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Dead Tree Alert: It's An Ad. But Is It Art?

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My Culture Complex column in this week’s TIME looks at whether commercials can be greater works than the shows they appear on. The hook is the pilot for ABC’s Cavemen, based on the Geico ads, which was nearly universally dismissed as soon as it was announced. As it turns out, the show looks much better than advertised, even if it’s not as brilliant as I’d hoped. But the problem is not that ads are not good enough to be made into TV series:

[M]y skepticism about Cavemen is just the opposite: that the commercials may be too good–too elegant, dry and subtle–to be made into a sitcom.

The beauty of the Geico spots is that they play the characters perfectly straight. There are no club-wielding or fire-inventing jokes. The cavemen play tennis, they go to therapists, they order roast duck with mango salsa. As allegorical stand-ins for minorities, they’re more complex than the aggrieved parties usually are in sitcoms. They’re not boisterous Al Sharpton firebrands but peevish, passive-aggressive, neurotic yuppies. They do what good TV characters should: they confound expectations.

I also look at AMC’s Mad Men, a drama about admen in 1960 debuting July 19, which is the best summer series I’ve seen so far. I’ll review it at more length when it comes out, but save the date. AMC–who knew?

Finally, a correction. Writing about the interchange between ads and TV series, I refer to the sci-fi series Max Headroom as a “sitcom,” which, as devotees of cyberpunk and ’80s cult shows know, it wasn’t, though it had a lot of satirical and black-humor elements. My fault; I made the mistake doing last-minute edits to get the column to fit. I don’t take back anything I said about Baby Bob, though.