TV Preview

Numb 'Crumbs' Caked With Angst

By Chip Crews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, January 12, 2006

Don't settle for crumbs, we're told, and it's good advice. Nevertheless, tonight the programming chefs at ABC serve up a generous portion of crumbs -- or, rather, "Crumbs." Those who partake of this strained and straining new comedy might find they have settled for indigestion, as well.

The half-hour show, premiering at 9:30 on Channel 7, tells the story of the cacophonous Crumbs of Connecticut, yet another entry in the annals of wacko TV families. As tonight's episode opens, the raging, wrathful Suzanne (Jane Curtin) wraps up a stay at the Silver Hill Psychiatric Hospital, where she has resided since she tried to run down her husband, Billy (William Devane), in the family SUV. Billy has just left her for a much younger woman, although it's hard to imagine this beatific simpleton with Curtin or anybody else.

Billy is a restaurateur, but since his departure, the couple's elder son, Jody (Eddie McClintock), has been holding down the kitchen -- that is, when he's not bedding every available female from the waitresses to the health inspector. If no skillet or sex partner is available, Jody usually vents his anger at his two-timing dad.

Into this acidic, uneven brew comes the couple's second son, Mitch (Fred Savage). Mitch is the family success story: a prosperous Hollywood screenwriter with a nice girlfriend. The trouble is, although he did write one movie, he has been suffering from writer's block for a year, he's running low on money, and he doesn't exactly have a girlfriend -- in fact, he's gay. (There's also a closeted gay character on NBC's new "Book of Daniel." Can this be TV's latest trend?)

Mitch returns to Connecticut, planning to spend a few days helping with Suzanne's return to the family home. He sets himself up as the sane one, but of course the others, loony as they are, at least are true to themselves while he goes on Living a Lie. Given that his California prospects are dim, he decides to stick around awhile.

It almost sounds as if it could work. But the show's central, organic flaw is illustrated early in tonight's episode. Mitch and Jody have gone to Silver Hill to pick up Suzanne. There they meet Elvis, a portly hospital staffer who has been carrying on with her. Elvis is very impressed to meet the big screenwriter and asks the name of the movie he wrote.

" 'Thicker Than Water,' " Mitch tells him.

"Right, right," Elvis says. "About the kid drowning. Say, how did you come up with that?"

"Actually," Mitch says, "it's about our brother."

After a single beat of embarrassed silence, Suzanne and Jody fly into a flurry of make-it-go-away comic activity.

You can write a flat-out farce or you can write "Ordinary People," but it's not easy to create a hybrid of the two. Suzanne, Billy and Jody aren't characters, they're walking, talking character traits -- approximately one trait apiece. They have about as much connection to reality as Mork from Ork, and they're certainly not designed to bear weight. When, in the second episode, Jody glares at Billy and snarls: "Maybe Patrick was the lucky one. He died before he got to find out what our father was really about," the show has contorted itself into something quite different from what it started out to be. And sure enough, very quickly the characters revert to their original one-dimensional form.

Mitch is another matter -- a life in denial has both humorous and dramatic potential. But here there's a casting problem: Savage, so winsomely appealing on the long-ago "Wonder Years," has grown into an awkward, sitcommy kind of actor, mugging his incredulity and underlining it with empty hand gestures. His discomfort is at all times evident.

Devane, for his part, is blissfully infantile -- except when the dead son is mentioned, of course -- a man transformed by love, riding around on a powder-blue motor scooter. And McClintock gives us pure, dimwitted sexual obsession.

In such company the always-emphatic Curtin qualifies as a virtual master of nuance.

In the end, the one-note antics grow wearisome. On tonight's episode, Mitch attempts to patch up his patchy relationship with Jody, only to be roundly rebuffed.

"I know why you came here," Jody says with a sneer. "You just came here to see if you could get more material for your next movie. But the joke's on you, pal, 'cause I don't intend to do or say anything interesting."

The laugh track screeches at that one -- clearly it's meant to be hilarious. But viewers can take it as a solemn oath.

Crumbs (30 minutes) debuts tonight at 9:30 on Channel 7.

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