Fox still a strong supporter of risky format

With only two single-camera comedies, Fox’s “Arrested Development” and “The Ortegas,” slated for fall 2003 premiere, the once widely held notion that such innovative series would one day dominate the broadcast networks seems to have, at least temporarily, been dispelled.

A few years ago, the emergence of Fox’s “Malcolm in the Middle” and HBO’s “Sex and the City” made single-camera, no-laughtrack comedies all the rage among television creatives and network decision-makers. Since the 2001-02 season, however, when the broadcast and cable networks had single-camera sitcoms on their schedules, the crop of cinema-style comedies has been reduced significantly.

Hard sell

“Producing anything without a laughtrack takes a little extra selling these days,” admits veteran scribe Mitch Hurwitz (“The Ellen Show,” “The John Larroquette Show”), who managed to sell Fox on “Arrested Development” after ABC, CBS and NBC all took a pass. (To get this done, Hurwitz had help from Imagine Entertainment co-head Ron Howard and his top TV lieutenant, David Nevins, who participated in the pitches.)

“Ultimately, I think the big three networks, in particular, firmly believe single-camera comedies can’t generate a mass audience,” says Gavin Polone, whose NBC-backed Pariah production shingle sold Fox on the Cheech Marin-toplined “The Ortegas” — a blend of single-camera and traditional multicamera studio audience production work — after the Peacock deferred.

Non-believers

“The only network that believes single-camera or hybrid sitcoms work is Fox, because all of the other networks feel they have been burned (by ratings declines) at one time or another,” Polone adds.

Requring long production days outside the studio — and more expensive as a result — network decision-makers have cooled on the single-camera approach. However, there are still plenty of TV producers who believe in the technique.

Adds reality

“One of the reasons why our show is a single-camera (program) is because I always noticed in the past that when anybody tried to do a medical sitcom, it seemed so fake,” says Bill Lawrence, creator and exec producer of NBC’s “Scrubs.” “It seemed like soap opera actors playing pretty doctors. One of the ways we felt it would help our comedy was to have these emotional moments that were allowed by a single-camera show and a real hospital. It makes you believe that these people are actually doctors, and that there are real life-or-death emotional stakes there.”

“Single-camera comedies are just so different, because the jokes are not embedded as much (as traditional sitcoms), and it’s the heightened sense of reality that comes out, the physical and visceral aspects of this kind of comedy,” Hurwitz adds.

Similar in theme to “Malcolm in the Middle’s” dysfunctional family motif, Hurwitz has fashioned “Arrested” as a cinema verite-style mockumentary that employs the use of several hand-held high-definition cameras (in the 24-progressive format) to chronicle the foibles of the seemingly uber-rich Bluth brood.

In an interesting twist, “Arrested” features Ron Howard doing a third-person narration “objectively” to document a bunch of bratty sycophants whose comfortable Orange County lifestyles are threatened when daddy (played by Jeffrey Tambor) is thrown in jail for corporate fraud and embezzlement — leaving his only business-savvy son (Jason Bateman) to handle his teetering real estate empire.

“At the heart of this, it was Ron’s and David’s idea to create a single-camera show that gives us a totally objective peak at this disturbingly quirky and co-dependent family,” says Hurwitz, who notes that Howard’s guerrilla video approach to single-camera shooting was first evident in his direction of the 1999 feature “EdTV” (and in the creation of Fox’s real-time “24” drama).

Academy of Television Arts & Sciences voters this year will consider exactly this kind of innovative comedy narrative when they view a “Malcolm in the Middle” episode from this past season titled “If Boys Were Girls,” directed by single-camera vet Ken Kwapis.

The episode’s gender-bending story concept came from an 11-year-old named Alexandra Kaczenski, a niece of a costume designer on the “Malcolm” crew. Nearly every aspect of the location-intensive episode proved challenging, but none more so than fantasy sequences where three of Lois’ (Jane Kaczmarek) battling boys morph into compliant, shopping-driven daughters, while husband Hal (Bryan Cranston) is turned into a compulsive, nervous and rather obese (through a prosthetic fat suit) wreck.

“What’s so great about (the single-camera format) is being able to bring this kind of extreme, surreal vision of what role reversals can do to illustrate a family’s dysfunctional relationships,” Kwapis explains.

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