Out of the Cave, Into the HOV Lane: That's Progress

Sam Huntington, left, and Nick Kroll in the sitcom spinoff of a TV insurance commercial, "Cavemen," debuting tonight on ABC. (By Mitch Haddad -- Abc Via Associated Press)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Maybe ABC should combine its two new high-concept sitcoms into one. Then it could unleash "Caveman Carpoolers" or "Carpooling Cavemen" upon the land. Instead, the network is taking the more traditional route: "Carpoolers" and "Cavemen" each premieres tonight, neither terribly likely to be around a year from now.

Perhaps out of its own misgivings about "Cavemen," one of the most ridiculed of the fall starters, ABC declined to make the revised pilot episode available for preview. The pilot shown to critics has been recast and refilmed, its location changed from Atlanta to San Diego. (How many rating points is that good for? Probably one or two in San Diego, anyway.)

Whatever the producers have managed to do to it, "Cavemen" is still going to be a 24-minute sitcom based on a 30-second sitcom: the series of caveman commercials produced for an insurance company (one that assures potential customers of low rates even though it obviously spends a fortune on TV advertising). The running joke -- or perhaps walking joke -- was that cavemen still dwell among us and resent being typecast as simple-minded primitives with room-temperature IQs.

The slogan, "So easy a caveman can do it," offended them deeply. Oh -- and they no longer live in caves. The original pilot began with the declaration that "only one noble race of human beings has stood the test of time," with cavepersons allegedly having suffered racial persecution "for 750,000 years." Thus they were made to symbolize all the oppressed through the ages, and we all know how hilarious oppression is.

"Cavemen" seems bound to get a hefty curiosity tune-in tonight, but whether the gimmick has been fleshed out enough to constitute compelling fare is clearly problematic. We'll be watching, too (although we'd rather catch the tail end of Encore Western Channel's 100-hour marathon of old Gene Autry movies; it's been fitfully fabulous).

Meanwhile, conditions are more firmly under control at "Carpoolers," an ABC sitcom that has not required massive renovations since its pilot was shot. Since urban Americans, especially commuters, spend seemingly endless hours in their automobiles, it makes sense to have a sitcom in which commuter travel is the unifying theme.

"Carpoolers" has a certain loopy cuteness to it, but the show lacks a beating heart, some strong central figure to care about and root for.

Jerry O'Connell, probably the cast's best-known actor, plays Dr. Laird, a randy dentist coming out of a painful divorce and trying hard to make the most of his newfound freedom, with his monstrous ex-wife spoiling the fun whenever possible. Laird lives poignantly in a house virtually devoid of furnishings except for an ab-a-cizer, a TV set, a phone and accompanying phone book.

Laird likes to regale the other carpoolers with tales of sexual conquests or the ones that got away. By contrast, the carpool organizer and driver, Jerry Minor as Aubrey, is rational and contemplative, calling the carpooling time "the only peace I have in my day."

Less than half the action actually takes place in the car; it would have been more daring, though harder to execute, if the whole show were set there and depended more on commuting woes and hazards for laughs. But then we'd miss out on the funniest character in the bunch, since he's a deeply committed stay-at-home slacker: T.J. Miller as Marmaduke Brooker, the 22-year-old son of one of the carpoolers and a late bloomer -- if ever. When not lying around the house, he is sitting around the house, occasionally partaking in such rigorous activities as a job interview via the Internet. That way he doesn't even have to get dressed up, preferring to spend as much time as possible in a wrinkled old shirt and saggy underpants.

Having taken the brave step of asking someone out to dinner, he asks his father: "How much does 'dinner' cost? I've never bought it before."

There's something curiously endearing about this utterly feckless and clueless overgrown kid, and to Miller's credit, he brings out Marmaduke's well-hidden virtues so that even the hardest-working viewers -- construction workers, biohazard cleaner-uppers, TV critics -- are unlikely to despise him.

"Carpoolers" has that sort of borderline likability, too; it's nothing to vilify, but not really TiVo-worthy either.

Cavemen (30 minutes) and Carpoolers (30 minutes) premiere tonight at 8 and 8:30 on Channel 7.

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