'Beene' borrows but comes up short

Times Staff Writer

If you're going to copy, at least copy something good, as "Oliver Beene" does in borrowing heavily from Fox's creative "Malcolm in the Middle" and ABC's late, great "The Wonder Years."

The problem is that the first three episodes of "Oliver Beene" aren't very good, regardless of what inspired this new comedy from Fox. It tries for pointed wit, but doesn't quite get over the hump, in part because 11-year-old Oliver (Grant Rosenmeyer) is really irritating, and his dentist father, Jerry (Grant Shaud), even more irritating.

The year is 1962. Oliver is early Malcolm without the charm, and unseen David Cross is the voice of the adult Malcolm, recalling his youth a la the adult Kevin narrating "The Wonder Years," a device that calls attention to the eliteness of that period series in contrast with the mediocrity of this one.

The premiere has Oliver's mother, Charlotte (Wendy Makkena), persuading her reluctant husband to take the family, which includes Oliver's dumb lox of an older brother, Ted (Andrew Lawrence), swimming at the private Capri Beach Club, where the Beenes are immediately up for membership.

Out come the jokes and sight gags about Charlotte's unfashionable swimsuit, which she tries to hide from view for fear of being shamed by the club's hoity-toity members whom she's trying to impress. And out comes Wendie Malick as a hot-blooded member lusting for young Ted.

It's all very broad, with emphasis on whooshing graphics reminiscent of Fox's much-funnier early '90s comedy, "Parker Lewis Can't Lose."

This is one of those series whose not-quite-sharp writing doesn't overcome its madcap style and bad casting choices. That comes through again in next week's second episode when a destructive friend torments the Beene boys while their parents are having a night out. A misfiring bit about gays is the least of its worries.

Episode 3 is by far the funniest and most sophisticated of this batch, as Oliver is falsely accused of racism when his school acquires its first African American student, whom the principal proudly calls "our brand new Negro." It's that level of big-laugh/comment-on-the-times hybrid that "Oliver Beene" needs more of, but is too rarely evident in its opening trio of episodes.


'Oliver Beene'

Channel: Fox

When: 8:30 p.m. Sunday

Rating: The network has rated it TV-PGLS (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for graphic language and sexual content).

Grant Rosenmeyer...Oliver Beene

Grant Shaud...Jerry Beene

Wendy Makkena...Charlotte Beene

Andrew Lawrence...Ted Beene

David Cross...Voice of the adult Oliver Beene

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