Television Turmoil: Cavemen

Television Turmoil is a look at the worst and weirdest series to make their way onto the silver screen.

Advertising and television have always been linked. From the early days where one sponsor would support an entire program to today, where the fractured media landscape leaves multiple avenues for targeted advertisements. Commercials are the lifeblood of TV. As depressing as it sounds, they’re the reason most everything seen on screen is there. As successful as some commercials can be with audiences, it is rare that one is turned into an actual show. The biggest reason for this likely comes from how often commercials rely on repetition of the same joke or point. Something might work well in a 30-second bit, but fall flat when expanded into a full program.

None of this seemed to concern ABC when they green-lit Cavemen in early 2007. Based on the popular GEICO Cavemen ads, the series was pitched as a “clever twist on stereotypes” and aimed to be a satire of race in America. This concept isn’t too far off from what the commercials had offered in the three years prior to the show.

Created in 2004, the advertisement’s original purpose was to show how easy and intuitive GEICO’s website was. “So easy, a caveman can do it,” the ad claimed, much to the chagrin of the Caveman who is on set. Other ads have various Cro-Magnons, all portrayed as normal, everyday people, react to the ad campaign with typical disgust. As far as commercials go, they are pretty good, even if they clearly want you to laugh at the Cavemen for being offended by a stereotype. So, how do you adapt a one joke commercial into a full sitcom?

Who looks the most uncomfortable in this photo? If you said “everyone,” you win!

If the pilot of Cavemen is to be believed, the answer is to double down on that one joke and make it as distasteful as possible. Similar to the commercials, the show takes place in a world where Cro-Magnons are a species sub-group of human and treated like another minority. The pilot makes this point excruciatingly clear with an opening scene that finds our trio of Cavemen watching the news cover a recent crime where the suspect is believed to be a fellow Caveperson, complete with offensive sketch. “Why is it always a Caveman?” Nick (Nick Kroll, who really tries with everything he is given here) shouts at the TV. It is just the first of many, many instances of the show leaning into exactly the stereotypes it claimed to be satirizing.

The primary focus of the pilot is on Joel Claybrook (Bill English) who is invited to a private barbecue hosted by his girlfriend, Kate (Kaitlin Doubleday) and her parents. Joel’s buddies manage to tag along and many race-based shenanigans ensue. Joel tries to get the blessing of Kate’s father, worried that he disapproves of her dating a Caveman. There’s a subplot about Kate’s friend, Thorne (Stephanie Lemelin) trying to sleep with one of the other Cavemen to see if the sex is “wild.” There is even a gag revealing that Cavepeople occasionally use the term “magger” to refer to each other. A made-up slur that is a stand-in and sound-alike for a very real one. It’s no wonder that the limited screening for the pilot was harshly criticized. So much so that the episode was never aired on ABC and the show was quietly retooled.

The second episode which acted as the show’s broadcast premiere, recast the third Caveman, Andy (now played by Sam Huntington) and toned down the more overt racial elements. While these changes helped both the cast dynamic and the overall quality of the show, the series was still clearly focused on using the Cavemen as a stand-in for various races. The ABC premiere involves Joel worrying that Kate is afraid to reveal their relationship to her friends. Further episodes involve Nick getting a teaching job only to learn the school has an offensive caveman mascot, Andy finding stand-up success by playing into stereotypes and Joel’s new friend possibly being a “shaver,” a Caveman who shaves their body hair to appear homo sapian.

These are all more clever ways of exploring race than anything provided in the pilot, and the back half of the show’s 13 episodes is a clear improvement. Sadly, it all came too late. By the time the 7th episode aired, the Writer’s Guild had gone on strike and ABC saw a perfect opportunity to cut bait. The remaining episodes never made air, and Cavemen cemented its status as an all-time punchline.

At least the Caveman prosthetics looked good.

Even with some improved writing in the later episodes, the show’s biggest problem remained. For a show fixated on exploring race in America, it was almost exclusively white. It only places further attention on what the exact intent was with portraying the Cavemen as a stand-in for all minorities? By excluding actual people of color from the conversation, the show feels less like a commentary and more like preaching to an all-white choir. After all, adding a few POC characters would only heighten the plight of these Cavemen and use their struggles to further comment on real ones.

By now, we’ve all figured out the actual reason though. No one involved in creating this show was actually interested in exploring race. Even when the show hits on something close to actual commentary, it backs away quickly. Falling back into the tired sitcom structure that the show set up for itself.

Even if it had attempted to involve actual minorities, it is unlikely Cavemen would have ever evolved past the state it currently rests in. It all comes back to the program’s original sin, basing a show off of a widely seen commercial was never going to work out. It feels crass in a way that would never sit well with a chunk of your audience. A tool of marketing being adapted into a vehicle for selling even more products. It’s a capitalist dream! It makes sense that critics were merciless to it and that audiences soon caught on to how unoriginal the program actually was.

Perhaps if Cavemen had been an authentic creation, it might have had more time to find its feet. But even without the show’s reliance on race, there wasn’t much it had to offer. It was a fairly average sitcom setup with generally uninteresting characters. All it had going for it was the premise which it couldn’t even claim as its own. Premise alone is enough in the world of commercials, but it can only take you so far outside of it.

Next Week: We return to NBC for one of the most infamous clunkers of all time, the shape-shifting blunder of Manimal.

As always, thanks for reading! If you have any suggestions for future shows you want to see covered, leave them in the comments below. For more great content, follow me on Twitter @JesseSwanson.