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I know, I know, you thought the show had already been cancelled. You wouldn’t know it from reading recent articles and Internet outrage, but it hasn’t. Yet. Like last year, its season order has been reduced, this time from 22 episodes to 13. It’s very definitely not a good sign. It wasn’t a good sign last year when it was reduced to 18, either, but it still got renewed for a third season. But miracles rarely strike the same place twice, and I would bet my life savings (that’s right, all $1.25) that it won’t come back next year.

Things look even worse now that FOX has pulled the show from its usual Monday timeslot. Though the official website still claims back-to-back episodes on Mondays, tomorrow (Jan. 9), a rerun of House airs in its place, even though there are four of those 13 episodes left to air. Because a rerun of House can be expected to do about twice as well in the ratings as a new episode of Arrested Development. Ouch.

On paper, I’m not sure how risky AD looked to FOX, with its great pedigree and familiar cast. The risks are possibly only evident in retrospect, knowing that it never came close in ratings to what it achieved in critical acclaim. Structurally, thematically, characterly (I might have made one of those words up), it doesn’t seem designed to appeal to a mass audience. It’s a show that relies on finding a niche of viewers who don’t need their heroes to be sympathetic and who have the stamina for complexity. Some of the most successful sitcoms, even the smart ones, are designed for straightforward pleasure. The payoff with AD might be bigger, but so is the effort.

And I’d argue that the risk paid off for audiences and for FOX. We got three seasons of one of the best comedies to hit the airwaves, with more episodes during its truncated three-year run than we had of the original British version of The Office. And the network that can’t seem to shake its reputation for schlock got a boost to its reputation with a critically acclaimed, award-winning show. Blaming the network for the show’s inevitable demise is shortsighted and impractical, given its high cost to produce and bitterly low ratings.

It doesn’t surprise me, either, that the devoted critics didn’t manage to convert more viewers. One thing I think most got wrong in their zeal to promote the ratings-impaired show was to harp on how few people were smart enough to get it. Because many people, even the smart ones, resent being told that their tastes are a reflection of their intelligence. Many people, even the smart ones, want to relax in front of the tube and let the jokes wash over them, not work to unravel the complex plots and sideways humour. Maybe I’m a spiteful person, but the whiff of arrogance and desperation might have turned me off if I hadn’t already been hooked. That’s added to the fact that the show has been considered a lame duck for so long, a viewer would have to be slightly masochistic to fall in love with it now.

They’ll always have the DVDs. I just hope the rest of us don’t have to wait to see the final four episodes until then.

(Cross posted to Blogcritics)