Tuesday , May 21 2024

Oliver Beene

Remember when Fox was the upstart network? Watching its new refried sitcom, Oliver Beene, I idly flashed back to those golden years. When the rude Married with Children blew its first bracing raspberry at the then-reigning Cosby Show, when The Simpsons premiered to up the subversive takedown of American family life, when X-Files began to spout its creepily paranoid vision of Shadow Govt. – those were the days, my friend.
Yeah, Fox was the go-getting new kid on the block. Now it’s the tired status quo: a media monolith as set in its ways as any of the original Big Three nets. (One sign of its quotidian predictability: hearty perennial Simpsons included a series of mocking joke crawls lampooning Fox News net’s knee-jerk conservatism.) Expecting something new from Fox these days is like waiting for Bill O’Reilly to let a guest he disagrees with finish a sentence. Ain’t gonna happen.
It was ever thus. This year’s young punk is a later decade’s staid corporate poop; one era’s peacenik is another’s warblogger. Which doesn’t make the devolution any less dispiriting to observe.
Which brings me, reluctantly, to that damn Beene show. An unsavory blend of Malcolm In the Middle and The Wonder Years, the sitcom was poised to premiere in the money post-Simpsons timeslot (once more shifting poor King of the Hill to its old pre-Springfield ratings killer spot) and packaged as part of an all-night fake retro lineup. (Lots of TVLand-style graphics on the inbetween promos.) All fun to view from a design standpoint, but not much help for the show itself, which couldn’t even get a laff out of Wendie Malick doing her patented Mrs. Robinson.
Set in the early sixties (you just know some programming git sold this in its Sunday spot as Fox’s answer to American Dreams), the show follows an N.Y. family through that much-less-tumultuous part of this notorious decade. Title hero, Oliver (Grant Rosenmeyer), is an 11-year-old spudboy with an older bulying brother (Wonder Years/Malcolm comparisons, anyone?), a dentist father played by Murphy Brown‘s Grant Shaud and a mother (Wendy Makkem) whose most discernible characteristic in the premiere is a propensity for snorting laughs and other nasal sounds. To say that this brood is tame compared to the spirited and eccentric Malcolm clan is an understatement; it’s like comparing O’Doul’s to Guinness.
The show is narrated by David (Mr. Show) Cross, a fact I would’ve taken as even more depressing had I not already seen this great comic suborn his edgy talents in slight fare like Small Soldiers. Cross does his best Daniel Stern voice, but the material defeats him.

The show’s debut revolved around the Beene family’s attempt to get into the Capri Beach Club, a tres sixties country club full of working professionals. Wife Charlotte is all a gaga about joining – as is 11-year-old hero Oliver, hot in the thrall of his first big crush – while father Jerry Beene is less excited until he realizes that the club’s only dentist member is two snoozes shy of a dirt nap. The usual fish-out-of-water antics ensue (Dad, saying he needs to go to the bathroom, nonchalantly jumps into the pool; Mom struggles to carry on a conversation with her sotted “social betters” by repeating canned phrases about the space race; our hero strives to impress his unattainable object of desire by volunteering to take part in pool race even though he can’t swim). But the characters are so flat and unappealing that I couldn’t muster up a single empathetic cringe for ’em.
The show had a few ripe ideas – a scene inside a game room crammed with pasty young social outcasts had promise but was so leadenly delivered that all the humor was leached out of it – but they were few and far between. The ep ends when Jerry, overhearing that the family is gonna be blackballed because the club’s snooty membership overseers don’t like his wife, gets drunk and moons the entire club membership, taking the hit to spare his wife’s feelings. “That magnificent bastard saved us all,” Cross’ adult narrator sez, though how he should know this is unclear since Dad is plainly planning on keeping this secret to himself.
That Fox dumped Matt Groening’s Futurama from its Sunday lineup in favor of this warmed-over hodgepodge is all you need to know about the state of creative vision at the once feisty network.

About Bill Sherman

Bill Sherman is a Books editor for Blogcritics. With his lovely wife Rebecca Fox, he has co-authored a light-hearted fat acceptance romance entitled Measure By Measure.

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