Critically acclaimed TV shows with low ratings used to be the martyrs of the entertainment world. Loved passionately by a few, they died for the sins of the lowest common denominator, living again only on dubbed videotapes and in museum retrospectives. Fortunately, that situation has gotten a little better with the popularity of DVD TV collections and the major networks' realization that they have to offer something different in order to keep up with HBO and FX. Fodder for the Trio network's Brilliant But Canceled series hasn't disappeared entirely (hello, Wonderfalls) and networks haven't stopped relying on awful reality TV (hello, Fear Factor season five), but at least now the good stuff has a fighting chance. And Arrested Development is about as good as the good stuff gets.
No doubt winning all those Emmys has helped the sitcom's chances of survival, but the Oct. 19 release of its first season on DVD should help even more—once seen, the show proves difficult to resist. Why? Fans of groundbreaking technique can admire its unusual form: It's shot entirely with handheld cameras, giving the impression of a documentary crew that's stumbled into a situation too entertaining to stop filming. Fans of timely social commentary will admire its milieu: a prominent, over-privileged family attempting to stay afloat in the aftermath of an Enron-like scandal. But the most compelling reason to keep watching comes from the combined sensibilities of creator Mitchell Hurwitz, an ace writing staff, and a remarkable cast.
Calling on a dry wit he's never had cause to use before, Jason Bateman anchors the show as the widowed father of teenager Michael Cera. The only member of the Bluth family with scruples, a work ethic, or a sense of responsibility, Bateman is tempted to walk away from the mess when his corrupt father (Jeffrey Tambor) gets sent to jail. Instead, he holds the Bluths together, though he receives little gratitude from his hard-drinking mother (Jessica Walter), his high-living charity-junkie sister (Portia de Rossi) and her sexually ambiguous psychiatrist-turned-actor husband (David Cross), and his two brothers, a none-too-skillful magician (Will Arnett) and a skittish man-child (Tony Hale) still living with their mother.
One of the show's neatest tricks lies in its ability to make its characters as endearing as they are incorrigible. Soften them a bit, and they stop being funny—and staying funny remains its neatest trick of all. Whether touching on Saddam Hussein, exploring the skinflint tendencies of "as himself" guest star Carl Weathers, or just holding the shot as Arnett wheels slowly into frame on his ever-present Segway, Arrested Development only eases up on the gags to show the heart beneath them, one that ought to remain strong for years to come.