and "Sex and the City" have departed. Sitcoms are now dangerous terrain, where rewards are often commensurate with risks but where success for a newcomer can bring its own problems. The same talent and wit that win writers like Hurwitz and his team critical praise can at the same time alienate the mainstream audience they need to survive on network TV.

After his inner debate, Hurwitz concluded the best path is for the writers to keep themselves laughing and keep taking risks. "They're little risks, but that's the first thing you stop taking when you try to please a big crowd," he says.

Executives, meanwhile, are working hard to quash perceptions among potential viewers that the documentary-style show is too quirky, too highbrow, or too serialized. While the show has of-the-moment pay cable sensibilities (hand-held video, no laugh track and complex, overlapping story lines), executive producer David Nevins, the president of Imagine Television, and others associated with the show insist that "Arrested" is a mainstream family comedy.

"It's safer and more conventional than it actually appears," Nevins says.

The character of Michael (played by Jason Bateman), the most "normal" of the adult siblings, will become more prominent this season, both in the show and in its marketing and promotion, Nevins says. "Part of what has been pushed out there is the perception of the show as this crazy collection of crazy characters. I think it's very important that people feel they have a center that they can relate to and understand and hold on to," he says.

Bateman "has a bit of what Tom Hanks has," he says. "He can be the straight man and still be funny. He's able to be a little bit petty and mean and still be very likable. And he's got a big heart." The audience has a "comfort zone" with him, Nevins says.

"I'm your tour guide," Bateman says of Michael. "I'll walk you out before it gets too weird."

"Arrested Development" is the struggling brainchild of Imagine's co-chairman Ron Howard and veteran comedy writer Hurwitz.

Nevins, a former executive at NBC, had worked with Hurwitz ("The Golden Girls," "The John Larroquette Show") on the short-lived "Everything's Relative," a precursor to "Arrested Development," and introduced Hurwitz to Howard. "He's got an original comedy brain and was schooled in traditional sitcoms," he says of Hurwitz. "They hit it off instantly," Nevins says.

Howard, a child star of sitcoms ("The Andy Griffith Show" and "Happy Days") who now directs films, says he had the idea to blend the best of traditional sitcoms with the new, more cinematic "grammar" of reality shows. "I thought we could take this video technology and a docu-reality approach to a half-hour comedy and do something that would be visually different, that would allow for a wider range and type of jokes -- visual, editorial, musical, in addition to what sitcoms usually offer," says Howard, who also produces television shows such as "24" and "Wonderland."

To Howard's approach, Hurwitz added the story of the Bluth family, whose members are thrust awkwardly together in the lone model home on one of the Bluth Development Co.'s terraced hillsides. The title refers partly to the family's curtailed building projects and partly to the four adult siblings whose emotional growth was stunted by wealth and narcissism.

"As miserable as they are now, I like to think they're becoming better people," Hurwitz says. "But not so much better that they're not funny anymore."

Though meticulously scripted, the show has the air of improvisation. The episodes are layered with fictional news about the Bluths (on "Hindsight" with John Beard playing himself), as well as such subtle details as "archival" photos of the Bluths' private plane (said to be courtesy of the Securities and Exchange Commission), musical puns (the song "I Can't See Anything But Love" underscores a scene where mama's boy Buster, having lost his glasses, squints at his newfound love, his mother's friend) and an omniscient narration by an anonymous Howard ("Michael had been in love with his brother's girlfriend.").

It's shot in a variety of locations -- restaurants, building sites, yachts and a Bluth-owned frozen banana stand on Balboa Island. Though the action takes place in Orange County, union regulations required that most of the scenes be shot in Los Angeles, Nevins says.

At the end of the season, the show ranked 116th in prime-time network ratings, close to the bottom. "It felt like it came just millimeters from dying," says Imagine's co-chairman and producer Brian Grazer. Many critics, meanwhile, praised the show with variations of "it's the best show you're not watching."

It was renewed primarily as an act of faith, says Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman. "We believe in the show creatively. We believe we're forging a new kind of comedy on television. We shoot the show with a set up, run and gun approach," she says. "We do it very quickly in a style that's not been seen on broadcast before."

Executives at Fox and Imagine argue the low numbers are offset by advertisers who pay to reach the show's small but loyal and affluent audience. What's more, they note, it's still beating the highest-rated shows on cable.

But faith has limits. Because the network also has hits such as "American Idol" and "24," it can afford to carry a low-rated critical darling for a while, Berman says, but not indefinitely. The Emmy nominations are "the gravy to help push it with the public. It's what we need to have happen," she says.

"An Emmy win would be more meaningful for this show than for most other shows because it still hasn't yet found its level," Nevins says. "This show needs to seep into the zeitgeist, into the popular culture in the way 'Seinfeld' eventually made its way in there, and be a cultural touchstone. That's what the show is fighting for."

While he has little expectations the show will win best comedy next month, Bateman hopes being lumped in the same category with its competitors -- HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm," CBS' "Everybody Loves Raymond," HBO's "Sex and the City," and NBC's "Will & Grace" -- will "help the audience feel more comfortable."

