It's not hard to see why some people might tune in to the new sitcom Crumbs, which premieres at 9:30 tonight on ABC. After all, the program features a trio of accomplished TV actors: Fred Savage (The Wonder Years), Jane Curtin (Saturday Night Live, 3rd Rock From the Sun), and William Devane (24, Knot's Landing).
What viewers will discover, though, is an odd attempt to mine humor from a monumentally dysfunctional family. This is an approach that can succeed if handled deftly, as it has been in Fox's excellent series Arrested Development. In the case of Crumbs, however, the show goes for dark and edgy, but mostly manages just silly and insensitive.
In the series pilot, mom Suzanne Crumb (Curtin) phones son Mitch (Savage), a Hollywood screenwriter, to announce that she's about to be released from the mental hospital where she's been committed since trying to drive a car over her husband -- while he was in a swimming pool.
"I could be home Thursday," she tells her son, "but the schizophrenics are performing Grease after dinner. There's only two of them, and they do all the parts. I couldn't miss that."
Mitch flies home to Connecticut to help Mom start her new life, inasmuch as Dad (Devane), former owner of the family restaurant, has run off with the local food critic. Mitch also hopes to reconnect with his resentful older brother Jody (Eddie McClintock), who has been stuck running the restaurant since Dad left and Mom was institutionalized.
Everyone in the family thinks Mitch is a big success in Hollywood because a movie was made from a screenplay that he wrote based on a Crumb family tragedy -- the accidental death years earlier of Mitch and Jody's older brother, Patrick. Mitch doesn't tell them that he hasn't written or sold anything since then, and oh, yeah, there's something else he's not ready to share with the family: He's gay.
Fred Savage, the former child star who won over viewers years ago as the insightful and sensitive Kevin Arnold in The Wonder Years, has developed into the kind of understated actor who is perfect for the bemused straight-man role in a series like Crumbs. Unfortunately, some of his co-stars don't carry their share of the load as well.
Curtin, for example, plays the unbalanced mother with a broad and manic intensity that is almost painful to watch; those who remember her from the glory days of SNL are bound to be disappointed. And Devane's idea of a midlife crisis is to flash his toothy grin every chance he gets.
McClintock may or may not be a good comic actor, but his role as a moody womanizer and the spiteful sort who spits into customers' food -- or worse -- doesn't give him much of a chance to prove himself.
The show's creator, Marco Pennette (Caroline in the City) says that Crumbs combines comedy and tragedy and is based on his own real-life dysfunctional family, right down to the philandering dad, the mom who suffers a breakdown, and the brother who was killed in an accident. He has described his creation as "Soap meets Ordinary People."
To be fair, Crumbs is more intelligently written than some sitcoms out there, and it has some funny lines. But they're not nearly as hilarious -- and they don't occur nearly as often -- as the show's annoying laugh track would suggest.
Despite its flaws, the series does have some potential, but Crumbs has a long way to go before most viewers would consider it a satisfying meal.
Contact Mike Kelly at: firstname.lastname@example.org.