Unhappy About the Happy Family
It’s no secret that the sitcom is one of the most precise of all television formats. It’s like television haiku. Twenty-two and a half minutes, the same characters every week, a simple but interesting problem, zany happenings, clever dialogue, problem solved, back to where we started, voila! Adjust the setting between locations, adults, and kids, you’ve got fifty years of successful television. The new Fox show Titus obviously isn’t happy about all that. It wants the sitcom to do more. Unfortunately, Titus tries to push the sitcom vehicle too far too fast, and it all crashes as a result.
Based on the hyper-dysfunctional family of stand-up comedian Chris Titus, Titus tells us upfront that it isn’t happy with the way “the family” is typically portrayed on television. During a narrative interruption in the second episode (originally taped for the pilot, but deemed “too edgy” by the network), Chris Titus turns to the camera and smugly asserts that 63% of families are now termed “dysfunctional.” Which means they are the norm. Which also means, apparently, that they need their own sitcom, one that shows how messed up a family can be. Titus means to fill that void: as if emulating a group of talk show guests, the Titus family consists of an alcoholic/womanizing/abusive father, a psychotic mother who was in and out of mental hospitals, a jumpy, violent brother, and Chris himself, who seems to have weathered it fairly well to emerge as a fairly happy adult. Or has he?
In the moments when Chris Titus stops grinning and tries to act to show real concern for his girlfriend Erin (Cynthia Watros) or hurt at being betrayed he looks like a badly wounded human being (or more precisely, the character based on him looks that way). The show reveals the source of this wounding, repeatedly. In one flashback, we see Dad (Stacy Keach) tell a 5-year-old Titus not to tell his mother if a certain woman calls. Then the mother pops in and tells the boy not to tell his father if a certain man calls. To both of these commands, the boy says, “Okay,” and then sits on the couch eating his ice cream. Later on, we watch Dad reading a teenaged Titus’s journal to his poker buddies while Titus stands in the background, listening. And in yet another scene, we get to see Dad punch Titus right in the face (via a clever “fist cam”).
We also see the results of these childhood episodes: when Erin seems to be messing around on him, he ransacks her office, enraged by her betrayal (which reminds him of betrayals by his father and mother). Or again, when Titus finds out Erin is being sexually harassed, he immediately wants to use violence to solve this problem, just the way his father and mother used violence to solve their problems.
It’s kind of hard to watch this depth of dysfunction in a sitcom. Imagine an episode of Home Improvement where Tim the Toolman bangs his hot Toolgirl while his three young sons watch through the window. Or better yet, recall Oliver Stone’s weird use of a sitcom scene in Natural Born Killers. Watching Rodney Dangerfield feel up his barely adolescent daughter (Juliette Lewis) in the video format of a sitcom, complete with laughtrack was chilling. It’s not so far removed from what Titus wants to show us. And it’s a problem. Sitcoms were born and have survived as simplistic, feel-good entertainments, in which protagonists truly care about each other, are committed to staying together, and learn at least minor lessons about themselves, their relationships, and the world around them. Even Seinfeld, which loved to claim that it had no hugs and no lessons learned, had a core of characters who were committed friends, knew each other intimately, and endured and tormented outsiders, but never turned their backs on each other.
There’s something about this simple and predictable form that works. Sitcoms allow us to laugh at situations that might echo our own lives, and in that laughter, we find a way to feel slightly better about our experience. Titus‘s problem is that it doesn’t give its audience that kind of recharge. It’s set up just like a family-oriented sitcom, with the same light, peppy tone, but it offers us dark humor inside that frame. It’s like eating Oreos and drinking vinegar: they don’t taste good together.
Maybe it would work if it avoided the flashbacks, which have on occasion, showed real cruelty. There’s some evidence that we can take smidgeons of dark humor in adult-dominated sitcoms. Remember when George’s fiancee Susan died on Seinfeld? The event was a tightrope to walk, because she had been in the inner circle of friends for nearly an entire season, but the show made it work. She died in a way that was bizarre, funny, and unbelievable (poisoned by licking her wedding invitation envelopes), and the other characters “respectfully” didn’t start really joking about it until a few episodes later.
At some level you have to admire Titus for what it’s trying to do. While the hour-long drama has clearly evolved now using multiple storylines and characters, covering real life issues, mixing comedy and tragedy the sitcom has stayed pretty much the same. And now that reality TV (see especially Cops and Jerry Springer) has forced mass media to admit that dysfunction has no limits in the family, it must be frustrating for people from unhappy families to see old-fashioned, chirpy families on television. While Roseanne, Grace Under Fire, and Married With Cildren not to mention The Simpsons might be its obvious, immediate precursors, Titus pushes the representation of family dysfunction even further. In doing so, it allows us to ask about the limits of television. It allows us to see our own predispositions as a culture, and gives us clues as to exactly what psychology we bring to a situation that lets us laugh at pain or distress. What shows like this don’t do, I fear, is stay on the air very long. I just can’t imagine people raised on Cosby not cringing when they see Titus.