Like many TV fans, I have gone through the seven stages of grief when it comes to the demise of "Arrested Development". Yep, they were all there, at one point or another; I even promised that I would give up pork products if it was renewed, but to no avail. I just couldn't believe that such a fantastic comedy couldn't find an audience. Of course, neither could the my fellow TV watchers, who flooded web sites and message boards -- including the one I work for, AOL's TV Squad -- with messages every time a story was posted concerning even the minutest rumor on the show's status. If Will Arnett made a sneeze that sounded like the word "Showtime", we all responded with eager anticipation.
Eventually, though, I accepted that the two-and-a-half seasons of Arrested that we did get would have to be enough. But I still couldn't understand why the show failed.
Then, a few weeks ago I did an interview with Howie Mandel, the host of "Deal or No Deal", for TV Squad, and everything came into focus.
Yes, I know. "Deal" is a game show, and a fairly simple one at that. The contestant picks a case from twenty-six cases at random, then eliminates the other cases, hoping that the values eliminated are lower than what he or she picked; between each round, a "banker" makes offers for the case depending on what values are left on the board. Despite its simplicity, "Deal" is very popular; its ratings have steadily grown to the point it regularly places in or just outside the top ten for the week (even though it's shown as many as three days a week). Its high ratings seem as inexplicable as "Arrested's" low ones, especially to fans of "quality" TV. For instance, Tim Goodman, the excellent TV critic for the San Francisco Chronicle, expressed his incredulity this way: "Despite what millions of people we'd never want to be around believe, 'Deal or No Deal' is just asinine."
So how does a game show's success explain a comedy's failure? Well, my interview didn't get a whole lot of comments for the entire first day it was posted. But then AOL was kind enough to post it on their front page, and there was a comment explosion like I had never seen before, with over 150 of them hitting my inbox in one day. Because of AOL's massive reach, the comments came from a wide swath of viewers. 72-year-olds told me how much they and their five-year-old grandkids loved the show. People from all over the country told me that they could identify with the contestants, who were all in need of the prize money but often spurned significant offers from the unseen "banker" to quit in order to go for the big score.
My moment of clarity was at hand. And it wasn't the answer to which TV critics usually jump, which is that "Deal" is simple while "Arrested" is complicated. That's just too easy to say and doesn't accurately reflect what Americans like and dislike on television. For every "American Idol" that's a monster hit despite its uncomplicated formula, there is a "Lost," with a large cast, intersecting storylines, and -- most complicating of all -- flashbacks that go over the lives of the castaways pre-crash. If it were just a matter of Mencken-esque intelligence estimation, medical procedurals like "CSI" and "House" wouldn't have made it past five episodes. It's also not a matter of the American public not liking sophisticated comedy. "My Name Is Earl" and "The Office," for instance, have become moderate hits for NBC, and the comedy in both shows can sometimes be as layered and subtle as Arrested's was.
No, I've come to the conclusion that it was "Arrested"'s theme of rich people behaving badly that led to its downfall. Even its most sympathetic character, Jason Bateman's Michael Bluth, often lied and cheated as much as the rest of his family, even though he often did it for noble reasons. The rest of the Bluths, though, acted with a sense of entitlement that likely turned off many potential fans. Even though much of their behavior came back to bite them eventually, their obliviousness at how their actions were affecting their loved ones and surrounding environment likely didn't sit well with those who sampled the show. Believe me, from Bush to Cheney to Paris to Kenneth Lay, there are plenty of dubious shenanigans being perpetrated by wealthy Americans to more than satisfy the curiosity of the 99% of the country who doesn't know how the other half lives; they turn to prime-time TV to escape this behavior.
Deal, on the other hand, carries an appealing message: anyone can step up and win a bundle. The show's contestants are from various economic strata; your cubicle neighbor could win a six-figure pot of money there as easily as a professor or doctor. Yes, the contestants often take chances when their friends, family and common sense are all telling them to stop. But this lesson of "nothing ventured, nothing gained" is still more worthy to show your kids than "rich people are spoiled jerks."
The Bluths squandered chance after chance to redeem themselves and use their wealth for anything other than self-gratification. Meanwhile, the contestants on "Deal" are just so appreciative of the chance to get a little financial security that the game holds a lot of emotional meaning to them. Americans like seeing that. After a long day of hearing about our screwed-up war in Iraq, $3.00 gas, and breathless news about Tom and Katie's therapy-bound infant, there's nothing wrong with seeing someone who deserves a break get one for a change.