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Can ‘Cavemen’ evolve into a television hit?



Published: Thu, September 6, 2007 @ 2:00 a.m.

Thanks to the commercials, the concept has a built-in

fan base.

By CHUCK BARNEY

CONTRA COSTA TIMES

America has yet to lay eyes on “Cavemen,” the upcoming ABC sitcom about scraggly-haired Cro-Magnons struggling to assimilate in contemporary society. Already, though, it is one of the most mocked and derided television shows in recent memory.

Jeering critics have ridiculed ABC for having the gall to a stretch a gimmicky ad campaign for Geico insurance into a weekly series. Skeptical media buyers have predicted it will be among the first shows to crash and burn. And comedian George Lopez, whose sitcom was axed by ABC, has expressed his utter dismay. “So a Chicano can’t be on TV, but a caveman can?” he asks incredulously.

Despite all the derisive scorn, “Cavemen” could draw robust ratings — at least in its initial outing on Oct. 2 — because many Homo sapiens across the nation figure to be curious. Indeed, a recent online survey found that “Cavemen” leads all new network shows in terms of viewer buzz.

In the rush to dump on “Cavemen,” it’s easy to forget that television history has featured a number of sitcoms that came into the world bearing weird, silly-sounding concepts, only to turn into surprise hits. The offbeat collection includes, among others, “Bewitched,” “The Munsters,” “My Favorite Martian,” “I Dream of Jeannie,” “Mork & Mindy” and “3rd Rock From the Sun.”

Maybe there’s a lesson in this. Maybe it’s better to refrain from rolling our eyes until a show actually makes it to air.

“Who would have thought that Ozzy Osbourne would make a great sitcom dad or that boat tourists stranded on an island would hold our interest for four years?” says television historian Tim Brooks, who co-wrote “The Complete Directory to Prime Time Network and Cable TV Shows.” “Having a show with an off-the-wall concept that can be described in one line attracts immediate attention. Even if it’s negative attention, that in itself is not necessarily a bad thing.”

Familiarity

With that in mind, it becomes somewhat easier to understand why ABC programmers could possibly be drawn to “Cavemen.” Every fall, dozens of new TV shows flood the airwaves, and such a radical concept stands out in a crowd. And, thanks to the Geico ads, its characters come with a built-in fan base. ABC, like most other networks, hasn’t had a sitcom hit in years, so why not take a shot?

“The good thing about comedies is that they’ve been broken for a few years, so people are willing to take chances,” says Steve McPherson, the head honcho of entertainment for ABC.

As fluffed-out for prime time, “Cavemen” is meant to be a sendup of racial relations. Its prehistoric denizens battle prejudice in modern-day Atlanta, where fitting in is a constant struggle. Earlier this summer, TV critics mostly slammed the pilot episode, which was filled with broad humor and heavy- handed depictions of societal stereotypes. It is undergoing a makeover, including a cast change.

Still, executive producer Will Speck, who worked on the ad spots, doesn’t believe it’s such a stretch to envision “Cavemen” as a series.

“When we were making the commercials, we just felt like there were more stories to tell,” he says. “And I think it starts in the purest place, which is us feeling like there’s love and affection for these characters from us. And I think, if we do our jobs right, people will follow suit.”

They have their work cut out for them, according to Brooks, who says the key is to deliver something unexpected.

“You can only live off that title for the first 10 minutes or so,” he says. “But then you’ve got to throw the audience a curveball and/or be better than anticipated.”


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