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When therapy isn't the cure-all

March 09, 2004|Carina Chocano | Times Staff Writer

Most therapists adhere pretty strictly to the same abridged hour as network dramas do, but in the new Fox comedy "Cracking Up," Jason Schwartzman plays a psychology grad student who moves in with a Beverly Hills family to devote himself full time to its youngest member. The extravagant arrangement -- it's so hard to get live-in mental help these days -- could be interpreted as a trendy dig at the uber-wealthy and the professional remoras who cater to them. But, so far, the humor on "Cracking Up" is too broad to hit such a specific target.

"Cracking Up" has a reasonably promising, if contrived, premise. At his mentor's urging, Ben Baxter (Schwartzman) moves into the guesthouse of the perfect-on-the-outside, nutty-on-the-inside Shackleton family to work with their maladaptive youngest son and quickly discovers that the lunatics are running the asylum. Dad Ted (Christopher McDonald) is a sociopath; mom Lesley (Molly Shannon) is a bipolar alcoholic; older brother Preston (Jake Sandvig) is an obsessive-compulsive with homosexual impulses; and sister Chloe (Caitlin Wachs) is a repressed erotomaniac.

This turbo-diagnosis appears courtesy of Ben, who provides it for his inexplicably stupid and puerile fellow grad student, Liam (David Walton), at the end of the first episode. (Here's Liam in therapeutic mode: "We can invite all the hottest bisexual, bipolar chicks in town and rehabilitate them -- in the hot tub!" and "I want to help people in trouble just as much as you do.... Hey ladies! Are you in trouble? You wanna be?")

Ben's young charge, Tanner (Bret Loehr), meanwhile, is a Marilyn Munster in the era of Dr. Phil. A jaded, angry, preternaturally resigned 9-year-old for whom life holds no mysteries and fewer surprises, Tanner is exactly what passes for a normal kid in sitcomland, where world-weary, precocious wisecracks are the hallmark of sanity. Ben decides to keep the job (he was thinking of quitting), if for no other reason than to keep the kid company.

The character of Tanner -- boy marooned in a sea of crazies -- may not be depressed, but he is certainly depressing. Whether or not this is intentional is hard to say. "Cracking Up" was created by "School of Rock" writer Mike White, whose credits include "The Good Girl," "Chuck & Buck" and the short-lived, hilarious Fox soap "Pasadena." White has made a career of exploring the inner lives of characters who straddle the line between weird and crazy. His previous projects have been subtly funny, sad and unsettling in equal measure. In "Cracking Up," he removes the hinges completely, with less compelling results.

One thing that Ben neglects to tell Liam, for instance, is that, except for that wizened old cynic Tanner, the Shackletons' most salient trait is a collective, nerve-jangling mania. It works well enough for Shannon, who seems to swing from mood to mood like Tarzan on a pressing errand. And the talented, always unnerving McDonald, whose eyes seem to be attached to coiled springs and his teeth vacuum-sealed to his head, is great at projecting barely checked psychosis. But the entire family (except, of course, for that morose killjoy Tanner) seems to share a single, Dale Carnegie-trained personality. The older kids are blandly chirpy and over-excited. It's too bad, because their clinical disorders wind up getting reduced to weird hobbies.

Schwartzman is quietly amusing as the sensitive therapist, if lacking in the oddball intensity that made him so much fun to watch in "Rushmore."

It's too soon to tell whether the stories will emerge organically from the characters' flaws and obsessions or whether they will just be gratuitously wacky. As of right now, things don't look all that good. In fact, the whole thing sort of smells like network executive spirit. How else to explain the subtle shift between the pilot and Episode 2? (Not to mention Schwartzman's dramatic haircut?)

In the pilot, mom finds out dad is cheating and goes on a violent alcoholic bender, dad admits he is being investigated by the SEC and hints at multiple-murder fantasies, brother reveals his shaving fetish and sister shows off the Web cam in her bedroom. Episode 2: Gone are the suggestion of infidelity, the threat of feds or mayhem and much of the teenage psychosexual intrigue. The family of chirpy perverts introduced in the pilot episode suddenly gives way to an Up With People-style chastity cult. When they scare away his girlfriend (they've never met a girl with a libido before), Ben discovers the hard way that the family is pathologically prudish -- except for that world-weary roue Tanner, for whom "it's no big deal, it's just sex."

*

'Cracking Up'

Where: Fox

When: Premieres tonight, 9:30 to 10

Rating: The network has rated tonight's premiere TV-PG-DL (may not be suitable for young children, with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)

Jason Schwartzman...Ben Baxter

Molly Shannon...Leslie Shackelton

Christopher McDonald...Ted Shackelton

Bret Loehr...Tanner Shackelton

Jake Sandvig...Preston Shackelton

Caitlin Wachs...Chloe Shackelton

David Walton...Liam

Created by Mike White. Executive producers, White, Brad Grey, Peter Traugott. Writer, White.

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