LOOKING FOR AN AUDIENCE Some of best shows get worst news
Despite critical acclaim, they might not make it.
By LYNN ELBER
LOS ANGELES -- "Arrested Development" star Jason Bateman and the sitcom's creator, Mitchell Hurwitz, were assessing the cuddle quotient in a show that viewers may soon lose the chance to embrace.
"There are a surprising number of hugs in the show. We just make jokes about how they [the characters] never hug," said Hurwitz. "So even when Michael's mother hugs him, he says, 'What are you doing? Why are you squeezing me with your body?"'
Bateman, who stars as Michael in the acerbic Fox comedy about the dysfunctional Bluth family, offers a solution: "You've got the Pax network if you want a good hug."
But he and the rest of the "Arrested Development" clan might be in need of comfort: Fox is halting production after 18 episodes, shy of the usual 22, bringing the season -- and maybe the series -- to a premature end April 17.
"American Dad" takes its 8:30 p.m. Sunday slot starting May 1. The animated comedy about a CIA agent and his family scored in a post-Super Bowl preview and Fox awarded it the premium real estate after "The Simpsons."
With the football extravaganza as launching pad, "American Dad" drew 15 million viewers. For its sophomore season to date, "Arrested Development" is averaging 6 million weekly viewers, down from last season's average audience of 6.2 million.
The lack of interest persists despite rave reviews and awards: a Golden Globe for Bateman in January and a best-comedy series Emmy last year.
It's not the only program suffering a gap between quality and ratings. "Jack & amp; Bobby" (9 p.m. Wednesdays), the WB's drama about the formative years of a future U.S. president, can't stoke viewer interest despite a critically acclaimed first season.
Although a relatively new network like WB doesn't demand "American Idol"-size ratings, the 2.7 million average weekly audience for "Jack & amp; Bobby" is scant compared with the nearly 6 million watching WB's most-watched series, "7th Heaven."
Worthy shows have come and gone many times before, but the irony is acute for the latest endangered pair. "Arrested Development," which is ferociously clever and daringly breaks the laugh-track, multicamera sitcom mold, arrived as the genre cried out for rejuvenation.
'Around the side door'
With the passing of "Friends," "Sex and the City" and (at the end of this season) "Everybody Loves Raymond," observers have lamented the mostly uninspired retreads that are left.
"Arrested Development" wasn't entirely startling -- "Seinfeld" reveled in the crassness of its characters; "Curb Your Enthusiasm" saw its cynicism and raised it.
But the Fox show was asking a sitcom family to be received as something other than inherently warm and loving, and derived its dry humor from the characters' odd, morally suspect behavior.
That audiences would take awhile to adapt was understandable, Bateman said.
"If anybody says this show is not accessible, which I think is not really accurate or fair or deserved, perhaps that's what they're talking about," the actor said. "It's around the side door for laughter. You have to watch two episodes to understand what our joke is. Then, if you're in that gear, it delivers nonstop."
Adds Hurwitz: "I think people understand dealing with adult parents and adult siblings, and that's at the core of every show."
Relationships are key
Relationships also are central to "Jack & amp; Bobby," which stars Christine Lahti as the loving but eccentric single mother of a boy destined to be a leader (Logan Lerman) and his older brother, Jack (Matt Long).
Along with family and romantic skirmishes, the series created by Greg Berlanti explores how Bobby's childhood shapes the character and moral sense he ultimately brings to the presidency.
It's a sophisticated twist on popular youth-oriented dramas such as "Everwood" and "Smallville," and arrived in a season of renewed viewer interest in scripted shows ("Lost," "Desperate Housewives") after the reality flood.
A fighting chance
"I'd very much be looking forward to a second season when we didn't have an election," Berlanti said. "I think it was a case of people being oversaturated with that."
He expects "Jack & amp; Bobby" to go the full season with 22 episodes and have a fighting chance to build its audience. With the truncated run for "Arrested Development," it seems unlikely that Fox (which gets points for bringing it back after the first low-rated season) will find a reason to renew it when the 2006-05 schedule is announced in May.