We kinda hated sitcoms when we sat down and talked about this. We wanted to do something that was in the sitcom vain but totally different.
—Christopher Titus, commentary, “Dad’s Dead”
You’ve got to remember that groundbreaking is what they do before they dig a grave.
—Jack Kenny, commentary, “The Last Noelle”
Three years on and Christopher Titus still can’t grasp why his Fox sitcom was canceled after just three seasons. Speaking for “Hard Laughs”, a 30-minute interview on the new Titus DVD, Titus notes that not only was his show the network’s highest rated comedy debut since The Simpsons, it was also out-rating at least two other shows that stayed on the air in 2003. “I don’t know what it got cancelled,” he says. “Maybe it was going too far, but I don’t think too far for the audience.”
Titus outlines his premise in the opening moments of the first episode: “The L.A. Times states 63% of American families are now considered dysfunctional. That means we’re the majority, we’re ‘normal.’” Based on Titus’ own childhood, the show offers frank depictions of life in such a household. It avoids usual sitcom setups and sappy wrap-ups, instead considering the effects of what Titus calls “hard, old school” parenting on young Christopher (Titus).
The hard parenting comes courtesy of Ken (Stacy Keach), and even though the creators compare their show to All in the Family, Ken’s the kind of guy TV has never seen before. According to Titus, the television version of his father was only very slightly exaggerated. Narrated by Christopher in the present, the episodes are filled with flashbacks to Titus’ childhood. Ken often appears outrageous in these flashbacks, as when he allows five-year-old Christopher (Dylan Capannelli) to stick a penny in a light socket to teach him not to stick pennies in light sockets.
Such incidents accumulate: Ken sticks a note on his son’s shirt with the name of whatever woman he’s picked up at the bar on it so he knows how to address her in the morning. He straps Christopher’s dislocated arm together with duct tape so the kid can win a running race. He kicks him out when he comes home drunk, leaves him in a jail cell for two nights, and attempts to convince Christopher’s girlfriend, Erin (Cynthia Watros) that dating his son is a bad idea. And in the end, Christopher credits his father’s parenting for his clean-living lifestyle, his ability to respect his girlfriend, and, of course, his utter lack of fear.
It was always Titus’ contention that viewers would identify with his TV family because it resembled his real life family. (On TV, they include Titus’s adopted brother Dave [Zack Ward], best friend, Tommy [David Shatraw], and his rarely seen manic-depressive, schizophrenic mother, Juanita [played by Christine Estabrook in the first season and Frances Fisher in the second].) “It’s rare that you’ll find a sitcom that will go to the real,” Titus says on the DVD’s commentary for “The Break-Up”. This is true to a degree. Titus experiences abuse and neglect as a child due to his mother’s illness and his father’s drinking and womanizing.
This is difficult sitcom material, but Titus pulls a lesson out of his parents’ outrageous behavior, that love comes in many forms. The fact that Ken—consistently awful to his son—emerged as the series’ most beloved character is the result of Keach’s portrayal. He handles the character’s surly dominance with such grace that viewers love and loathe the guy at the same time.
In support of Keach’s performance, Titus maintains admirable hold on his material. “My father never missed a drink, or a joint, or a party, or a chance to get laid in his life,” Christopher says, in his narration. “But he also never missed a day of work, or a house payment or a car payment.” The audience loves Ken because Christopher does, despite their conflicts.
No matter how unorthodox his parenting, Ken wants to prepare his son for the world, wants him to be resilient. “It could be as far out and as crazy as [they wanted it],” Titus says on the Episode Four commentary, “but the characters had to have love for each other.” Still, the show was cancelled, and again, Titus believes it’s because it went “too far,” whatever that might mean. “I’d rather have something that was on the air and taken off because it was pushing things too far,” Titus says in “Hard Laughs”, than have some something pulled because it was just boring.”
Titus never got boring, but it did lapse into clichés towards the end of Season Two, with Ken’s harshness serving as comic relief rather than the catalyst for Christopher’s philosophizing. Instead of looks at relationships (“The Break-Up” is a fascinating look inside Titus’ relationship with Erin, also a real-life character), suddenly Dave is stuck on a mountain, the guys end up helping a woman give birth, etc.
“The series,” Jack Kenny notes in the Episode One commentary, “is about a boy trying to impress his dad.” Though it loses sight of this relationship, the first two seasons (collected for this DVD set) explore the familial dynamic honestly and originally. Their mutual adoration is often so heartwarming it makes their dysfunction look almost enviable.