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A Second Look At: Cavemen

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DEAN HENDLER / ABC

Usually when I and other TV critics review a show, especially one we’re not crazy about, we move on and never look back. And in general I’m more than glad to do that. But now that we’re past the crush of fall premieres, A Second Look At will give an occasional, well, second look at, shows that debuted weeks or even seasons ago, to see how they’re holding up. Today, Cavemen (initial review here).

I may lose my critic’s license for saying it, but last night’s Cavemen was hilarious. Probably because it seems finally to have decided to be a show about, you know, cavemen. That is, it embraced its controversial premise–cavemen as a not-quite-assimilated minority in America–and put the spotlight on Nick (Nick Kroll), the most militant of its central trio.

The plot: Nick takes a substitute-teaching job at a high school, whose mascot turns out to be the “Savage,” a crude, club-wielding caveman stereotype. It’s not a surprising scenario, but the real attraction is Kroll’s deadpan, slacker delivery. “I can tell by your wide-eyed stares and slackened jaws that you’ve never been taught by a caveman before,” he tells the class. “So let’s go through the basics, shall we? Do I live in a cave? No. I live in a sweet-ass condo. Do I hunt and kill my own food? No. I shop in an organic grocery store and pay too much for heirloom tomatoes. Do I paint animals on walls? On occasion, when I’m drunk enough. Any more questions? [Girl raises her hand tentatively. Nick points.] Hannah Montana.” “Do you have a tail?” “Yes. And it has a poisonous barb on it, so don’t mess with me.”

The show still hasn’t totally found its tone or its characters. (Nick, for instance, seems too brazenly materialistic for the pretentious, radical grad student he’s supposed to be–he’d gladly live in the sweet-ass condo, but he wouldn’t brag about it.) But it’s much closer than it was in its revised pilot, which defanged the social humor of the original. And last night’s episode, written by creator Joe Lawson–which referenced real problems Native Americans have had with mascots like Washington’s Redskins–gets past the charges that the cavemen were a stand-in for African Americans in particular. They’re a minority, but they’re not a cro-magnon-a-clef for any particular minority.

Cavemen is still a broad, high-concept comedy; it climaxed with Nick confronting the mascot, first calmly (“This is not cool”), then getting in a fight with the character when it bopped him with its papier-mache club. (To his chagrin, there turned out to be a skinny teenage girl inside the trog suit.) But there’s nothing wrong with high-concept comedy, and papier-mache club fights with mascots? Always funny! It may be too late to save Cavemen in the ratings, but I hope this is a sign that this much-maligned sitcom will go down swinging. [Update: The Boston Globe's Joanna Weiss, at least, agrees.]

Got more suggestions for Second Looks? Post ‘em in the comments.

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