By Ciara LaVelle
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By Kat Bein
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It plays like an amalgam of early Simpsonsand first-season Malcolm, with a dash of The Wonder Yearsminus that show's gooey sentimentality, since Mr. Show's David Cross provides the voiceover as older Oliver. Cross delivers his lines as though he's really commenting on old home movies; his voice is tinged with leftover hostility and not a little embarrassment. It's a little of what makes the show as dark as it is sweet, as twisted as it is straight-ahead sitcom.
Oliver Beene (Grant Rosenmeyer, who played Ari Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums) is a pale, doughy frump suffering through adolescence during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He loves the perfect girl, who merely finds him "sweaty," and has for best friends a buddy with too-keen an eye for fabulous fashion (Taylor Emerson) and a girl with a sharp wit and sharper points on her black eyeglass frames. Oliver's dentist dad (Murphy Brown's Grant Shaud) is kind of an ass, paranoid and covetous to a fault, but overall not a bad father. The mom, Charlotte (Wendy Makkena), would be considered a social climber if she could find the ladder from their Queens apartment. And Oliver's brother, Ted (Andrew Lawrence), just wants to win every race and have loads of sex, even with former "uggos" who've become recently "stacked."
You sort of recognize all of these characters as the sitcom archetype, but because the show's so well acted and written (by, among others, former David Letterman and Undeclaredwriters) it transcends the fair fare that CBS and ABC keep offering up as laff-riots. You won't see John Ritter mooning a country-club crowd to save his wife from humiliation, as Shaud does in the first episode; you won't hear Nia Vardalos awkwardly welcoming the new black family with a meal of matzo ball soup and "colored greens," as Makkena does later on.
"There was one scene in the pilot that got me: It took a bomb shelter to get this family to have their first meal together," says executive producer Steve Levitan, who met Gewirtz when both were writing for Wingsin the early '90s. (Levitan's also the creator of Just Shoot Me.) "I thought that was a really nice image that felt not only fresh but also very relevant, because as we were recounting these times of bomb shelters, we had many friends going out to buy gas masks. It struck a nerve...Howard was just telling me he was looking to buy gas masks for his family, and I said, 'Oh, my God, you really areyour father.'"
Levitan says NBC also wanted Oliver Beene, but that he took it to Fox because its execs were more passionate about the show. Like that ever helped a Fox show: The network's entertainment president, Gail Berman, is said to love the hell out of Andy Richter Controls the Universe, too, but that isn't stopping her from putting a pillow over its face. In fact, Fox is the damnedest network to figure out. You know what you're getting with the other three majors: CBS' pre-chewed product, NBC's musty-see TV, ABC's middle-of-the-road-kill. They're dominated by franchises and formulas and freak shows masquerading as "reality TV"; they're run by men and women who'd no more take a risk than give Paul Reubens another kids' show. But Fox is a wild card, not so easily defined as its competitors.
Berman and her boss, Sandy Grushow, have extraordinarily good taste: They brought you Judd Apatow's Undeclared, about life in the freshman dorms; the documentary series American High, in which real high school students carried vidcams through the halls; the brilliant Andy Richter Controls the Universe, set inside the warped head of Conan O'Brien's former sidekick; and Levitan's Greg the Bunny, in which pissed-off puppets had more personality than people. And they exhibit extraordinarily bad judgment, putting all of those shows in suicidal time slots; not one lasted an entire season. And just when you think Fox is completely moribund--two years ago it was hemorrhaging young viewers--it sinks to the top of the ratings with Joe Millionaireand American Idol.
Fact is, Oliver Beeneought to be huge. But be wary of any show too good, because just when you get attached to it, it gets mowed down by a reality show. And launching a half-hour comedy these days is like buying land in Iraq--not a very good idea. Only three sitcoms regularly crack the Nielsen Top 20, and they're the familiar standbys: Friends, Everybody Loves Raymondand Will & Grace. Everything else is a reality show or something with the initials C, S and I in the title.
"Right now, my biggest fear is we're not playing to a receptive crowd," says Levitan, who is, at this moment, writing the Just Shoot Meseason finale and trying to convince NBC not to make it the seriesfinale. "I feel like a comedian walking out onstage to a bunch of sour faces not in the mood to watch comedy. It's tough when you're doing jokes and people wanna see people eat pig colons. That's the thing that worries me--that any crummy reality show can draw pretty good numbers. Frankly, I am a little bit embarrassed by much of our television these days."