Oliver Beene

[31 March 2003]

By Tracy McLoone

Clean

Oliver Beene is strangely sterile. Set during the early 1960s, with an adult Oliver looking back on his childhood, via sardonic voiceover, it features bright colors and bland characters. Its hygienic sensibility may have to do with it being a sitcom, a genre in which even the dirt is generally squeaky clean. Or, it may a function of current nostalgia: in the past, everything was fresh and new, wasn’t it?

The on-screen, child version of the narrator is 12-year-old Oliver (Grant Rosenmeyer), hapless and doughy. He’s supposed to be an adorable loser; he’s a little bit adorable, but mostly he’s just a loser. Oliver lives with his middle-class family in an apartment in Queens in 1962. Their combined ambition and cluelessness makes them seem partly pathetic, partly comic. Perhaps this is why Fox has seen fit to sandwich them between two other oddball middle-class family sitcoms—The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle. This makes for a Sunday night lineup rather incessantly focused on how embarrassing families can be.

Oliver is all too conscious of his family’s oddness, as well as his own. It is painful to watch Oliver lust after the tall, cool blonde Bonnie (Amy Castle), who wants nothing to do with him. It appears that he has learned this hankering for what he can’t have from his dad, Jerry (Grant Shaud), a dentist who’s always on the make for new patients, whom he understands as opportunities for more money, plain and simple. One scene, apparently drawing inspiration from the long-gone Ally McBeal, offers Jerry’s decidedly unimaginative point of view, such that dollars literally pour forth from a potential new patient’s mouth.

As oblivious to the delicate machinations of class and manners as Jerry may be, his wife, Charlotte (Wendy Makkena), is trying desperately to “better” her family’s social status. To that end, she emulates polite conversation and seeks ways to associate with a more refined sort of people, such as those found at the fancy Capri Beach Club. In the pilot, she drags Jerry and the kids along to visit the club for what amounts to an audition: the membership committee will be judging the wannabes, to see if they are worthy.

The Capri Beach Club happens to be the place where Bonnie spends her summer days, which makes Oliver overjoyed and overexcited. He lives to see Bonnie, even though every time he runs into her, he is humiliated. Bonnie knows his name, but the relationship stops there. Her voice is full of disdain whenever speaking to him, as though she knows she’s way out of his league.

Quite obviously, this dynamic recalls the relationship in The Wonder Years between Kevin and Winnie (Fred Savage and Danica McKellar), as does the adult-looking-back narration (in OB, voiced by David Cross). And the likenesses don’t stop there: one of Oliver Beene‘s message boards, someone has titled his or her entry, “Wonder Years Worse,” the implication being that The Wonder Years was “quality television,” while OB is not. This is not necessarily true, as the shows have plainly different aims. The Wonder Years worked hard to achieve a mix of comedy and tenderness; Oliver Beene, at least in its pilot, seems geared for comedy flat-out.

Still, it’s hard not to notice the ways that OB mimics The Wonder Years. Oliver, like Kevin, has a lunkhead older brother, Ted (Andrew Lawrence), who rejoices in humiliating Oliver. I the first episode (and likey in episodes to come), Ted gets his, getting his head caught in a cooler, or remaining oblivious to the fact that an older woman at the club (Wendie Malick) is coming on to him with the strength and subtlety of a herd of elephants.

That’s also about the gauge of Oliver Beene‘s subtlety. Its jokes are aggressive and unfunny: mom sits poolside, sweating in a terry cloth robe because she’s inadvertently worn an out-of-fashion swimsuit; to cool off, she chugs drinks, eventually so drunk she can hardly sit up, more pitiful than amusing.

Oliver Beene also begs comparisons to NBC’s drama, American Dreams, as both take place during a generalized “sixties.” Beene features less sentiment and more garish colors than AD, turquoise and burnt orange, instead of warm sepia tones. The sitcom also dresses up its nostalgia differently. In the first episode, the Beenes feel cowed by their poolside hosts, a couple of hard-drinking, adulterous WASPs. Still, by the end of the episode, the Beenes’ mutual affection for one another, however clumsy and loud, looks better than the meanness of the country club types, quite miserable in their snobbery.

More specifically, Oliver Beene‘s moment is very different from that represented in American Dreams. Between the summer of 1962 in Oliver Beene (before the Cuban Missile Crisis in October) and the late 1964 of American Dreams, the U.S was shaken by the assassination of John F. Kennedy (American Dreams begins with this national trauma). This shift in time allows for Beene‘s happy-go-lucky sensibility, as compared to the more somber tone of Dreams.

And really, Oliver Beene resembles no other series as much as it recalls spoofy retro ads by Target and Old Navy. Its look belongs to early ‘60s—pillbox hats and bouffant hairdos, The Music Man and Girls! Girls! Girls!. Looking back, this moment seems vaguely simpler than now.

Even the “underside” in Oliver Beene is simpler, and certainly not very threatening. As Oliver seeks refuge from the glare of the sun (and a swimming race he’s entered to impress Bonnie, despite the fact that he can’t swim), he finds himself in the gloom of the musty, sunless game room at the Beach Club. Here the nerdy boys fester like bugs under a rock. The outcasts and dorks judge he pasty, bespectacled Oliver “one of us,” accepting him into their fold. But this membership makes Oliver uncomfortable; he would rather fit in with the beautiful people like Bonnie.

Oliver and the rest of the Beenes appear to be on a hopeless quest, to have “class” (that they don’t recognize the lack of class exhibited by the club members allows you to feel superior—to everyone). Their understanding of class is superficial, another Target-style knockoff. Unfortunately, the cute retro sensibility doesn’t make up for Oliver Beene‘s shortcomings.

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/review/oliver-beene/