I would like for you to go back and imagine yourself back in 2006. You’re home and you see an advertisement on TV. A disfigured, bulky man is on-screen, and you hear a sentence uttered: “So easy, a caveman can do it”, followed by the GEICO signature. In these ads, a troglodyte man is usually interacting with others of his species, or confronting somebody of modern society over this troubling, discriminatory slogan for auto insurance company GEICO. These simple yet effective ads aired on all networks at any point in time, and took America by storm. Little did we all know, this product was going to unearth a hellish cryptid on national television.
Jeff Daniel Philips and Ben Weber played the early roles of the GEICO cavemen, while actor John Lehr played the caveman most often; the prosthetics and makeup effects were done by Hollywood veteran Tony Gardner, whose most notable work includes 1988’s The Blob, 1992’s Army of Darkness, and 2009’s Zombieland. These commercials were so successful, they were awarded the Madison Avenue Advertising Walk of Fame. If GEICO ever had a mascot that wasn’t the reptilious GEICO Gecko, it was the group of ape-like Neanderthals furious over an insurance commercial.
And with any good, original idea, there’s always a studio that seeks to profit off of it. In 2007, ABC looked at these commercials – no more than 30 seconds apiece – and thought they were chock-full of narrative, creative promise and issued a pilot script to be written by Joe Lawson, whose current work includes award-winners Modern Family and Bojack Horseman. Holding such strong conviction and potential for this idea, ABC greenlit the show for a 13-episode season in what was certain to be a hallmark in the studio’s library.
ABC stated that the show, simply titled Cavemen, would follow a trio of prehistoric thirtysomethings tackling day-to-day life in modern day Atlanta, while also dealing with modern social prejudices that we continue to see to this day. The premise was understandably met with ridicule and disdain, as not only was the dead horse rotting away and getting run over repeatedly by a semi, but somehow the idea of a group of deformed, cave-dwelling savages being an allegory for minorities and commenting on current racial tensions just felt very tone-deaf and misguided. But let’s not take my word for it; let’s take a look at the early reactions to the screening for the pilot that was played for critics and see if– oh, they hated it.
In this pilot, neanderthal Joel (Bill English) goes to an elite country club gathering to meet his non-neanderthal fiance’s family, where he is desperately trying to win over their approval. Things go awry, however, as through some complications or another, Joel lets his “savage” side out, ruining the party, much to the shock and disgust of attendees. Joel then rants to everyone, saying how “it doesn’t matter what he does, he’ll still be looked at the same”. This is but one of a few racial themes present in this pilot episode, such as caveman Nick (played by Nick Kroll in one of his first-ever TV appearances) commenting on current PC culture, while saying it’s hypocritical to keep airing Flintstones, due to its harmful stereotypes; another, perhaps more physically painful, is one of the cavemen saying “cro magnon” in a discriminatory manner, further commenting on how it’s “okay they use it”.
Would you believe it, critics that caught the early screening called the pilot racist and offensive to minorities. Because of this, the series was given a massive creative overhaul, changing the setting from modern Atlanta to San Diego and toning down on the racial themes, instead opting to make it about cavemen dealing with regular problems men in their thirties face, such as getting jobs, dealing with relationships, and voting in elections. While the show would still occasionally comment on social prejudices and issues a modern caveman would face, in all other respects, it’s simply a generic, run-of-the-mill sitcom about men in their thirties who also happen to be cavemen.
Plus, John Heard for some reason
The premise may seem ripe for creative potential, but that’s what’s at the true heart of the show: all premise. The story is one-note, the humor is lopsided, and since it was subject to drastic creative changes, it’s never quite sure what tone or stance it should take, to the point where I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say the commercials had more narrative prevalence. The performances from the main cast are acceptable enough, save for Nick Kroll and the condescending tone and dry cynicism that’s plagued his entire personality on television for a decade. Jeff Daniel Phillips, one of the regular actors from the commercials, reprised his role as a recurring character, but the charm he displayed in the advertisements couldn’t be passed on to the sitcom actors themselves.
So what became of the show itself? Well, after being greenlit for thirteen episodes, it was canceled after seven due to increasingly dwindling ratings and scathing reviews. Since its conception, the show was seen as a mockery, a shallow and uninspired idea whose sole intention was to be an elaborate advertisement. ABC buried the show, but clearly doesn’t care all that much about it, considering one can easily watch the whole series in its 13-episode entirety online. Even GEICO itself was keen on pounding on the show, airing a Superbowl commercial where the returning cavemen from the commercials finish watching the series, mocking it. While I’m not sure how much input the car insurance company had on the television program, nothing tastes more bitter than capitalism bashing capitalism.
It’s here where we get to the heart of the show: the fact it’s a cynical product based on a cynical product that’s already been beaten to the ground before the show’s birth. Much like the car insurance commercials the sitcom is based on, the priority of both properties is to sell a product to the masses. And much like the stone-age troglodytes the characters derive from, we can only hope this show stays buried, long-dead, and inevitably forgotten, before being resurfaced by a future generation who will go on to call this show misunderstood and a hidden gem. Who knows with art and its future?
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