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Laughing at calamity

ABC's 'Crumbs' is like 'Ordinary People' -- with punch lines.

January 12, 2006|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

"CRUMBS" feels like an indie feature idea crammed into a sitcom. Hollywood screenwriter Mitch Crumb (Fred Savage) leaves his boyfriend and returns to his Connecticut hometown when his mother Suzanne (Jane Curtin) is released from a psychiatric hospital. She's had a nervous breakdown, which featured an attempt to run over her husband (William Devane) after he left her for a younger woman.

Back home, Mitch is promptly sucked back into the bosom of familial dysfunction -- his mother's mania, his parents' disintegrating marriage, his brother's simmering resentment that Mitch escaped to L.A., selling out a family tragedy for his first big movie deal.

Mitch has his own secrets -- his homosexuality and the fact that his Hollywood career is on the skids. You suspect he's a one-hit wonder, the one hit a movie called "Thicker Than Water," based on the drowning death of his other brother, Patrick. I feel at this point as if I'm describing a movie I might want to see, not a sitcom ABC expects me to watch on a regular basis, tuning in each week for jokey asides about having the crazies and sudden, jarring moments of deep sorrow.

The premise has him staying home and working in the family restaurant, where his brother Jody (Eddie McClintock) is chef and his father is persona non grata. But it's mostly the relationship between Curtin, the original "Saturday Night Live" alumna, and Savage, the former child actor we met cute in "The Wonder Years," that drives "Crumbs," both as object of curiosity and engine of comedy.

There is something of a rich dynamic here, the shared damage between mother and adult son, both of whom are in recovery from shame; on "Crumbs," there's even a scene in which Suzanne crawls into bed with Mitch just after he's entered a gay chat room, the boundary-breaking recalling David O. Russell's first feature, "Spanking the Monkey."

Never fear, though, this is network television; we will be protected from anything too interesting by the soothing sounds of a laugh track, and because the writers pretty much lock the two in a slow dance of sitcom straight man and batty woman. From the moment Curtin utters her first mental-illness-related laugh line (it has to do with a psych-ward production of "Grease," two schizophrenics doing all the parts) you can sense the punch line determinism with which her character will likely be drawn. Curtin is still a joy to watch, out of her wits and back again.

It's a given that sitcom families are nutty and insular, from "The Addams Family" to "The Simpsons," and that, at its best, this gives us refuge. Even the too-close-for-comfort commingling of the Barones on "Everybody Loves Raymond" gave what could otherwise be regarded as a tame sitcom its audaciousness.

Amid this canon, "Crumbs" is a little all-over-the-place, yanking you in different directions, from broad sitcom antics to an "Ordinary People"-like running story line that stares at its sadness, without blinking, for several beats longer than you might expect from a show of this ilk. In a way, that's to "Crumbs' " credit, but it also points to a problem. "Soap" went for big emotional moments, as did the classics "All in the Family" and "MASH." But here it seems too big too soon. All of which raises an interesting question: Is there a way to sweeten the pathos in post?


Where: ABC

When: 9:30 tonight

Ratings: TV-PG-D, L (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for coarse language and suggestive dialogue)

Fred Savage...Mitch Crumb

Jane Curtin...Suzanne Crumb

William Devane...Billy Crumb

Eddie McClintock...Jody Crumb

Maggie Lawson...Andrea Malone

Reginald Ballard...Elvis

Executive producer-creator Marco Pennette. Executive producers Mike Tollin, Brian Robbins and Joe Davola.

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