It’s amazing that any large-scale creative project gets finished. The amount of moving parts, barriers to entry, and needless bureaucracy that complicate the production of so much of mainstream media, the release of a completed TV show, a movie, an album, should be celebrated in and of itself, to a degree. But sometimes, these projects just aren’t very good. Sometimes something truly, incomprehensibly weird makes it all the way through. Was it that somewhere along the line things went sideways, a good (or, usually, at least well-meaning?) that idea curdled? Or maybe it was rotten from the start?
Enter ABC’s Cavemen, a single camera parable about race, class, and male friendship in the mid-2000s adapted from a series of insurance commercials – how could it not work? Cavemen, featuring, among others, Nick Kroll and Kaitlin Olson, was released in 2007 and was immediately (and rightfully) roasted for its tone-deaf co-option of racial microagressions and crushingly mundane plotting. The show was a sort of post-Friends riff on the lives of trio of dudes in a world very similar to ours, with one exception: cavemen and Homo Sapiens co-exist, with complex power dynamics and social tensions between the two groups.
So, you remember the commercials, right? Some human being says that getting an insurance quote is “so easy a caveman can do it” and then a caveman nearby gets offended. Imagine that dynamic, riffed out 10 different ways per episode and you’re basically there. As an allegory for racism among generally well-meaning, centrist/liberal city dwellers, its pretty heavy-handed and basic (which makes sense, considering the overwhelming majority of the cast and crew was white). Each episode maps nuanced, complex topics like interracial dating, racist sports mascots, and workplace discrimination, onto underdeveloped characters like Kroll’s aloof, overeducated slacker or Andy, a recently dumped beta male, as they navigate some seriously hack sitcom plotting.
Following the overwhelmingly negative response test audiences had to the even more on-the-nose racial allegories of the cringeworthy pilot, the producers retooled the show a bit, moving the setting from Atlanta to the West Coast, and slightly tweaking a few characters. All in all, only six of the thirteen episodes shot ever aired in the US, with the disastrous pilot and episodes eight through thirteen only airing in overseas markets.
While, of course, it’s exciting to see a major TV network taking a chance on a high-concept comedy series, trying to build out a universe from one of the lowest forms of intellectual property, an advertisement, is setting the creators up for failure. At least, in Cavemen’s case, it’s an interesting failure?