Welcome to a new Wildcard Wednesday! This week, I’m sharing thoughts on a short-lived single-camera sitcom from the early 2000s. I thought about saving it to play alongside our upcoming coverage of Arrested Development, but I want to run this while it’s still fresh. As you’ll note, I’m retaining the straightforward, casual structure of my commentary as it would have appeared in a Potpourri entry, because the brevity is clarifying…
CRACKING UP (March 2004 – April 2004, FOX)
Premise: A psych student is summoned to a Beverly Hills house to work with an eccentric family’s youngest son — but he is the least of the problems.
Cast: Molly Shannon, Christopher McDonald, Caitlin Wachs, Jake Sandvig, Bret Loehr, David Walton, Jason Schwartzman
Writers: Mike White, David Hemingson, Rebecca Hughes, Al Higgins, Deborah Swisher, Dana Baratta
Thoughts: Although the setup of a live-in shrink for a family that’s teeming with dysfunction may seem like a free-for-all of broad humor that’s not well-tethered to the specifics of character or premise, this audacious single-cam from Mike White (School Of Rock, The White Lotus) is not only too hilarious to write off, it’s also well-crafted on a structural level, with just enough of an emotional engine (the relationship between the therapist and the youngest child, the only well-adjusted member of the bunch) to balance the outrageous and sometimes idea-led comedy, tying it to something that resembles a situation. What’s more, the characters have specific, unique ways of being funny, and all the roles are well-cast — especially Molly Shannon and Christopher McDonald as the parents. In fact, though the storytelling is not as fast-paced and documentary-like, the wild laughs that come from these big characters and the ridiculous narrative ideas they invite feels very much in the vein of Arrested Development (a series coming up here soon on Sitcom Tuesdays). Cracking Up’s premise is more nebulous when it comes to story, but the primary setting inspires focus, and while it remains to be seen how long Cracking Up could have remained both funny and novel, in just a few episodes, it shows a lot of promise — promise that was already starting to erode under the duress of nervous network execs eager to smooth over its characters’ rough edges for a broader appeal. The first episodes are indeed the boldest and best, but if it had been allowed to go on as intended, the show likely would have thrived. Again, the situation seems dubious, but this cast and crew make for reliable hilarity.
Episode Count: Twelve episodes produced; six broadcast.
Episodes Seen: All six broadcast episodes.
Key Episode (of Seen): #2: “Birds Do It” (03/10/04)
Why: The series’ second episode is the best example of the situation in narrative action, with all the characters allowed to be funny in unique ways, and the premise on full display — as this therapist tries to help the family but is undermined by his goofy friend, all while having his own life ruined in the process. Also, Zooey Deschanel guests. (See it here.)
Come back next week for a new Wildcard! And stay tuned Tuesday for more Malcolm!