Television: A Titus Fit

At last! A family sitcom about abuse and insanity

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Titus (debuts march 20, 8:30 p.m. E.T., Fox) may have the most jarring laugh track in TV history. In the pilot alone, Christopher Titus (as himself) gets decked by his drunken dad Ken, announces that his mom is clinically insane, and lurks outside a room that just may contain pop's corpse--all to the same sort of yuks as when the sassy blind guy gets off a zinger on Becker.

Making audiences feel weird merely for laughing is a sign of something quite wrong, or quite right; here it's mostly the latter. Titus is based on Titus' one-man show Norman Rockwell Is Bleeding, and like many stand-ups turned TV stars, he's a limited actor. But the buff, brush-cut Titus has more to offer than affable my-wife-won't-have-sex-with-me jokes; his every sarcasm and tic betrays an intense, coiled anger. The pilot--in which he and his brother confront their father's possible suicide (Dad's been in his room four days without getting a beer)--is a brutal, hilarious and audacious set piece. (Which makes later episodes' juvenile sex-'n'-insult humor all the more regrettable.) Ken, played by a gruff but sympathetic Stacy Keach, proves more than a mere excuse for Titus' screw-ups. "My father never missed a drink or a joint or a party or a chance to get laid in his life," Titus concedes. "But he also never missed a day of work or a house payment."

Above all, Titus subverts TV's definition of dysfunction: quirky two-parent home with a zany 10-year-old. Ironically, it comes as networks are racing to create new feel-good family sitcoms. Surely there's also room for one good feel-queasy family comedy.

--By James Poniewozik