Nothing to show but 53 shows

Times Staff Writer

The strange fate of "Arrested Development" reminds us once again of the odd up-is-down commercial imperatives of American network TV.

Variety reported Tuesday that creator Mitch Hurwitz has decided to bail on the sitcom about a grandiosely strange Orange County family, which won an armload of glowing reviews, a best comedy Emmy after its first season and whispered reverence from Fox executives, who referred to the show the same way nuns might speak of a medieval relic associated with the Virgin Mary. Unfortunately, what "Arrested" could never do is get arrested. Not nearly enough viewers ever tuned in to justify all the heroic attempts to save the show, which is now evidently dead beyond all doubt.

"The fans have been so ardent in their devotion and in return ... I've given everything I can to the show in order to try to live up to their expectations," Hurwitz told Daily Variety. "I finally reached a point where I felt I couldn't continue to deliver that on a weekly basis."

In the annals of Hollywood, "Arrested" will go down as a tragedy -- not because it was a creative flop (its small but intense legion of fans say quite the opposite) but because it committed the unpardonable sin of crapping out after three seasons. To TV executives, that is just about the worst thing a series can do, because it means that the studio has spent big money to keep alive a show that in all likelihood will never produce serious cash in syndication, where it takes about 100 episodes, or almost five seasons, to prosper.

Does that make any sense? Only to accountants at the TV studios. The economic model that American viewers are stuck with tends to encourage painfully incremental storytelling among dramas and formulaic situations in comedies. Why? So the shows can reach the vaunted 100 mark more easily. Producers lean toward that magic number whether creativity dictates it or not. For all the talk of the death of network comedies, precious little thought has been given to changing the financial formula.

This is the not the way it is everywhere. Consider the BBC. One of its most highly regarded sitcoms, John Cleese's landmark farce, "Fawlty Towers," produced precisely 12 episodes. Twelve! That's one-half of an American season. BBC's "The Office" produced a grand total of 14 episodes. The NBC version, in its second season, has already made roughly twice that many.

"Arrested" lasted 53 episodes. Only in America would that be considered an early death.

Hicks are gaining on the suits

Memo on the red-state/blue-state humor divide:

Comedy Central, best known for coddling the media elites with fare like "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," has a profitable programming sideline with blue-collar comics. Sunday's "Ron White: You Can't Fix Stupid" averaged a whopping 4.5 million total viewers, making it the third-most-watched program in the network's history, according to figures from Nielsen Media Research. That's about three times as many viewers as Stewart's "Daily Show" gets.

What are Comedy Central's two most-watched shows of all time? Last year's roast of comic Jeff Foxworthy (6.2 million viewers) and "Blue Collar Comedy Tour Rides Again" (6.1 million).

White, a frequent guest on Foxworthy's "Blue Collar TV," uses a cigar and a whiskey highball as stage props.

Think of him as the anti-Colbert.

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