20 December 2004 | liquidcelluloid-1
A Ground-breaking high wire act between tragedy and comedy - the best and most unique sitcom since "Seinfeld"
Network: FOX; Genre: Sitcom, Dysfunctional Family Sitcom; Content Rating: TV-14 (for language, violence, nudity, strong sexual content, crude humor & dark, adult content); Available: DVD; Classification: Modern Classic (Star range: 1 - 5);
Season Reviewed: Complete Series (3 seasons)
If the sitcom is dying, nobody told Christopher Titus. "Titus" is the spiky-haired comedian's 1-man show, "Norman Rockwell is Bleeding", translated into a 1-set, multi-camera, studio audience sitcom. More than that, "Titus" is a shot of adrenaline straight to the heart. It rocks the audience and the genre, breaking rules left and right and turns the mold of the sitcom inside-out in the process.
Like "Everybody Loves Raymond", "Titus" is a post-modern dysfunctional family sitcom in which what may have been the children of television dysfunctional families 2 decades ago ("The Simpsons", "Rosanne", "Married
with Children") have now grown up and are trying to make their own way - unable to shake their parents and upbringing. "Titus" is the autobiographical life story of it's namesake lead who grew up with a drunken, abusive father (Stacy Keach) and a deranged schizophrenic mother (played by a different actress in each season). To help and hinder him along the way are his borderline retarded half-brother Dave (Zack Ward), his effeminate best friend and the show's "normal" character Tommy (David Shatraw) and the grounding support of his fiancé Erin (Cynthia Watros). Most sitcoms pair an average guy with a hot babe without explanation. On "Titus" there is one, but I wouldn't dare spoil it.
Titus breaks the 4th wall and narrates these stories from a bare room furnished only with a wooden chair and overhead light bulb - these scenes filmed in raw black & white. This "neutral space" serves as a metaphorical playground of the mind, representing sitcom Titus' thoughts and self-perceptions. In the tour de force episode "The Breakup" (that will no doubt separate the drive-by sitcom viewer from the show's hardcore target audience) Titus gets into a fight with Erin to sabotage his own happiness and "neutral space" Titus becomes a boxer. When his parents appear to reconcile, his inner child comes out and "neutral space" Titus literally regresses to 5-year-old Titus.
Not to insinuate that "Titus" with it's occasional moralizing and fascinating abundance of psycho-babble is anything really sophisticated. Actually, the show is stupid humor at its funniest. It is fast, shameless and brazen in it's stupidity. There aren't many places where you will see people thrown through plate glass windows or getting hit in the face with a rake handle (twice!) for a laugh, but "Titus" is goofy enough to go there. Sometimes I laugh in spite of myself, sometimes the gags flop on the floor and inspire a cringing wince. But the show is at such a constant fever pitch that duds are quickly lost in the avalanche of lunacy that is heaped into the lap of the audience. Amid the insanity, the scripts are spiked with an acerbic wit.
The skill and chemistry of the cast sell the show in it's more childish moments. Christopher Titus is new to the game and at times it shows, but he bounds around with endless energy, delivers a fresh voice to the TV landscape and displays a rarely seen naked honesty that fills the lead role of this televised therapy session just fine. Shatraw has an impressive skill for physical comedy, throwing his body around in a way that many actors now wouldn't have the guts too. Watros is sublime and gives the show it's biggest anchor of credibility. Keach, of course, is an absolute joy. Ken Titus is an instantly classic character. Watch him liven up any scene with just a look. Everyone here is in pitch perfect harmony with the tone and vision of the show. They all come to the project with a single-minded determination and belief in what they are doing. The show has the look and feel of a play with all the players doing a dance. They are excellent.
The show also pioneers a style of comedy you never see on TV: the cathartic laugh. The story lines herein are made up of such traditionally audience repelling topics as spousal abuse, child molestation, alcoholism, murder, suicide and post-9/11 airline fears. In finding humor in what is essentially a tragic story, it seems that creators Christopher Titus, Brian Hargrove and Jack Kenny have crafted an entire series out the "Very Special Episodes" that would grind any other sitcom to a melodramatic halt. Uncomfortable tension broke with fits of laughter. In the wrong hands, this type of material could easily be a disaster but Titus and Kenny hone the show with expert precision. They do a brilliant thing by wrapping this edgy too-hot-for-Fox material in a stupid-funny sitcom wrapper, giving the audience a tangible chaser to help swallow it all down. Many times a "Titus" episode would end on a note that glued me to the couch in silence for a few minutes, both out of shock at what I'd seen and out of pride and admiration for how well they where able to pull off this high-wire act.
"Titus" had a high hit-and-miss ratio. Dave's ability to get a dog to drink milk from his mouth ranks as a low (or high) point. But warts and all it is the soul vision of it's creator - and how unique is that? It was a NASCAR series before NASCAR fans became a political voting block. It is a serrate look at modern America that took the gloves off and left marks. It is the dysfunctional family sitcom updated and on steroids. "Titus" wasn't quite perfect, but it pushed the limits of the sitcom further than anyone has before. Based on Fox's cowardly reaction we will not likely see something like it any time soon.
* * * * ½ / 5