Riding coattails

Adding their own push, executives have placed the show in a new time slot after the top-rated "The Simpsons" on Sunday night -- a move comparable to an off-Broadway show graduating to Broadway. In reruns after "The Simpsons" this summer, "Arrested Development" rose in its overall ranking but lost viewers from "The Simpsons" audience.

Hopes are also hanging on the DVD release of the first season in October, a few weeks before the new season debuts.

Repeat viewing is rewarded, supporters say. "Shows that are left of center take a while to get going," Bateman says. "You have to learn how to watch this show. If you just give it two or three episodes...."

In his office on the Fox lot, Hurwitz is concentrating on not letting critical success spoil the show. "Arrested Development's" creator and head writer claims not to pay attention to ratings. "There's so much work to do and there are buildings full of people who pay attention to that sort of thing. I just want to make a funny show. I can't afford the luxury of worrying about how compatible we are with 'The Simpsons,' " he says.

Last season, he says, the creative team worked in a bubble without any outside feedback. "We didn't have a live audience, so we were just doing our little show and hoping it was funny," he says.

At 41, Hurwitz is a friendly, wide-eyed family man (framed photos of his wife and two young daughters sit on his desk facing him). He says he's not as neurotic as he was a decade ago; but he still talks rapidly while appearing to be holding his breath.

"What's been fun was thinking more three-dimensionally," Hurwitz says. "When you don't have a laugh track, you can make the clothes funny. We can make a sign funny. We can make the way somebody walks funny. The makeup can be funny."

Because the opportunity to do creative work is rare in network television, Hurwitz believes his window is limited. As a result, he tends to work more and harder than he might otherwise, packing in so many layers of jokes, references, sounds and music that many jokes can be appreciated only on the second or third viewing -- if at all.

"Mitch is relentless," Nevins says. "He will examine the tape frame by frame. Is this funny with six frames? Is it funny with eight frames? You get the wrong door slam, it's not funny. You get the right door slam, it's funny." In one episode, he and Hurwitz hugged each other with a microphone wedged between their chests to capture the sound of a "sentimental" hug, he says.

In the writers' room next to Hurwitz's office, the windows are shuttered and draped to cut out glare and noise. About a dozen writers come up with the jokes by free associating with one another. "Often times, I will sometimes take the next step and say, 'Oh, let's put that in the script,' " Hurwitz says mischievously.

On the wall, rows of 3-by-5-inch colored cards with scores of developing story lines are tacked together: Buster breaks his good arm; the siblings start dividing up their mother's furniture in anticipation of their inheritance.

Despite his best efforts, sounds from construction outside filter into the room. The whirring noises strike him as so funny, Hurwitz says the Bluths may be living with the construction of a model home next door this season.

To get laughs, Hurwitz doesn't want to use reality but to be realistic, he says. If the show says anything about families now, he says it's that your family is just your lot in life.

"What's realistic to me is that families love each other and stand by each other. What's unrealistic is that they would ever say that. I just don't know a lot of people who, at the end of an ordeal, will say, 'Well, I'll always be here for you. You're my brother.' His actions may support that, and it was his brother, so what else was he going to do?

"I don't think it's even like, 'Well, he's my brother and I love him.' I think it's just, 'Well, he's my brother.' "

*

A tip or two to help get 'Arrested'

* Head writer Mitchell Hurwitz grew up with divorced parents in Costa Mesa and the Balboa Peninsula, where he and his brother opened a now-defunct cookie stand called the Chip Yard. An East Coast branch, the Boston Chip Yard, remains and is run by his father, an attorney.

* Hurwitz insists the Bluths are fictional.

* Hurwitz came up with the name Maeby for the teenage daughter in the show by combining the names of his two daughters: Maisie and Phoebe. In the show, Maeby pretends to be another character named Surely.

* Ardent fans have cataloged and cross-referenced plot lines, quotes, false previews and locations in the show.

The second most popular quote, according to www.the-op.com comes from Lucille (explaining why she wants her son George Oscar Bluth II -- known as G.O.B. -- to take his brother to a party): "Because Buster's your brother and I'm not going to leave him home alone with all this j-u-i-c-e around."

Buster: "I can spell, Mom. You spelled 'juice.' "

Lucille: "Oh, you're so brilliant. Let's see you find it."

The most popular quote: G.O.B. is demonstrating his vocation as an magician at a yacht party to his brother and an assortment of children. Michael: "So this is the magic trick, huh?"

G.O.B.: " 'Illusion,' Michael. A 'trick' is something a whore does for money. [Then, noticing the children look startled] ... or candy!"

* Second-season spoiler: Buster may join the Army and be trained to go to Iraq, the site of an illegal Bluth home-building project commissioned by, but never paid for by Saddam Hussein.

* One hallmark of the show has been guest appearances. Liza Minnelli plays an older love interest to Buster, a mama's boy. She has the same name as his mother: Lucille. Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Henry Winkler appear as lawyers; Louis-Dreyfus pretends to be blind. James Lipton is the warden of the Orange County Prison where George Sr. is incarcerated.

* Actor Will Arnett's (who plays G.O.B.) favorite line: "I'm white," as he collapses in the prison yard after being stabbed by White Power Bill.

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