The Bluths may have lost their fortune, but they’ve gained a lot of fans.
TV critics named Fox’s freshman series “Arrested Development” the best show on television, according to the 39th installment of TelevisionWeek’s semiannual critics poll.
“Arrested’s” win marks the first time in 51/2 years that the nation’s TV critics have bestowed the title on a comedy. The last sitcom to win the poll was “Frasier” in July 1998.
“Anyone who doesn’t think this show is working better than anything else on the air right now needs to find another hobby-watching television just isn’t working out for you,” said Bill Goodykoontz, TV critic at The Arizona Republic, who ranked “Arrested” No. 1. “It’s laugh-out-loud hilarious, funnier than any other comedy on the air. And not just a little bit funnier. The gap is large.”
The other big winner in the poll was cable, which claimed four of the top 10 shows on TV with Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart” finishing No. 2, HBO’s “The Wire” at No. 4, FX’s “Nip/Tuck” at No. 5 and BBC America’s “The Office” at No. 8.
CBS’s freshman drama “Joan of Arcadia” made its debut on the list as the best drama on television and No. 3 pick overall.
Critics applauded “Arrested Development’s” wry, witty sense of humor and nontraditional format. “Arrested” tells the story of single father Michael Bluth (played by Jason Bateman), who must step in and rescue the family business after his father is sent to jail for accounting fraud, while at the same time dealing with spoiled family members who haven’t quite grasped the fact that they are no longer rich.
Jay Handelman of the Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune called it “the funniest new show in several seasons.”
“It’s smart and tart and caustic and cleverly told, and the casting of [recurring guest star] Liza Minnelli is brilliant,” he said.
Ellen Gray from The Philadelphia Daily News said the show is “smart, funny, and like all the best comedies, just a little bit heartbreaking in what it has to say about families and how they interact. Takes the best tricks of reality programming and makes them its own.”
One of those reality tricks is the visual style of the show, which was the idea of feature-film director Ron Howard, who is an executive producer of the show as well as its narrator. “Arrested,” produced by 20th Century Fox Television and Mr. Howard’s Imagine TV, is a single-camera comedy shot in a documentary fashion without a live studio audience or laugh track.
“What Ron was proposing was a way to do a show that was single-camera but didn’t necessitate all of the setup and drama involved with producing a single-camera comedy,” Fox Entertainment President Gail Berman said.
Ms. Berman said she was immediately attracted to the idea of a family-centered program with a twist. “That this one could be done more on the run, more on the fly, and could have a feel that was more in keeping with a reality show or a documentary, we didn’t know if that was possible,” she said. “They managed to pull it off brilliantly.”
Creator and executive producer Mitch Hurwitz said he thinks the show has struck a chord with critics because it is different from the traditional TV sitcom. “Everybody has been saying it’s time for TV to do something different,” he said. “It’s just very hard to get that train moving. [Critics] are saying, `Hey, someone’s trying to do something slightly different.’ It will be very discouraging if it’s canceled for that reason, because then people will say the next time someone goes in and pitches a point-of-view show, `Well, critics liked “Arrested Development” too and that didn’t work.’ I feel like the critics have a lot vested in this too, like I do.”
While critics often call “Arrested” a smart show, Mr. Hurwitz hopes viewers don’t equate that with inaccessible. “Our model more than anything is `The Simpsons,’ where you’ve got some really broad comedy, then maybe a couple of funny lines or subversive moments,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “Our goal is to be funny and certainly not to be hifalutin in any way, or a `smart’ show. We started off this thing saying, let’s not just do quirky. That’s kind of meaningless. Let’s do relatable and see if we can make people laugh.”
Mr. Hurwitz credits Mr. Howard’s involvement as a huge bonus for the show creatively, noting that Mr. Howard reads every draft of every script and keeps apprised of future story lines. “It wasn’t a vanity project where he put his name on it and was never around,” Mr. Hurwitz said.
While critics across the board have praised “Arrested Development,” the show hasn’t done as well in the ratings, dropping a large portion of its lead-in audience from “Malcolm in the Middle.” Fox nevertheless picked up the series for a full season, and Ms. Berman said the network intends to leave the show in its Sunday night time slot for the rest of the season to try to grow its audience.
