Television Shows Canceled Too Soon: #1 – Arrested Development


With the benching of Community and the likelihood of its cancellation following the airing of the remainder of its season three episodes, I was given the idea of writing about other television shows that were cancelled way too soon for various reasons.

I thought where better to begin than with Arrested Development? It is one of the most critically acclaimed television shows of all time and has amassed a huge cult following since its cancellation. So if it was such a fantastic show full of praise, why then did it do so badly? Well, the short answer is poor ratings. I will go into more detail about this later in the article but for now I will give you some backstory as to the creation and plot of the show.

In 2002 Ron Howard came up with the idea to create a comedy in the style of hand-held cameras and reality television, but with an elaborate, highly comical script resulting from repeated rewritings and rehearsals.Howard met with David Nevins, the President of Imagine Television, Katie O’Connell, a senior vice president, and two writers, including Mitchell Hurwitz. Poking fun at recent corporate accounting scandals, such as Enron, Hurwitz suggested a story about a “riches to rags” family. Howard and Imagine were immediately interested in using this idea, and signed Hurwitz on to write the show. The idea was pitched and sold in the autumn of 2002. Over the next few months, Hurwitz developed the characters and plot to the series. The pilot script was submitted in January 2003, and filmed in March 2003. It was submitted in late April, and added to the Fox autumn schedule in May.

Arrested Development tells the story of Michael Bluth, a widower with a 13-year-old son, named George-Michael, who is forced to keep his large and dysfunctional family together after his father is arrested for shifty accounting practices at the family-owned conglomerate and the Bluth family assets are frozen, making each member of the eccentric family panic. Michael’s snobbish mother, Lucille, finds herself living alone in a penthouse without the financial means to maintain it, while Michael’s two brothers, Gob and Buster, and his sister Lindsay with her husband Tobias and their daughter Maeby also find themselves having to recreate their lifestyles to fit their new financial status.

The first season of Arrested Development premiered in the U.S. on November 2, 2003, on Fox to to critical acclaim but poor ratings. As a result, the time slot was repeatedly changed in attempts to increase its ratings. For this I can only blame Fox for not giving each of the timeslots enough of a chance. The average person tunes in at the same time each day. They come home after a long day of work don’t want to put any effort into seeking out a show and so they watch whatever is on at the time. Moving the show around only made things worse. For anyone wondering why such a big cast couldn’t bring in ratings, you need to remember that this was Jason Bateman in between his teen star stage and his movie career that he has now. Michael Cera was still a young teenager and nobody knew who he was and finally Will Arnett was a virtual unknown at the time.

In 2004, the first season received seven Emmy Awardnominations with five wins. It won for Outstanding Comedy Series, Outstanding Directing for a Comedy Series, Outstanding Casting for a Comedy Series, Outstanding Single-Camera Picture Editing for a Comedy Series and Outstanding Writing for a Comedy Series, for the “Pilot” episode written by Mitchell Hurwitz and directed by brothers Anthony and Joe Russo. Jeffrey Tamborwas nominated that year for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Comedy Series. Despite all of the awards, the ratings for season two did not improve.

Season two averaged six million viewers which is simply not good enough for a network television show on at a peak time. Fox even dropped the amount of episodes for the season from 22 to 18, to make room for Family Guy, leaving people questioning whether it would return for a third season at all.

Somehow it managed to though, but at a cost. For the third season, Fox positioned the show at 8:00 p.m., directly opposite Monday Night Football for which it obviously stood no chance. Fox would have known this but needed to put the declining show somewhere in their schedule. As a result, ratings were even worse than previous seasons. On November 9, 2005, Fox announced that the show would not be airing in November sweeps, and that they had cut the episode order for the third season from 22 to 13. Ratings continued to drop until Fox decided to show the last four episodes in a two-hour timeslot—directly opposite the opening ceremonies of the 2006 Winter Olympics. The finale received an abysmal 3.3 million viewers.

After ending Mitch Hurwitz was approached by Showtime to continue the show on their cable network, however he declined, explaining his reasoning in an interview with Entertainment Weekly soon after:

“In truth, I had taken it as far as I felt I could as a series. I told the story I wanted to tell, and we were getting to a point where I think a lot of the actors were ready to move on. My instinct was that it was over when Fox pulled the plug. I considered continuing the show because I felt I owed that to the fans. But I am determined to give them some other kind of entertainment that will satisfy them at some point, I hope.”

The constant moving of the show in the schedule would have been exhausting. It can’t have been enjoyable to see something he was making constantly at risk of ending and so when it did, he didn’t want to go through a similar situation all over again.

The show never truly lived up to its reputation and there are many reasons behind this. As previously explained, the frequent moving of the show only served to make things worse and by the third season Fox realised it was best to just stick it on at the worst possible time to give them a reason to cancel it. To be fair to Fox, I can’t imagine that they wanted the show to fail, they did put it on the air after all. Their problem was that they simply didn’t know what to do with it.

Frankly, I believe that it was just ahead of its time and viewers couldn’t connect to it. This was a show style that they were not used to seeing. It had no laugh track and was shot documentary style and this is before the days of The Office or 30 Rock, when people expected a laugh track on a comedy show. The documentary format was also new and so not only did it not have a laugh track but a different look and style to what audiences were used to. This is key because audiences tend to like familiarity in television. Changing the format only puts them off of a show.

The show was incredibly layered, full of callbacks to jokes in episodes that had aired a long time beforehand. This goes back to my earlier point that typical audiences don’t like to think after a long day of work. They want to come home and zone out in front of the television. Thinking requires too much of them. This is why we see shows such as Two and a Half Men or The Big Bang Theory getting huge ratings, while Community suffers. Jokes about Buster losing his hand had been hinted on from the very beginning and so it is only on rewatching the show that you spot them. This only adds to the shows cleverness but unfortunately takes away a chunk of its viewers in doing so.

Another big reason is a generational change between people who watch television and the people who download and stream the shows to their computers. Arrested Development aired at the beginning of the torrenting boom and so young people that were the key audience chose to watch it that way or to DVR it. This can account for the huge lack of ratings that the show had because they simply were not seeing their target audience in the numbers.

After the cancellation the show started to gain a cult following through DVD because people could watch it whenever they wanted and at their own pace. Something that networks were either in denial about for a long time or are only just starting to realize and take advantage of. It topped the Amazon charts and is frequently seen on there even now, six years later.

Talks of an Arrested Development movie began emerging immediately after the final episode due to them referencing a possibility in the last scene and in february 2008 Jason Bateman confirmed that they were working on it. Years went by however and the cast were constantly asked whether it was indeed happening and many doubted it ever would. All hope is not lost though because at a cast revival Q&A, they announced that there would indeed be a movie, but also that a new season would precede that in order to give an explanation as to where the characters were now. The season will be exclusive to Netflix and is being planned for release in early 2013. As of the time of writing, nothing has been shot but all fans still hope to see the show again some day.

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