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At the time of "Arrested Development's" premiere last

fall, the title referred solely to the grotesque immaturity of the Bluths, a

spoiled, self- absorbed family nominally headed by a crooked California

developer serving time for securities fraud. By mid-season, the title could

just as easily have applied to the show's audience, the development of which

was, well, arrested. Especially in proportion to the acclaim critics had heaped

on the show.

With an eye to that critical support - and to the possibility of a

best-comedy Emmy, which "Arrested Development" subsequently won - Fox renewed

the show for a second season despite its having finished in 112th place its

first go-around. And now Fox is hoping that having the trophy, an earlier time

slot and "The Simpsons" for a lead-in is finally going to turn this darling of

critics and the creative community into a ratings hit.

Right. And Ohio is still a possibility for John Kerry.

I've never been as wild about "Arrested Development" as many of my fellow

critics are. Its laugh-track-free, mock- documentary style is a welcome change

from the traditional sitcom format, and its cast is loaded with accomplished

farceurs - Jessica Walter and Jeffrey Tambor foremost among them - doing

top-notch work.

But my ultimate test for any comedy is - what else? - "Does it make me

laugh?" "Arrested Development" seldom does. Not loudly, anyway.

It has neither the liberating audacity of HBO's "Curb Your Enthusiasm" nor

the delirious, anything-for-a-laugh energy of NBC's "Scrubs," the two

contemporary comedies that consistently crack me up. It's reminiscent of the

taboo- breaking 1970s comedy serial "Soap," but drier, more deadpan, and with

less endearing characters. Does it deserve a wider audience than it has gotten?

Sure. But I can't imagine it becoming a mainstream hit for Fox like "The

Simpsons" or "Malcolm in the Middle."

Sunday's second-season premiere is true to form. At the start, Michael

Bluth (Jason Bateman), the white sheep of the family, is driving with his son,

George Michael (Michael Cera), to Phoenix, once again vowing to start a new

life free of the lazy, dishonest and/or perverse relatives who lean on him.

"They're not our family," Michael tells his son. "They're a bunch of

greedy, selfish people who have our nose."

There'd be no more series if Michael actually left, of course, so he's soon

back home coping with his flighty, amoral mom (Walter); his brothers Gob (Will

Arnett) and Buster (Tony Hale), an inept magician and a perpetual grad student

and spiritual seeker, respectively; his worthless, vain sister, Lindsay

(Portia DeRossi), and her ambiguously gay husband, Tobias (David Cross). Then

there's dad, George Sr. (Tambor), who was in the midst of a prison break when

the first season ended, and his hippie twin (also Tambor), who may or may not

be the biological father of at least one of the Bluth kids.

Devout fans most likely will be enthralled. The uninitiated are encouraged

to see what the fuss has been about. I'll be more likely to watch it now, but

only by default. What else is there to do with the 30 minutes after "The

Simpsons"? The last half of "Cold Case"?

***

Speaking of Homer, Marge and family, Sunday brings the 15th annual

"Treehouse of Horrors" episode (8 p.m., Fox/5), a Halloween tradition that,

thanks to Fox's baseball contracts, now tends to wind up in November.

Like most of the recent editions, this year's is about two-thirds

brilliant. The opening segment, a "Dead Zone" parody in which Ned Flanders can

foresee the death of anyone he touches, and the third, which spoofs the

circulatory- system adventure "Fantastic Voyage," including Raquel Welch's

uncanny ability to end up scantily clad, both tend to run out of jokes before

they use up their time. But the middle 'toon, in which a Sherlockian "Eliza"

Simpson and her sidekick, Dr. Bartleby, track a Jack the Ripper type through

the slums and opium dens of Victorian London is killer from start to finish.

ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT.Fox's Emmy-winning comedy about the exceedingly

dysfunctional Bluth family begins its second season. Premieres Sunday night at

8:30 on Fox/5.

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