It’s a little too early to bemoan the probable fate of the brilliant comedy “Arrested Development,” but its demise looks imminent. Nine episodes were cut, it was held from airing during sweeps and Fox is burning off the four last episodes on a random Friday night in February. But unlike nearly everyone else, I don’t think the network is completely to blame.

Jess Cox

Sure, Fox failed to put full promotional muscle behind the show at first or give it the best time slots. And yes, its episode order was cut two seasons running. But that’s not the whole story.
Let’s get this out of the way. “Arrested Development” is great. It completely eschewed the sitcom formula and created something truly original. It even gets better with each viewing as its quick-witted humor can often be quite subtle and awfully self-referential.

After paltry ratings in its first season, Fox could have given the series the axe. But it stood behind one of its few critical successes, ordering a full second season. Midway through that second year, when it was clear that “Arrested” couldn’t increase viewership in spite of rave reviews and a shiny Emmy for Best Comedy Series, Fox decided to cut its losses and trimmed the number of episodes by four.

Things looked bleak for the series, and rightfully so. Fox had already given the show a reprieve once. Why should they do it again? But Fox brought “Arrested” back a third time – and even gave it a full season pickup. This newfound support would be short-lived, however, as the ratings on its new Monday timeslot were putrid at best. So now Fox cuts episodes again, leaves the show in limbo and chooses to air the remaining episodes after sweeps.

Despite well-deserved critical acclaim and numerous awards, the show still can’t find an audience. Simply, no one watches it – at least not in the numbers that would warrant network support. Television is a business and Fox loses money by investing in “Arrested Development.” If you watched it, Fox would keep airing it.

But that doesn’t mean things are definitely over for the show. Showtime and ABC have both expressed interest in picking it up – and it’s not like Fox was the right place for a bright, witty sitcom. After all, this is the network associated with drivel like “Joe Millionaire,” rather than Emmy-winning comedies. Showtime could really use the show’s critical clout to bolster subscriptions and ABC is in dire need of a comedy hit not named “According to Jim” (sorry, “Desperate Housewives” is NOT a comedy).

OK, I’ve defended Fox enough. This is the same network that has destroyed more good shows than I care to recount. With the exception of “The Simpsons” and “24,” Fox has done little to cultivate innovative programming. It simply searches for the lowest common denominator and exploits it. What is it replacing “Arrested Development” with during its hiatus? Why, “Skating with Celebrities.” If you’re unfamiliar with the concept, Fox is attempting to rip off ABC’s successful “Dancing with the Stars” by putting it on ice. Hire some D-list “celebrities” and you’ve got a hit, and if that’s what you want, so be it. But don’t come crying when your network gets completely overlooked come awards season.

I still think Fox should have given “Arrested” yet another chance. I know many people who only recently discovered it, thanks to the DVD box sets. The series is almost syndication-ready at 53 episodes (100 used to be the magic number, but now it’s closer to 80), which means more potential revenue. Another season and it’s practically there. Even “Seinfeld” struggled to garner ratings in its early years, only taking off after NBC moved it to Thursdays with monster-hit “Cheers.” Fox’s only show with ratings anywhere near Seinfeld is “American Idol.”

Regardless, Fox should rethink its “Arrested Development” strategy. At the very least, it should keep the show simply to help repair its image. Show Fox how wrong it is by watching those final four episodes on Feb. 10. I urge you to try and “Save our Bluths” as the last new episode so eloquently stated. Any show that can poke fun at its own network standing deserves to be saved.

-Rottenberg has Tivo’d every episode of “Skating with Celebrities.” Share his love at arotten@umich.edu.

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