By the time Cavemen (ABC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET) finally materialized, it felt as if it had been with us since the Pliocene epoch. In March, ABC confirmed that it had ordered a pilot for a sitcom derived from a series of car-insurance commercials, the self-reflexive Geico ads that imagined Neanderthals live among us and take offense when we culturally privileged humans demean their intelligence. The news variously caused eyebrows to rise, temples to throb, and sphincters to tighten. Here was a new kind of water-cooler show: Instead of excitedly jawing about what happened last night on Lost, you could disbelievingly gab about what things had come to.
As befits an entertainment adapted from an advertisement, the advance publicity for Cavemen was the best part of the ride. With a tone reeking of frat-house whimsy and a narrative logic informed by beer-commercial absurdism, the show amounts to a dude-culture novelty item. I suppose it's possible simply to watch Cavemen, but its creators would seem to prefer that we gawk at it instead.
Let's pretend that the plot's worth recounting. The setting is San Diego, whither Andy, the youngest and least sophisticated of our three principal cavemen, has gone with pain in his heart and traveler's checks in his Velcro-closed money belt. Recently dumped by a girlfriend, he pines and whines at her on his cell phone, forever mewling with self-disrespect: "I don't care if you love him. You can love two guys." His suffering never develops into a proper story line because it never gets from A to B. There's only one point to it—a sketch of emasculation.
Joel, Andy's older brother, has been carrying on with a fair-haired human chick named Kate—an affair exclusively conducted atop the bunk beds and area rugs of the Scandinavian furniture emporium where Joel works. They've kept the fling on the down low. For his part, Joel is wary of earning the disapproval of his roommate Nick, who holds that cavemen should not hook up with humans. "Stick to your own kind," Nick admonishes. "Crave the cave." That's how Nick's patter goes, slangy and ironically sloganeering. He's the slacker, the hipster, the sardonic ass. His cynical one-liners provide the show's infrequent moments of verbal wit.
Cavemen makes some stabs at allegory, some timid attempts to launch a burlesque of prejudice or a spoof of political correctness, but it's too delighted with its own surface silliness to pick a proper target. Instead, the joke, the only joke, is in the contrast between the protagonists' brutish appearance and their effete tastes. Our cavemen are diligent upper-middle-class consumers. Note the mentions of cognac and panini presses and caramel biscotti, and check out the scene on the squash court, and then wonder what is up at ABC. One suspects that Cavemen will be gone from the schedule soon enough, but how long will the network's zany experiments in packaging yuppie-male anxiety grind on? The commuting buddies on the new comedy Carpoolers go into slapstick seizures worrying that their wives out-earn them, while the masters of the universe on the new Big Shots fret that "men are the new women." Cavemen is too harmless to be a sign of cultural apocalypse, but it might be an indicator of a minor crisis in modern masculinity.