Television's checkered history is littered with smart, inventive critical gems that never managed to find an audience, at least ones sizable enough to continue to justify the shows' existence on a prime-time schedule. The latest casualty is Fox's ''Arrested Development."
A surprise best comedy winner at last year's Emmys, the deliriously offbeat sitcom was booted from the schedule during the all-important November sweeps. Then last week it was announced that the network had declined to order the season's final nine episodes, meaning the program will probably be done after airing 13 shows this season. Going into this TV year, network execs wanted to see if the show, in its third season, could finally catch on with viewers, but it never happened.
Moments like this would usually warrant criticism of Fox's network gurus for being more concerned with making money than making quality TV shows. After all, shows from ''All in the Family" to ''Seinfeld" to ''Everybody Loves Raymond," all now considered sitcom classics, took years to find and hold the devoted audiences that eventually propelled them into the top 10.
Yet it's not as if ''Arrested Development" was yanked after its initial 13 episodes. Though the show had previously come close to cancellation, the network, realizing it had something special, stuck with it for 2 1/2 seasons. In the bottom-line business of TV programming, ''Arrested Development" just didn't garner enough of an audience. From a paltry average of 6 million viewers last year, the show had slipped to 4 million this season.
So maybe it's time to blame the viewers.
See, while everyone loves to condemn TV as a wasteland filled with lowbrow programs such as ''Trading Spouses," also on Fox, there's often a struggle when something like ''Arrested Development" comes along. Yes, the show is challenging, with bizarre characters and labyrinthine subplots, but any single episode was laugh-out loud funnier than an entire season of ABC's ''Freddie," which, by the way, was picked for the entire season.
Oh, and did I mention that ''Freddie" draws about twice as many viewers as ''Arrested Development"?
I came late to ''Arrested Development." While I am wont to complain about the dearth of worthwhile TV programs, (which translated means shows I might like), I initially resisted watching the Fox comedy about the selfish and scheming Bluth family. I feared that, like HBO's ''Six Feet Under," the show would buckle under too much forced quirk and that compelling storytelling would be submerged by wackiness run amok.
Still, after numerous friends and colleagues crowed about the show, I began renting the first season on DVD. Yes, the show was quirky and wacky, but it was also innovative, provocative, and ridiculously funny. Truth be told, it was so good, I was hard-pressed to believe it was on Fox. Thoughtful television has never been the strong suit of a network that has inflicted on the world ''The Simple Life," ''Temptation Island," and ''Totally Outrageous Behavior Caught on Tape."
Yet after years under the dead weight of increasingly stupid reality shows, ''Arrested Development" reminded those willing to tune in that network television was still capable of producing smart, scripted comedies. Why the show never found an audience is anyone's guess; then again we're talking about a national viewership content to overdose on three different versions of the ''CSI" franchise a week.
If only Fox could have hung in there, as NBC did with ''Homicide: Life on the Street," arguably the best police drama in TV history. From 1993 to 1999, the show anchored the network's Friday night lineup with a stellar ensemble cast, led by Andre Braugher's brilliant performance as the difficult, erudite Detective Frank Pembleton. Yet, the show was never a hit, never won a best drama Emmy (it was never even nominated), never received the attention of such contemporaries as ABC's long-running ''NYPD Blue." Still NBC brought the show back season after season, perhaps realizing the show deserved to be judged by more than top 10 finishes and shiny industry trinkets.
There's a possibility that ''Arrested Development" could return. Last year, the show's episodes were cut from 22 to 18, but it was still renewed for its third season. This time around, however, that scenario is remote.
So if this is goodbye, here's props to the Bluths of ''Arrested Development" and its wily creators. This is less about failure than about a show that succumbed to the bitter reality of an uncompromising TV universe where millions of viewers tune in each week to pedestrian dreck but can find no enduring place for a series that had already become one of the best of the past decade.
Renée Graham's Life in the Pop Lane column appears on Tuesdays. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org