Lost amid Fox’s exultation over “American Idol” is the network’s inability to get arrested with some pretty good recent sitcoms, from “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” to the ratings-challenged “Arrested Development.” That’s all the more reason to take a second look at “Oliver Beene,” a clever premise that didn’t generate much heat last spring but which returns with two extremely funny episodes beginning this week.
Nostalgic without the bittersweet (and sometimes cloying) flourishes of “The Wonder Years,” this single-camera comedy filters the 1960s through a modern lens with occasionally hilarious results. Seeing beyond the cheery innocence of “Leave It to Beaver,” the gags range from the obviously gay kid who everyone thinks is a tad eccentric to the title character’s parents discovering jazz sounds a lot cooler when you’re inhaling the right kind of second-hand smoke.
The show’s sly conceit is that the good ol’ days weren’t as simple as they look when romanticized in black and white, whether it was fear of nuclear Armageddon or a not-so-liberated mentality toward women and gays.
What the latest installments capture most deftly, however, is the sheer silliness of childhood conventions, perhaps most effectively in the second half-hour, where 12-year-old protagonist Oliver (Grant Rosenmeyer) realizes he’ll be labeled for life if he allows a distasteful nickname to stick to him.
Meanwhile, the second-season debut, in which Oliver calls “dibs” on a comely exchange student (Maggie Grace), is full of all kinds of Cosby-esque banter about how some mythical kid broke those sacred rules years before. There’s also a chuckleworthy subplot featuring Oliver’s parents, toothily played by Grant Shaud and Wendy Makkena.
Although overly broad at times, these episodes are more self-assured than what was on display last spring, as if someone passed along the note “JUST BE FUNNY” in big block letters.
Fox certainly has reason to worship at the altar of “Idol,” but the real trick will be whether the network can parlay that franchise’s ratings largess into shiny new hits. As a result, “Oliver” gets an initial play Wednesday, drafting off that big lead-in, before settling in Sundays between “King of the Hill” and “The Simpsons.”
The question is whether “American Idol” can help Fox break the pattern of letting promising live-action comedies die on the vine. If not, the network might face an unwelcome hangover faster than you can say, “Is that your final answer?”