As TV viewers, we’re accustomed to advertisers telling us what to do. From Mickey Mouse to the Marlboro Man, stars of marketing campaigns have influenced what we eat, how we dress, where we get new tires, and which batteries we think will keep going and going and going. Rarely, however, do corporate logos offer broader “messages,” like, how to be better people.
Enter the Geico cavemen. They bring a message of love and tolerance. And now they bring it to us in a half-hour sitcom. The commercial that sowed the seeds for ABC’s comedy featured modern-day cavemen offended by the Geico slogan: “So easy, a caveman could do it.” They bucked every caveman convention: they held jobs in the entertainment industry, dined on gourmet foods, and played tennis. They weren’t just knuckle-dragging stereotypes, they had feelings.
The series expands the joke from 30-second spots to 30 minutes each week. ABC’s website calls cavemen one of the world’s “oldest minorities,” and says the show’s protagonists “have to overcome prejudice from most of the Homo sapien world and the misconceptions that modern society has of its earliest ancestors.” In effect, ABC is using the concept of a caveman as a stand-in for all minorities in America—without, you know, actually critiquing current race or class relations or detailing the struggles of any specific group, since that might offend someone.
In fact, Cavemen goes out of its way not to say anything about race or class. The premiere episode was mainly about caveman Joel (Bill English) and his decision to date a Homo sapien (a “sape”), considered traitorous by his roommate Nick (Nick Kroll). Though Joel danced around the subject—“This is 2007 and I can date whoever I want,” he declared—he never uttered the word “miscegenation” or talked about the ugly history of anti-miscegenation laws in this country.
Joel’s decision was not shocking because he challenged some kind of social taboo, but because there was hardly any cross-race interaction during the episode. Instead, it was about three cavemen who live together, eat together, play squash together, go shopping together. It’s a wonder they date anyone at all. The few Homo sapiens they did talk to were white and upper-middle-class: Joel’s girlfriend Kate (Kaitlin Doubleday) is white, his landlord is white, his protégé at work is white (and funny, too, a refreshing oasis of humor provided by Nick Swardson). When Kate met friends for dinner at the end of the episode, only a blond woman had a speaking part. An Asian friend giggled at her joke, and an African American friend barely made it into frame. For a show that’s supposedly about the plight of minorities in America, Cavemen showed a shocking lack of diversity. It’s basically Friends with more body hair.
With such narrow horizons, it’s no wonder that the cavemen are the ones who wind up looking small-minded. Nick seems to be the only character upset with Joel’s decision to date a Homo sapien. “Stick to your kind,” he observed to Joel’s brother Andy (Sam Huntington). “Crave the cave.” Still, when Andy and Nick generalized that all cavemen women are ugly, the point seemed to be that non-cavemen won’t be able to love cavemen until they learn to love themselves. You know, like other minorities.
Only Kroll managed to wring any comedy out of this ham-handed premise. It takes skill to affect a deadpan through tons of heinous caveman makeup and not come up with a flat performance, and he came across as a pre-historic Barney from How I Met Your Mother, with a healthy dose of cynicism. Still, the most effective laugh to be found during last night’s premiere half hour was in a Snickers commercial featuring an overzealous Viking. Maybe he’ll get his own sitcom.