Pondering the existence of 'Cavemen'

Billenglish3_cavemen_abc_240After the first pilot for Cavemen got (excuse the pun) savaged by the continent's critics at the summer press tour, ABC decided not to send out advance copies for review ahead of Tuesday night's premiere.

Good call by the network, because Cavemen is a thuddingly unfunny show. Based ("in part," the closing credits say) on the Geico insurance ads, the show stretches the premise of the ads -- basically, cavemen are people too, so stop picking on them -- into a very dull half-hour.

The first pilot had elements of a racial allegory as well, with the "cro-maggers" standing in for any minority group. It was borderline offensive, and also not funny, but at least it was reaching for something. What aired Tuesday came straight from Sitcoms 101, as our hero, Joel (Bill English), lets roommate Nick (Nick Kroll) convince him that Joel's girlfriend, Kate (Kaitlin Doubleday), is hiding him from her friends.

There's not much more to say about it -- it's not worth the energy. What really makes me scratch my head, though, is how something like Cavemen ends up on the air in the first place.

ABC hasn't turned out a half-hour comedy hit in a good while. The network has introduced nine comedies over the past two seasons, and exactly one -- Notes from the Underbelly -- has survived to see a second season. Even on those occasions when the show was pretty good (Sons & Daughters, The Knights of Prosperity), bad timeslots, a lack of compatible shows and uneven promotion doomed them.

As word that ABC was developing a show based on the Geico ads filtered into the media last spring, the collective reaction was, essentially, "Really?," followed by "There's no way that ever makes it on the air." Then as the upfronts approached, buzz began to build that the network would actually pick up the show, causing a more emphatic "Really? I mean, really?"

It's hard to believe that of the more than 15 comedy pilots ABC ordered last spring, there wasn't something better in that group. (And, in fact, ABC still thinks a couple of those may have potential, having extended cast options on shows called The Hill and The Middle.) And it's not as if the comedy team at the network is incapable of recognizing good shows -- among ABC's other new half-hours, Samantha Who? is in fact pretty charming.

It's one thing to get excited by an idea and order up a pilot. But there are so many filters a show has to make it through to get on the air, you have to wonder how no one at ABC ever said, "Wait a second. This isn't funny."

There were a lot of movies based on one-joke Saturday Night Live characters foisted on us in the early and mid-'90s. But even the folks who gave us It's Pat and Stuart Saves His Family never thought there was enough material to stretch "Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer" into anything longer than four-minute sketch.