TV Guide’s Matt Roush applauded Fox’s patience, a trait rarely seen in television today. “TV comedy is in such a sorry state that the survival of a show this hilarious and smart seems essential,” Mr. Roush said. “Kudos to Fox for not pulling another `Skin’ and yanking it when it didn’t explode from the gate. This one’s a keeper. Who knew Jason Bateman could really be this funny? And everyone else is a riot as well.”
While Mr. Roush gave Fox its props for sticking with a critical favorite, other critics exhibited more cynicism.
“Deftly written, richly witty, dryly presented. Doesn’t have a chance,” said The Hartford (Conn.) Courant’s Roger Catlin, who ranked it No. 1. “One of the most original, and funniest shows to come along in years. Which means, of course, it’s doomed,” said Rick Kushman of The Sacramento (Calif.) Bee. “You knew going in that a show this good would never find an audience,” said the [Albany, N.Y.] Times Union’s Mark McGuire.
It seems Ms. Berman can’t win with the critics. “I don’t know what else I can do for anybody,” she said. “I try my best for the critics. … We’ve done some good shows that have not succeeded, and we’re hoping this one does. The best we can do is develop the great shows and then hope they can find an audience.”
It was a good poll for newcomers, with another new show winning the title of best drama on television. “Joan of Arcadia” finished No. 3 overall, beating out old favorites “The Wire,” “24” and “The West Wing.”
“Joan” stars Amber Tamblyn as a teenage girl asked to perform tasks by God, who appears to her in the forms of various people. At the same time, she’s trying to adjust to being the new girl at school, her family having recently moved so her father could take a job as the town’s chief of police.
TV Guide’s Mr. Roush called the series “the best family drama in ages.”
“Despite the weekly appearance of God, this isn’t the least bit preachy or self-righteous,” Mr. Roush said. “It’s entertaining, quirky, just poignant enough. And Amber Tamblyn is sensational as the confused, cranky heroine.”
CBS Entertainment President Nancy Tellem said the network was attracted to the show because it wasn’t a simple family drama. While critics wanted to put the show in the same box as another CBS hit, “Touched by an Angel,” the show ended up defying easy classification. “It’s a multilayered show,” Ms. Tellem said. “It’s a very entertaining show, yet at the same time it really does have deeper meanings, with each of the characters facing moral issues and spiritual issues and religious issues. It’s fascinating. I am so proud to have it on our network.”
Series creator and executive producer Barbara Hall said she wasn’t trying to convey a message with the show, but instead wanted it to ask questions and inspire debate. “The impetus for doing the show was to open up scientific and theological debate in conversation. I just wanted to get people talking about it because to me there is no more interesting subject than that.”
Despite the love for “Joan,” one element several critics said they would l
ike to see axed from the show is Joe Mantegna’s police chief plots. “CBS has plenty of crime drama on the air already,” Mr. Roush said.
The Philadelphia Daily News’ Ellen Gray said she “still has some qualms about the show’s tendency to mix police work with family life, but I’m on board with God’s talking to Joan, if that’s what it takes to keep a drama about a believable family on the air.”
Ms. Hall said there is a reason she made Mr. Mantegna’s character, Will, a cop. “What I like about his job is that he has to be in the world of good and evil all the time and he’s not someone who believes in God, yet he has a secular sense of right and wrong, good and evil,” she said.
`Stewart’ Tops Cable Shows
For the first time in the history of TVWeek’s critics’ poll, four cable shows made it into the top 10, led by Comedy Central’s “The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,” which finished No. 2. While always a cult favorite for its cheeky take on the day’s news, it saw its popularity skyrocket this year. The show finished No. 3 in the summer poll after being No. 20 in the previous poll.
“Of everything on television, this is the show I cannot miss, particularly if I want to get my news,” said The Sacramento Bee’s Mr. Kushman, who ranked it his No. 1 show. “Especially when so much is happening in the world, this show stands out for its honesty and brains and often made the legitimate news operations look like they missed the real story. Nothing in the media has a more dead-on take on our culture, and nothing on the planet is funnier.”
Said the San Francisco Chronicle’s Tim Goodman: “This show is always required viewing, but in an election year, it’s absolutely essential. And like [David] Letterman, the more you get of [Jon] Stewart, the more you realize he’s a treasure.”
