In 2008 I was going through some major family issues, ones I am (even now) reluctant to publicly talk about. Often times I would feel I was alone in wondering if I would suffer the way I was watching those close to me suffer. I was lost, and while from the outside I didn’t let on, inside I was going through my own personal hell.
That’s when Christopher Titus came along.
Having grown up with the likes of Malcolm in The Middle I was fully aware of the new age of programs that tackled the issues of the dysfunctional family in a darkly comedic way without losing a sense of reality. A few years prior to ’08 I had seen one of Titus‘s specials on Comedy Central (I believe it was The 5th Annual End of The World Tour) and was immediately entertained.
Through Google, I discovered he once had a show – one that, oddly enough, came right around the same time as Malcolm. The show, of course, was called Titus. I got my first glimpse of the show on YouTube in my college dorm room, but I didn’t know what I was about to get myself into.
One DVD purchase later, I started watching the extremely critically acclaimed and highly-rated series. Immediately, the format felt almost too familiar (in a good way), a dysfunctional protagonist surrounded by an even more dysfunctional family who would spend much of the time addressing the audience directly, making sure we knew everything he’s going through internally at any given time.
Of course, unlike Malcolm which could get away with murder by having a ten-year-old protagonist, Titus was well into adulthood and just trying to keep the pieces of his life together with elementary school-grade Elmer’s Glue. I was hooked immediately, while not being able to relate to anyone other than Titus at first (I was only a sophomore in college at the end of the day), I understood what Titus was saying about families and their capacity to be desperately fucked up.
The show was television therapy for a kid that felt like he was drowning in his own depressing lack of self-confidence and stability. Whenever Titus had to deal with issues like looking back on a childhood that he wished had been spent with a different relative, or trying to explain the trials of his family to an outsider (in the show’s case that outsider is Titus’s girlfriend Erin played by Cynthia Watros), I was right there with him. There was a profound sense that Titus was able to put on the screen all the things I was feeling.
A bit into the series, Titus’s mother Juanita (played first by Frances Fisher and later by Connie Stevens) was introduced by Titus as “a bi-polar, manic depressive, schizophrenic.” This confirmed that the show was tailor made for me. At the time I discovered the show, I was dealing with a relative who, while certainly no where near Mrs. Titus’s level of insanity, was causing me to go through my own double-edged troubles.
Much of Titus’s attitude toward his mother in the series is built around the idea that in the back of his mind, he worries that he will one day end up just like her, and I understood that on a level I shouldn’t have been able to. The total role of genetics in mental disorder is still unclear, but Titus brought it into the blaring, naked light.
In the last episode of the series, a story that Christopher Titus often used as the tail end of the stage show Norman Rockwell is Bleeding is shown where Titus’s mother has committed suicide and everyone in his life is trying to get him to deal with the loss. This is fortunately where Titus’s and my life part ways.
But before they do, there is a scene where Titus picks up a newspaper with a headline that reads “Mental Illness: Genetic?” Regardless of the fact that this episode (and the second part that followed) served as the series finale (if you follow the series by production/script order and not airing order on the DVD), the scene allowed the series to come full circle, addressing the reason for why Titus is who he is, and why he acts the way he does.
And in that moment he threw me, and I’m sure many others, on his own little Willy Wonka River Ride of hell and forced us all to tackle the issue of family head on. Eventually coming to one singular conclusion: you control your own fate, and no one else. Titus figures out that while he was raised by a bi-polar, manic depressive, schizophrenic, he chooses whether to be one or not. And through him, I was able to accept the same conclusion. It was a relief the like of which I has never felt before, and in one scene, was able to let go of all things that kept me up at night.
Titus is a show that was clearly built as a mechanism of self-healing for stand-up comedian Christopher Titus, but what he may not have intended was for so many others to follow him on the journey through hell. And by walking through the fire with him, I came out a better, stronger person on the other side.
To listen to the latest episode of Merrill’s TV Podcast, The Idiot Boxers with Kevin Carr, head over to Fat Guys at the Movies.