Crazy is as crazy does, but you’d have to have a serious screw loose to enjoy Crumbs. A relentlessly unfunny mid-season replacement comedy from ABC that sucks all the fun out of dysfunction, the show could have been pitched to network execs as “Arrested Development meets Ordinary People.” But it shows none of the former’s wit or latter’s intelligence. Instead, it veers from crass comedy to heart-tugging poignancy with all the subtlety of electroshock therapy. This is evident with the choice of music, opening with Patsy Cline’s “Crazy” and closing with some lame ballad about never leaving home (the end credits don’t reveal the singer or the song’s title).
Based on the real life experiences of series creator Marco Pennette (who co-created Caroline in the City and Inconceivable), Crumbs stars Fred Savage as Mitch Crumb, a failed Los Angeles screenwriter returning to his Connecticut hometown to reconnect with his family. This being a network sitcom, the Crumbs are, of course, seriously flawed.
Mom Suzanne (Jane Curtin) had an emotional fallout after dad Billy (William Devane) left her for a younger woman. An attempt to run him over with her car landed her in a mental institution, where she started her own affair with an orderly named Elvis (Reginald Ballard). Billy walked away from the family’s successful restaurant business to become a “past-life massage therapist,” leaving lunkhead older brother Jody (Eddie McClintock) to run the place, even though having sex in the restaurant’s freezer seems to be his only talent. Did I mention that Billy’s also gotten his girlfriend pregnant? Are you laughing yet?
Mitch has his own problems. He’s a closeted gay man who is sleeping with his shrink and who fled Connecticut years earlier following the drowning death of his younger brother. His emotional distance makes dealing with his wacky family all the more difficult. The fact that Mitch has written a movie about the clan’s tragedy galls Jody to no end and the show tries to mine laughs from their sibling rivalry.
In fact, the show tries to mine laughs from any number of sources, making jokes at the expense of mental illness, infidelity, midlife crises, homosexuals, drug use, and the Beach Boys’ “Kokomo.” There’s not enough lithium in the world to sedate me into thinking any of this was funny. When not so mining, Crumbs descends into schmaltz, asking us to feel sorry for characters who are cartoon cutouts.
The pilot has Suzanne being released from the institution; her attempts to reenter the real world are complicated when she accidentally discovers that Billy is going to be a proud papa with his new girlfriend. Suzanne’s reactions range from bug-eyed to vulnerable in the blink of an eye. (And why is it that an unkempt hairdo always signifies madness?) The usually reliable Curtin is certainly game for this kind of broad comedy, but Suzanne is shrill, self-pitying, and potentially dangerous to herself and others—not so funny.
Her family is little help: Billy comes off as smug and childish, while Jody is a dimwitted lothario with a severe case of, ahem, arrested development. Savage, worlds away from The Wonder Years, fares much better. Mitch is complex and troubled by his own inner demons, slowly coming to appreciate the fact that his family stuck around to deal with their issues rather than run away from them.
His sexual orientation is a puzzle, though, as the first episode mostly uses it to give him another source of anxiety. When Suzanne asks him if he’s gay, he blurts out that Billy has knocked up his girlfriend rather than tell her the truth. This dilemma is a certainly one that every gay person has known at some time or another, and Crumbs’ only merit is its refreshing depiction of a gay man who isn’t a limp-wristed stereotype or an effeminate manchild.
Crumbs appears to want to say something about the importance of family ties when dealing with common “issues.” But poking harsh fun at mental illness is risky business, and anyone who has faced psychological disorders may not find much to laugh at here. It also offers a more or less gently comic examination of the family driven to the breaking point by some serious problems. Whether it will choose a direction remains to be seen.