Arrested Opportunity

Oct 11, 2004  •  Post A Comment

When Mitch Hurwitz bounded up on the Shrine Auditorium stage to accept one of five Emmy Awards-including the one for outstanding comedy series-presented last month to “Arrested Development,” his humility and genuine warmth came across the airwaves. “It was amazing just to feel that supported by people,” he said recently. “Then a week later it really dawned on me how unbelievable that we got this for a first-year show. It’s a very privileged feeling.”

In the weeks since, his phone has rung off the hook with pals from his past, from his years growing up in Orange County, Calif., and attending Georgetown University in Washington.

“I got a lot of calls from people saying, `We’re dying to see the show. We didn’t even know about the show. When is it on? We can’t find it. We looked in our TiVos and in TV Guide.’ That was so frustrating,” he said.

The show’s second season won’t begin on Fox until Nov. 7, nearly two months after the Emmy wins. “It is certainly frustrating,” said Mr. Hurwitz.

The problem is, of course, baseball. Fox has learned in recent years it needs to hold off on most premieres until after the disruptions caused by the baseball playoffs. But in this case, the days ticking by were causing a disconnect with Emmy night.

Mr. Hurwitz had a solution. He went to Ron Howard and Brian Grazer, the managing partners of Imagine Entertainment, which produces “Arrested Development,” and enlisted their help. The three men began to lobby Fox to rerun the first season of the critically acclaimed comedy during the playoffs as a setup for the new season. “I really do wish we were able to return with `Arrested Development’ closer to the time we won the Emmys,” Mr. Grazer said. “The Emmys were a great bridge to the public.”

Fox considered it briefly and then turned them down.

“With all due respect, it’s great the show won at the Emmys, but this show is going to work or not work because it is a great show,” responded Preston Beckman, Fox’s executive VP of strategic program planning and research. “In my opinion, running all the episodes again and putting it on anywhere would not have resulted in anything but very low ratings for the show. We felt the best way to bring it back was as part of a premiere night after baseball.”

Fox, Mr. Beckman added, did rerun the first season throughout the summer months. “It’s going to be heavily promoted in baseball,” he said. “And we will schedule a marathon [run of multiple episodes] on a night we don’t have a game.”

Fox is also counting on the release later this month of the complete first season on DVD to provide a promotional boost and to help the audience catch up with the riches-to-rags story of a dysfunctional family full of unpredictable characters.

“I know the higher-ups at Fox really want this show to work,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “I don’t doubt it for a minute, which you can’t say about most first-year shows. … So I just have to assume they have a marketing plan that makes more sense than my lay take on it, which is, `Let’s get it on the air.”‘

Fox has demonstrated its support by giving “Arrested” a time slot on the most-watched night of the week and immediately after `The Simpsons,’ the network’s biggest and most enduring hit. And for the premiere night, “Arrested Development” will follow the annual Halloween-related “Tree House of Horrors” episode of “The Simpsons,” which is always highly rated.

“We are doing something this network hasn’t done in a long time,” Mr. Beckman said, “which is stand behind a quality show that wasn’t getting the kind of ratings that would merit a renewal. We believe in the show. We’ve made a bold move by putting it in the post-`Simpsons’ time period. We’re pairing up what we think are two of the best comedies on television. If all that is for naught because we didn’t put on [reruns] for a few weeks [after the Emmys] and see it get slaughtered against premieres of other shows, I don’t know what to tell you.”

Whatever the show’s fate, the acclaim has already moved Mr. Hurwitz’s career to a new level. The son of an attorney and a stay-at-home mom, Mr. Hurwitz got his first job in show business in the late 1980s as a runner at Witt-Thomas Productions, which then had the hit show “Golden Girls.” By 1990 he had sold his first script to Witt-Thomas and soon was writing for “Golden Girls,” including the final episode. He got his first opportunity to be a co-showrunner on a short-lived “Golden Girls” spinoff, followed by a writing job on “Nurses,” where he met his wife, now the mother of their two daughters.

That led him to two years on “The John Larroquette Show,” which became the test kitchen for the kind of offbeat material that made Mr. Hurwitz laugh. “I was really experimenting with stuff,” he recalled.

He was showrunner on the one season of “The Ellen Show” and consulted on “Less Than Perfect” while trying to develop his own material. Then he got a call from David Nevins, who was literally in his first day as head of TV at Imagine Entertainment.

Ron Howard had an idea for a scripted comedy with a reality show feel. “Now everybody says `I knew Mitch Hurwitz would be a superstar,’ but you couldn’t know for sure,” Mr. Grazer recalled. “I knew he was really smart, and he clearly has such an original voice.”

Mr. Hurwitz got it immediately. Instead of the usual three-camera comedy in front of an audience, which would create a laugh track, this show would be shot with a single hand-held digital camera, using natural light in most cases. It would have the feel of a documentary.

There will be some stunt casting in the second season, including the return of Liza Minnelli to the cast. One character will go off to war in Iraq and another will join the Blue Man Group. There will also be more focus on Michael, played by Jason Bateman, who Mr. Hurwitz hopes will become a breakout character-their Fonzie.

“The press and Emmy voters are early adopters because they had to watch it,” Mr. Hurwitz said. “And they liked it. Now if we could just get people to watch, they would like it too. At least that’s the assumption.”