The 71/2-year-old show won its first Emmy for Outstanding Variety/Music/Comedy Series this year and has garnered much critical attention-a fact that still surprises its producers. “Because we’re on cable we’ve always thought in the back of our heads we’re surprised that anybody watches,” said Stewart Bailey, co-executive producer.
Some of the show’s surge in popularity this year can be attributed to its irreverent coverage of the war in Iraq. “Not that we were against it,” Mr. Bailey said, “but we raised all these questions in joke form. Because not a lot of other voices were doing that, we kind of stood out, not as a voice of dissent but as a voice of `other.”’
`Wire’ Still Hot
HBO’s “The Wire,” which won the previous poll, dropped to No. 4 this time, but critics were still effusive in their praise. “It’s smart, novelistic, probably the best-acted series on this list,” said Mr. Goodman, “and, more impressive than anything else, it was completely unafraid to tell two very involved stories strung out over a full season, supposing all the way that viewers would be adults about it and not whine that it was confusing or didn’t wrap up neatly in 60 minutes. This show is precisely the reason you pay for HBO.”
Critics rewarded several other cable shows for taking chances and not playing down to their audiences.
FX’s “Nip/Tuck” finished No. 5 in the poll, with Joely Richardson and Dylan Walsh getting rave reviews for their searing portrayals of partners in a crumbling marriage.
“What’s not to like about an ambitious drama that melds the bodacious bodies and hedonism of Miami’s South Beach with a disintegrating marriage, an amoral plastic surgeon searching for meaning in his compulsive womanizing, his straight-arrow partner mired in a debilitating midlife crisis and a kid who attempts a self-serve circumcision?” said Eric Deggans of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times. “Joely Richardson and Dylan Walsh’s anguished scenes as a divorcing couple equal the classic Carmela/Tony clash that closed `The Sopranos’ last season.”
Added Mr. Roush: “Even when the show went too far, I cheered them on.”
Critics also praised BBC America’s workplace comedy “The Office” (No. 8), while at the same time dreading the U.S. version in the works at NBC, which managed to ruin another British sitcom, “Coupling,” this year. (NBC’s “Coupling” was named the worst show on television in the critics poll.)
Said The Arizona Republic’s Mr. Goodykoontz about “The Office”: “Why NBC wants to remake perfection is anyone’s guess. Shudder.”
The (Newark, N.J.) Star-Ledger’s Alan Sepinwall, who ranked it No. 4, echoed that thought, saying, “I am terrified of how the NBC version is going to look, but Ricky Gervais makes me laugh at least as often as he makes me wince.”
Critics also beat up NBC for canceling “Boomtown” after only two episodes in an unfriendly Friday night time slot. The show finished No. 2 in a tight race in the summer critics poll. “Too bad NBC and viewers at large couldn’t get behind this superb drama,” said Susan Young of The Oakland (Calif.) Tribune.
Notable absences from the poll this time were FX’s “The Shield” (No. 4 in the summer poll), HBO’s “Six Feet Under” (No. 5 in the summer poll) and HBO’s “The Sopranos.” None of the three series aired new episodes during this polling period.
Nothing Funny About It
Critics were united in their dislike for NBC’s “Coupling,” naming it the worst show on television. “As funny as a broken condom” is how Bill Brioux of The Toronto Sun described it.
“Coupling” was a supposedly sexy U.S. remake of a British show that many called the British version of “Friends.” Despite tons of hype all summer as “the show everybody is talking about,” hardly anyone watched it and NBC canceled it after just four episodes.
“Just another example of how Hollywood can take something so fun and squeeze it all out,” Ms. Young said.
Said Mr. Goodykoontz: “Bad in so many ways. It was a bad idea, it was poorly done and, worst of all, it flat-out wasn’t funny.”
Best Movies, Miniseries or Specials
Ranking, show, network and production companies
1. Angels in America; HBO; Avenue Pictures
2. Horatio Hornblower; A&E; A&E Network
3. And Starring Pancho Villa as Himself; HBO; Mark Gordon Co., City Entertainment and Green Moon Prods.
Worst Movies, Miniseries or Specials
1. Saving Jessica Lynch; NBC; NBC Studios
2. The Reagans; Showtime; Storyline Entertainment and Sony Pictures
3. National Lampoon’s Thanksgiving Reunion; TBS; Gary Hoffman Productions