Andrew Billen - No laughing matter

Television - Good new comedy is hard to find in the US

In America, where I was last week, they take their show business seriously. It may be the business side that does it for them, or a nation's pride in its sense of fun. Anyhow, on the Thursday, the morning magazine shows went into instant analysis mode when the nominees for this year's Emmy Awards were announced at 5.30am Pacific Coast Time. There was general dismay that, come September, the TV Oscars ceremony was going to look a bit samey. Admittedly, ER and NYPD Blue were no longer in the running for anything, but The Sopranos, The West Wing, 24 and the original CSI: crime scene investigation were all nominated, along with their very familiar stars. That left room for only three new dramas to get nods - the kooky God-meets-teenager hit Joan of Arcadia, David Milch's bad-mouthed western Deadwood (HBO) and Without a Trace (CBS).

But if drama's front-runners weren't exactly hot, some of the shows hailed in the comedy section were as cold as the morgue. Sex and the City, Friends and Frasier have already slipped into comedy history, as has Life With Bonnie - although, in this case, as a footnote, given that it was cancelled by ABC after just two years. Poor John Ritter was even nominated posthumously, having died only weeks into the run of the unexceptional 8 Simple Rules. Everybody Loves Raymond, nominated in four categories, is about to enter its ninth and final season (it's still funny, but despised by the critics for its reliance on traditional husband-wife and in-law gags) and Will and Grace, which won three nominations, has been around longer even than it seems in Britain, because Channel 4 shows two-year-old episodes.

So where is the new laughter going to come from? NBC, which had Seinfeld, Frasier and Friends as Thursday-night bankers for years, is praying that Matt LeBlanc, another nominee, will successfully spin off from Friends into Joey. Given the character, however, we can expect the laughs to be broad. The best hopes for sophisticated humour ride on something called Arrested Development. It won seven nominations and is heading for BBC2 this autumn. It is, I can report, like nothing we have ever seen, which may explain not only its critical success, but that it finished 107th out of 159 in the ratings and has only by the skin of its teeth been recommissioned by Fox.

One of its stars is Jeffrey Tambor, beloved Hank Kingsley from the hallowed Larry Sanders Show - although, now aged 60, he looks worryingly old and gaunt. He plays George Bluth, a jailed real-estate developer (hence the title) who leaves his son (Jason Bateman) trying to keep the most dysfunctional of families and family businesses (selling toffee-coated bananas) together in Orange County.

The repeat I caught was initially confusing: first, because the cast is large; second, because the scenes are very short; and third, I think, because it is meant to be disorientating. It is shot on high-quality video like reality TV, with no laughter track. Fortunately, presiding over the confusion is the voice of Ron Howard, one of the show's executive producers. Howard narrates as if the comedy we are witnessing is as innocent as Happy Days, whereas in fact we are watching a microcosmic parody of sleazy corporate America. Arrested Development does for business what Malcolm in the Middle does for the family: explodes the myths.

As Michael, Bateman plays the stressed straight guy. His foils are his brother Gob (pronounced Job), a manic failed magician, and his sister Lindsay, a dippy liberal who, out to save the wetlands from litter, manages to spike a live toad. His mother, Lucille, is a graceless socialite who guesses a banana might cost $10. Confusingly, her best friend is also called Lucille, a fat nymphomaniac played, extraordinarily enough, by Liza Minnelli. Safely incarcerated, George has put all his little frauds behind him and could not care less. He is wondering which prison gang to align himself with: "I thought I had it down to two and then the Haitians made this beautiful pitch." Alone in my hotel room, I giggled frequently, but I wondered if there were not just too many ideas bumping into each other to make this sellable to a mass audience.

An hour later on HBO came the debut of Entourage, with the inspired premise of following an overnight star's progress from Queens to Hollywood through the lives of his hanger-on pals. Vince Chase, the hot actor (Adrian Grenier), has the looks of a young Donny Osmond and an IQ just high enough to know it's smart to leave the big decisions to others. His friend and manager Eric (Kevin Connolly), having heart and integrity, immediately finds himself at war with the most rapacious west coast agent you could imagine. Vince's brother is little help, still smarting from being fired from Melrose Place, but willing to take any acting crumbs that fall from his sibling's table. A lowlife called Turtle takes the same attitude towards Vince's female fans.

After 30 minutes, it seemed to me that everything was there for another classy HBO hit, except that someone had forgotten to put in the jokes. Then a new series of Da Ali G Show came on, as funny and subversive as ever, even if we now know the characters. Why did no one think to nominate Sacha Baron Cohen for an Emmy? Is it because he is Inglish?

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the Times