Who says big networks aren’t responsive to charges of racial insensitivity? After critics hammered the prototype for “Cavemen,” the series based on the Geico ads has made its primetime debut having radically reduced the earlier version’s allegorical elements. It’s thus become an utterly bland exercise — a slacker buddy comedy with a more elaborate makeup budget in which the protagonists happen to be cavemen. Employing the same rope-a-dope tactic CBS used in hiding “Kid Nation,” ABC perhaps rightly figured curiosity about this commercial-turned-sitcom would only be diminished by reviews identifying the show for what it is — the lowest rung of comedy’s evolutionary ladder.
Clearly, some rethinking went into handling what became a hot potato this summer. The pilot was set in Atlanta, only heightening the uncomfortable sense that the slights directed at cavemen (who even referred to themselves as “maggers”) awkwardly mirrored African-American stereotypes, from their legendary sexual prowess to the view of them as something less by snooty Southerners.
Relocated to San Diego, the revised premiere touches more gingerly on those themes. Yet this is hardly to say the humor qualifies as subtle, and the sanded-off edges don’t do much to enhance the show. They do, however, raise questions about the novelty factor wearing off before the second commercial break.
Hard-working Joel (Bill English) lives with his slacker roommate Nick (Nick Kroll) and his whimpering brother Andy (Sam Huntington), who’s annoyingly pining for an ex-girlfriend who dumped him. Joel, meanwhile, is hiding his own secret, carrying on a torrid affair with a pretty blond Homo sapiens named Kate (Kaitlin Doubleday), violating the more militant Nick’s advice against dating a “sape” and to “keep your penis in your genus.”
Nick’s badgering gradually preys on Joel, who begins wondering if Kate is hiding him from her friends — a pretty tepid “A” plot. As for supporting players, Julie White (“Grace Under Fire”) is still around, only now cast as the Realtor for the boys’ apartment building, asking them to keep the “primal grunting” to a minimum when she’s showcasing units.
ABC has exhibited a fondness for big comedic ideas, apparently seeing them as shock treatment to jolt comedy out of its ratings malaise. The problem with “Cavemen” is that nobody seems to have thought the concept through much beyond that — starting with how to transform a sight gag previously delivered via 30-second increments into a legitimate TV show with actual plots and characters.
The Alphabet network has certainly done its best to get the show noticed. Still, if everyone associated with TV comedy has cause for soul-searching, being funny (a la CBS newbie “The Big Bang Theory”) is the most logical place to start, as opposed to merely hoping that a lamely executed Stone Age premise will be enough to light the sitcom’s path toward the future.