Friday, January 13, 2006

A Family In Crisis Doesn't Need A Laugh Track

I noticed something odd when I was watching the new ABC series Crumbs tonight. No, it wasn't the overbearing laugh track. Oh I noticed it and I'll get into that in a bit, but the decision to use it and with such a heavy hand was scarcely odd, more like about what one would expect the network to demand for this sort of show. No what seemed odd - and maybe it was just me - but sometimes it seemed as if some of the lines weren't exactly in synch with the movements of the characters' mouths. This seemed to happen a lot with Jane Curtin's character, and to a lesser extent with William Devane's character. At times it seemed almost as if the actors redubbed their lines after scenes had been shot, some of them not quite the same as what had been originally said. For reasons I can't explain this bothered me somehow even though, as I said, it could just have been me.

We are introduced to the Crumb family when youngest son Mitch receives a call from his mother Suzanne. She's getting out of the "sanitarium" (what in less sensitive time and for less well off people was called the mental hospital). Mitch is in California where his family believes that he's a successful (and straight) screenwriter, but he decides to fly back to Connecticut to help her to get readjusted - and to keep her from trying to kill her ex-husband again. She was put in the sanitarium for trying to run over her husband Billy and the girlfriend he left her for after thirty years. In Connecticut he reunites with his older brother Jody, the rather immature chef who now runs the restaurant that his parents started. Jody is devoted to his mother, and hates his father for leaving the business and Suzanne. He also deeply resents Mitch apparently for having the "good life" in California. As for their father, Mitch finds him in the hall closet after the brothers get their mother home. He's picking up the last of his stuff to finish moving in with his girlfriend. Billy might have come back but she's pregnant, and he's starting a new life as a "past life massage therapist".

The fact is that all of the characters are hiding secrets, some of which emerge. While Suzanne may hate her ex-husband she moved on too, in the form of a very large African-American orderly named Elvis who she met at the psychiatric facility. Mitch hasn't told his family that he's gay and that the "girl" that he tells them about is in fact his boyfriend (and his shrink). Suzanne of course knew since Mitch was a teen that he was gay and was just waiting for him to tell the family. Nor does he tell them that while he wrote one hit movie, his writing career is stalled. The big secret is about Billy's girlfriend being pregnant. When Mitch blurts this out while trying to convince Suzanne that Billy isn't coming back it sets her off on what seems to be a homicidal rage. Suzanne finds Billy at his new job and pulls a gun on him. Her sons are close behind but aren't exactly effective in disarming her. She pulls the trigger on the gun...which turns out to be one of those lighters shaped like a gun.

Hanging over the family and most of the stresses that they experience is a family tragedy, the death of the third brother, Patrick, in a boating accident a number of years ago. Jody's resentment of Mitch really stems from the fact that he left as soon as he could and then wrote a screenplay about the tragedy which for Jody was all the more real because he was supposed to be with the brother when the accident happened. Jody isn't able to write a new movie because the screenplay he created for his big hit was so personal to him. It may be all that he could have written. Their mother's crutch in the crisis was being with her family and that was shattered when Billy suddenly left her. As for Billy for all that he believes that his affair was just a case of flirting that got carried away, it seems obvious that he was coping by breaking away from his family. In a very real sense this is a family in crisis, one which is finally acknowledging a part of their problems and maybe starting to heal. Of course since this is a comedy, the humour isn't in the actual healing but in never getting much beyond the first step. Inevitably Suzanne will never fully reconcile herself with Billy leaving and will continue to want revenge. Jody will continue to be mad at Mitch despite the fact that his younger brother has moved back home to become the manager of the restaurant (allowing Jody to spend more of his time on the cooking). But that's okay. Dysfunction in and of itself can be funny.

This of course is where the Laugh Track comes into the equation. I am not totally opposed to Laugh Tracks; used properly and with a certain surgical precision they can sweeten the reaction of a live audience and give a joke that received a lukewarm response to a somewhat higher level. Unfortunately the person who was in charge of the laugh track for this show had the subtle hand of a drunk with a sledge hammer, and apparently no live audience response to sweeten. Every funny line or incident gets one of those over the top reactions that is the hallmark of a badly used laugh track, and it sometimes seems as though the same sequence of laughter was used over and over again. It's as if the producers are determined to tell us "This is the funny bit, you laugh here" just in case we didn't recognise it. I feel more than vaguely insulted.

I'm not sure about the cast either. Just about everyone is talking about this the return of Fred Savage to network TV as though he was gone longer than his time on the series Working would have indicated. He's nice enough but he seems to mostly be playing the "straight" man in this one, at least so far. For me this series is all about the marvellous Jane Curtin as the bitter angry medicated Suzanne. Sure she chews the scenery and has the sort of wild-eyed look that makes you want to lock up the china, but she is absolutely letter perfect for this part. I have more of a problem with William Devane but I suppose that's because I'm not a huge fan of Devane as a comedic actor. He always comes across to me as though he's trying too hard to be funny and that's also true in this show. Rounding out the Crumb family is Eddie McLintock as Jody. I'm not sure what I can say about him beyond the fact that he plays off of the other actors reasonably well even though, as yet, his character is little more than an immature kid in a man's body.

I think I'm being influenced by something I read about this show today (actually I know I am) but I think it's accurate - Crumbs is trying a bit too hard to let you know that it's something different. Moreover, I'm not sure that ABC really knows how to handle different. This show is a big departure from According To Jim or Faith And Hope - heck it's a big departure from Emily's Reasons Why Not and Jake In Progress (and given that the network has pulled both of those next Monday for a double dose of The Bachelor we know how those two are working out) - and I don't think the network is too sure of their footing here. Sure they want the sort of critical acclaim that a show like Arrested Development gets, but they don't quite want to go as radically different as that show is. The net result is neither fish nor fowl - it doesn't stray far enough from conventional to truly stand out but is far enough out that it's going to have a tough time catching people who want conventional. I'm also going to suggest that the network doesn't have that much confidence in the show. They're hoping that the people who watch Dancing With The Stars will stay on ABC for this but if they must have known that they'd be going up against a truly different show in The Office, which means that they're burning Crumbs off as a good idea that didn't quite gel. If you're in the market for a comedy that's different from the run of the mill, change the channel after Dancing With The Stars and watch The Office.

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