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TV UK, 19 August

Arrested Development, acquired taste.

Dolan Cummings

Topics Culture

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When the US sitcom Arrested Development was first shown on the BBC last year, the American critic Bonnie Greer announced on BBC Newsnight Review that it was the sort of thing only foreigners like. Real Americans were not interested.

Well, real Americans are a fickle bunch, so that didn’t put me off. Arrested Development, currently screening on BBC2 on Mondays at 11.20pm, is a cut above the average American comedy. The Bluths are a rich and eccentric extended family with legal and financial difficulties, and the characters provide plenty of scope for the elaborately absurd interweaving plots and climactic pay-offs on which the programme is built.

But apparently it is true that Arrested Development is not popular with American viewers. Only critical acclaim has kept it going, and critics, I guess, are like foreigners, full of fancy ideas and with no feeling for how the common man thinks. (Bonnie Greer is almost certainly not a Bush voter, but she seems to be on to a similar vibe here.) In fact, a Sunday Times reviewer suggested last week that the programme’s lack of popularity is down to the fact that Americans can’t empathise with rich people, but that doesn’t seem quite right.

Perhaps a more general case can be made, however, that the Bluths embody a kind of elite detachment. In last week’s very funny episode, it transpired that the fugitive patriarch George Bluth Sr had done a deal with Saddam Hussein to build palaces in Iraq. (Ironically this is the sort of thing lazier American lefties accuse Bush and co of having done before the war, and on reflection perhaps the similar name is not an accident.) While George’s son Michael, and his son George Michael are just about sympathetic, most of the family are utterly amoral and selfish. But I’m not convinced their wealth has anything to do with it. Perhaps the kind of humour that arises from such characters is just an acquired taste, like Seinfeld for example, rather than being politically contentious.

Famously, whatever misgivings they have about gay marriage and so on, Americans of all stripes enjoy Will and Grace, a sitcom set in the thick of the metropolitan gay lifestyle, but with more conventionally sympathetic characters and moral rather than amoral comic payoffs. Almost the reverse of that, Malcolm in the Middle (also BBC2, Sundays at 7.35pm) is more characteristically all-American, featuring a large suburban family and playing on sibling rivalry and frustrated aspiration, but is perhaps closer at times to Arrested Development in its perverse sense of humour. Perhaps it is the combination of convention and cleverness that makes Malcolm in the Middle the best of the American comedies currently showing in the UK.

In any case, it doesn’t bother me if Bonnie Greer’s ‘real Americans’ haven’t acquired a taste for the undiluted Arrested Development; who made it, after all?

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