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The Watcher - Bluth or consequences

If you sat on your remote's fast-forward button during a 1980s prime-time soap like "Falcon Crest," what you'd see would look like Fox's "Arrested Development" (Sundays, 8:30 p.m.). TV's best comedy recaps the tribulations of the conniving Bluth family with such a hot-foot pace that it looks more like the high-speed prologues of Raising Arizona or The Royal Tannenbaums than a conventional sitcom.

The first season DVD collection (released Oct. 19 by Fox Home Entertainment for $39.98) lays out the premise in an extended pilot that's even more hilarious than the one broadcast. When real estate mogul George Bluth Sr. (Jeffrey Tambor) lands in jail, his long-suffering, responsible son Michael (a pleasingly non-plussed Jason Bateman) struggles to keep the business and the family together. Each week, "Arrested Development" showcases enough sibling rivalry and Oedipal issues to fill a Ph.D. thesis as Michael tries to clamp down on his grasping, eccentric kin.

When the second season begins Nov. 7, the Bluths belittle Michael's announced plan to sever ties with his family. They have good reason to scoff: In one of the show's hilarious blink-and-you'll-miss-it montages, we see Michael making similar ultimatums following disastrous family dinners, magic tricks and animal-rights protests.

For such dark, intricate material, "Arrested Development" stays surprisingly sunny and accessible. The show finds a moral center in Michael's relationship with his well-meaning but impressionable son, George Michael (Michael Cera). Their backstabbing relatives lure them into ethical sinkholes, but the two "good" Bluths actually learn from each other.

As the uncredited narrator, Ron Howard's summations not only keep us up to speed, his wholesome voice disarms the Bluths' callous activities. Howard's role as executive producer helps explain the show's five well-deserved Emmy awards (including Outstanding Comedy Series), despite the show's cellar-dwelling ratings. Hey, everybody loves Opie Cunningham.

The second season begins with George Sr. on the lam, Michael facing legal trouble and Will Arnett's scene-stealing brother Gob (pronounced "Jo-be") switching from two-bit magician to Bluth company figurehead. With its overflowing plots, "Arrested Development" seems likely to burn out faster than other casually paced sitcoms. So far, Michael's family provides bottomless reservoirs of bad behavior. Just when he thought he was out, they keep pulling him in.