Created by Mike White
Produced by 20th Century FOX, Brad Grey Television
Aired on FOX March 9, 2004- April 5, 2004
Series ran 6 (of 12) episodes over one season (6 unaired)
Jason Schwartzman as Ben Baxter
Jake Sandvig as Preston Shackleton
Molly Shannon as Lesley Shackleton
Christopher McDonald as Ted Shackleton
Caitlin Wachs as Chloe Shackleton
David Walton as Liam Connor
Ben Baxter is a psychology major in college, where he takes on a child client as his term project. As part of the assignment, Ben agrees to move in with the child’s family in order to analyze his psychosis, but he quickly discovers that his patient isn’t really the one that he should be studying—it’s the rest of his family that are the real textbook mental cases. Ben becomes intrigued by the family and all their neurosis until he is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of their various issues and complexes and decides that he wants out of the situation altogether. Ben then has a talk with his child client and concludes that maybe there is some good that he could do there after all- Ben resolves to stay with the family as their on-call psychologist. Now every week Ben has to cope with the family’s day-to-day problems and off-the-wall antics.
During the early 2000’s, the FOX network had been producing a lot of situation comedies that were strange and edgy that perhaps no other network would take a chance on. Although the network had this reputation for taking on a lot of these oddball shows they were also known for pulling the plug on them very early and often if they weren’t instant hits. Cracking Up falls under the umbrella of failed shows that were cut from the lineup before it could get a chance to find its audience, with only having six episodes aired before its cancellation. Among the fallen the same year were Wonderfalls (four episodes aired), Luis (four episodes aired), and One Minute with Stan Cooper (six episodes aired). Each of these shows with strange premises with characters that were not your average TV series protagonist.
Cracking Up was not the average TV show and marketing must have been difficult because there really wasn’t a strong draw to the series, other than maybe for fans of Molly Shannon or those that knew Jason Schwartzman from his breakout role in Rushmore. The success of the Mike White-scripted film School of Rock may’ve gotten him the opportunity to make a TV series, but as it turned out, it wasn’t enough for him to get to make the TV series that he wanted. Compare this show to what White would eventually end up producing years later with Enlightened for HBO and you can see the possibility of what this show could’ve been. If White had more control of the series the tone may have been different and more grounded, but as it stands the series was over-the-top heightened and wacky. This show stands as an interesting example of a failed television series that ultimately suffered from lack of creative control in a series that needed a strong vision in order to come across properly. To watch it now there is the sense of constraint and network undermining that really held back the show.
Despite its flaws there are moments in the series that do shine through. The second episode, “Birds Do It”, is a particularly notable episode, not only because it showcases a young Zooey Deschanel, but also for its handling of the “sex talk” amongst the members of the Shackleton family. It is really interesting how each member of the family are each befuddled by the concept of sex, especially the adults and even the seemingly well-adjusted characters, such as Jason Schwartzman’s Ben. In subsequent episodes, subjects are approached fairly similarly but mostly in a watered down tone. In episode three, the family addresses drugs; in episode four, they cope with home invasion; in episode five, they get a handle on competition and failure all in unique screwball fashion.
The cast is another highlight of this show as all members do seem up to the task, particularly Molly Shannon, who at the time was known for her off-the-wall, often loud and insane SNL characters. Christopher Macdonald plays a really good sociopath father, bringing intensity to his comedic delivery, and of course Schwartzman, with his subdued good-natured pretentious persona played up to a zany level. The kids on the show give fairly interesting performances as well, including Jake Sandvig, who is reminiscent of a young Freddie Prinze Jr., and Caitlin Wachs, whom audiences of the time would recognize from shows like WB’s Family Affair or ABC’s Commander in Chief. This show also featured David Walton in one of his earliest appearances on television, which interestingly enough began his streak of starring in canceled shows. Surprisingly enough, the streak appears to have only just now ended, as he is currently on his second season of About a Boy.
Part of the fun of watching this series is seeing these characters over the top reacting to issues and situations in ways that seem absurd. The writing on the series is very well done as they handled each issue the family coped with in interesting and comical ways.
The show does have many flaws due to network compromising and therefore is not as great as it could have been, yet this show should be preserved in some way for audiences to see. The show only aired six of the twelve episodes produced and it would be a shame if the episodes were produced never to see the light. This show never got cult status and it seems very likely that it will be lost in the cracks of television history. If only there had been an outlet like online streaming sites during the airtime of the series would it have been able to find an audience. The only kind of second chance that the show could’ve gotten back then would have been made through home video media release or some kind of cable channel syndication.
But, is there a market for this show now? There could be, as Mike White had some moderate success with Enlightened although, even that series seems to have been cut short with only two seasons. Perhaps there should’ve been a release made during the height of Jason Schwartzman’s popularity on HBO series Bored to Death.
Cracking Up should have potential for cult appeal as it’s a series that is unique with name recognition amongst its cast that could drum up attention for the show. Cameo guest stars like Zooey Deschanel, John C. Reilly, and Amy Sedaris and Jack Black would be able to make this a viable product.
It would be very interesting to be able to revisit this show now as well as see the final unaired episodes, as this show did have fun characters and found an interesting niche of comedy in psychology. Mental illness or breakdowns must be a subject matter that Mike White is very keen on as he seems to have continued that theme with his HBO series Enlightened. Fans of that show might be interested to see the early works of Mike White; even if it is a watered-down and studio executive-noted version.
There are no current available venue to watch the show.