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Would Arrested Development Be As Funny Dirty?

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With the word out that Arrested Development is as good as canceled — Fox cut back the Emmy-winning sitcom’s episode order from 22 to 13, the point at which most shows start ordering the liquor for the wake — fans are going through the traditional stages of TV death. From denial and anger, we’ve commenced bargaining, with TV critic Tim Goodman of the San Francisco Chronicle suggesting that pay-cable channel Showtime could be the Bluth family’s white knight.

The idea makes sense enough: HBO doesn’t like buying castoff shows, most other cable channels couldn’t afford AD, and Showtime, whose critical fortunes have been rising with shows like Weeds, could still use a ratings boost. Like most save-this-show fantasies, I’ll believe it when I see it. My bigger concern right now is: What happens to the show when the characters are allowed to swear?

Among its many pleasures, AD is, within the confines of network censorship, one of the most delightfully filthy sitcoms ever to air on a major network. Besides the numerous incest jokes — not to mention an actual makeout session between quite-possibly-cousins George Michael (Michael Cera) and Maeby (Alia Shawkat) — the show is loaded with subversive plays on those very network confines. One running joke in a recent episode had to do with a certain five-letter word starting with "p" that, depending on the intent and dialect of the speaker, can mean either a cat or a part of the female anatomy. The episode bounced between bleeped and unbleeped p-words in a way that rendered the censor’s restrictions ridiculous; a subplot of the show also parodied the James Bond franchise, which had fun with the same term in movies like OctoyouknowwhatImean.

AD is in a tradition of naughty, propriety-skirting wordplay that goes back to Hamlet ("Did you think I meant country matters?") and, I’m sure, well beyond. Even the simple bleeps underscore the show’s mockumentary conceit, echoing the bleeps we’re used to seeing by now in reality shows. A throwaway line in the show’s pilot, when George Bluth, Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) learns he’s mistaken in believing that his wife cannot testify against him in court — "I have the worst ____ing lawyers" — is funnier, I would argue, exactly because it’s bleeped. Take the series to Showtime and you’d lose that tension; with a flat-out f-word, lines like that would be a little less funny and, ironically, less dirty.

Of course, Mitch Hurwitz and his writers are hilarious enough that I’m sure they could find plenty of ways to be funny on pay cable. But even if AD does not get saved, this is a question that will only come up more often as we develop more, and less restrictive, media options. Will Howard Stern be as funny and transgressive when he goes to satellite radio, and can air live sex acts for all that the nonexistent censors will care?

Most important, of course, is that someone, anyone, offers AD the deal it deserves: to be free to make brilliant comedy. But it might be best if they weren’t too free.