No sooner than I had forgotten the end of my gloating at its seeming demise, the often shortsighted powers-that-be at the FOX network decided that Oliver Beene was ripe for return.
When this show first began previewing in 2002, I met with the same impression that many others did: take one part Wonder Years and one part Malcolm in the Middle and you’ve got a pile of shit that’s going to jump the shark before it even airs.
The Wonder Years was a mediocre program that scored big points with the key 18-42 year old demographic because those people still had a clear recollection of the late Sixties/early Seventies. It soothed the Yuppies during the late Eighties, letting them know that, despite being a horrible time to be alive, it was also a time of change and loving your family. The Eighties, of course, were an age of hording Swatch watches and hating your family. Looking back at the Wonder Years now that everyone who was alive in the late Sixties/early-Seventies is either dead or in a coma, it comes across as tedious, repetitive, preachy and poorly acted. It was clearly a ploy to cash in on nostalgia.
The other half of the equation is Malcolm in the Middle. I know a couple of people who like this show, but I find it unpalatable. Danny DeVito has directed many films over the past few years that he claims to be “dark and edgy,” though they’re cute, they keep winking at you, and they apologize profusely at the end. Malcolm in the Middle is quite similar, claiming to be groundbreaking both in its format (see Parker Lewis Can't Lose in 1990) and in its comedy. If groundbreaking comedy is metered by Wal-Mart, then Malcolm in the Middle is groundbreaking. It’s cynicism without intellectualism, which I pity, because its heart is in the right place. To make up for this, the writers have injected a quality of zane (root of zany or zaniness, maybe?) which is usually reserved for second-tier Saturday Night Live movies without the benefit of comedy players. It’s some of the worst casting on television; from the looks of things these actors are so disconnected from the writing that they could be doing Shakespeare and we wouldn’t know.
Finally, Oliver Beene itself. I invoked the first two programs to point out exactly why Oliver Beene fails.
Where the Wonder Years found itself a strong audience as a point of nostalgia, Oliver Beene falls dangerously short. The current timeslot for the program places it snugly between King of the Hill and the Simpsons, two long-running shows with a narrow but devoted following, primarily between the ages of 16 and 30. Oliver Beene takes place in 1962. The problem is quite obvious. There is no reason to have the show take place forty years in the past except to distinguish it from Malcolm in the Middle. The script takes anemic advantage of this fact, and much like the superior but overstayed That '70s Show, presents the audience with weak anachronistic winks along the lines of “wow color TV, I wonder one day if they’ll have more than five channels!”
The casting is also lousy. Grant Shaud was a fantastic panicky/straight-man in Murphy Brown, but here they have him acting wacky. It doesn’t play at all. You can see him dying on the inside. The main character of Oliver Beene is played by Grant Rosenmeyer, who let’s be perfectly honest here looks like a monkey and not a human child. Whoever plays his best friend is the Danny Pintauro for a new generation. And let’s not forget the inclusion of the hopefully final Lawrence boy, Andrew, as Oliver Beene’s older brother. He’s got the talent of Joey minus the talent of Matthew! The deepest cut, however, is the casting of David Cross as the narrator. He should have known better.
Oliver Beene’s similarity in comedic styles to Malcolm in the Middle is what finally does it in. For the premise, there is incredible potential to make a dark biting satire about outer-borough New York City life during the Kennedy Administration, but it’s about as bitter as Leslie Nielsen’s more recent output.
In conclusion, the show is not nearly as bad as it is in theory, though its still pretty awful. It won’t succeed, and if it does, I will be very upset with America.