It wasn't so long ago the man who created Oliver Beene--who was Oliver Beene four decades ago--saw only an ending to this story, just a tiny period at the end of the sentence he began writing in the 1970s. Just two years ago Howard Gewirtz thought his career in television had exhaled its last tiny gasp. The young men and women who made television, in between sessions with focus groups and dinners with producers of reality shows, believed him a dinosaur and treated him like a fossil--something to be kept behind glass, untouched for a thousand more years. Even his agent insisted Gewirtz was doomed, unless he erased from his résumé all those years he spent writing for Taxi, among his first gigs in the business.
Gewirtz believed the ride, a roller coaster of immeasurable highs (writing for The Simpsons, The Larry Sanders Show, even Bosom Buddies) and embarrassing lows (he created both Jenny and the small-screen adaptation of Down and Out in Beverly Hills), had slowed to a crawl. Then, a dead stop. He had run out of ideas, and the business he loved ran over him. His agent told him that the makers of modern-day television would look at his résumé, see Taxi and assume he was 100 years old; most of them didn't even remember if the show was in color. Might as well have said he produced Uncle Miltie.
"Ageism is definitely prevalent in this business," Gewirtz says, his matter-of-fact voice hinting at little bitterness. "In Hollywood it's all about heat--is there heat on you or no heat on you?--and at that time there was very little heat on me, which I found to be an unacceptable situation. But there it was. So, you can moan and bitch and say it's not fair, and it wasn't, but the only way to fight it is to just draw upon your reserves and challenge yourself and see if you're relevant or not, because no one's gonna turn around and go, 'Oh, gee, he's such a nice guy and worked on Taxi, so let's give him a job.' It doesn't happen that way. You'll only work if they think, 'Hiring him's gonna make us money.' But at the moment, things could not be better."
Gewirtz could have retired and lived off royalties, making pennies on the dollar for work he had already done. He could have pitched one more Friends variation or, as he says, "a show about Martians who inherit their dead children." Or he could write a script about his New York childhood, show it to friends and producers and hope a network was still out there willing to buy a scripted show in which no one gave lie-detector tests to would-be sons-in-law or was forced to eat a pig's penis. He did the latter, and come Sunday he will find out if a show about his life interests enough people for Fox's trigger-happy higher-ups to keep it on the schedule.
"The only reason I decided to write a show that was autobiographical--because, believe me, I don't think I've led such a fascinating life I'm ready to write my autobiography--it's just that I had run out of all terrible sitcom ideas," Gewirtz says. "But for the longest time, I've had these four or five anecdotes I would tell about my family that mostly focused on my father, who was kinda wacky. Whenever I would tell these anecdotes, they would always get a positive response. There was something there, and I was really too dim to realize it for all of these years--that's what I should be focusing on. And the people who've had the opportunity to respond to it so far all say the same thing, which is something feels genuine about it, something feels not cookie-cutter about it."
If quality alone guaranteed success in the TV biz, then Oliver Beene will live long enough to enter puberty, if not college. It's the sort of show that defines Fox, home to the dysfunctional-family comedy ever since the Bundys moved into the neighborhood and started lowering property values. The show makes sense on the network that airs The Bernie Mac Show and That '70s Show (Oliver Beene is, in a sense, Fox's That '60s Show), and it's the perfect Sunday-night closer, a curveballer from the bullpen after a lineup of King of the Hill, The Simpsons and Malcolm in the Middle.
It plays like an amalgam of early Simpsons and first-season Malcolm, with a dash of The Wonder Years minus that show's gooey sentimentality, since Mr. Show's David Cross provides the voiceover as older Oliver. Cross delivers his lines as though he's really commenting on old home movies; his voice is tinged with leftover hostility and not a little embarrassment. It's a little of what makes the show as dark as it is sweet, as twisted as it is straight-ahead sitcom.
Oliver Beene (Grant Rosenmeyer, who played Ari Tenenbaum in The Royal Tenenbaums) is a pale, doughy frump suffering through adolescence during the Cuban Missile Crisis. He loves the perfect girl, who merely finds him "sweaty," and has for best friends a buddy with too-keen an eye for fabulous fashion (Taylor Emerson) and a girl with a sharp wit and sharper points on her black eyeglass frames. Oliver's dentist dad (Murphy Brown's Grant Shaud) is kind of an ass, paranoid and covetous to a fault, but overall not a bad father. The mom, Charlotte (Wendy Makkena), would be considered a social climber if she could find the ladder from their Queens apartment. And Oliver's brother, Ted (Andrew Lawrence), just wants to win every race and have loads of sex, even with former "uggos" who've become recently "stacked."
You sort of recognize all of these characters as the sitcom archetype, but because the show's so well acted and written (by, among others, former David Letterman and Undeclared writers) it transcends the fair fare that CBS and ABC keep offering up as laff-riots. You won't see John Ritter mooning a country-club crowd to save his wife from humiliation, as Shaud does in the first episode; you won't hear Nia Vardalos awkwardly welcoming the new black family with a meal of matzo ball soup and "colored greens," as Makkena does later on.
"There was one scene in the pilot that got me: It took a bomb shelter to get this family to have their first meal together," says executive producer Steve Levitan, who met Gewirtz when both were writing for Wings in the early '90s. (Levitan's also the creator of Just Shoot Me.) "I thought that was a really nice image that felt not only fresh but also very relevant, because as we were recounting these times of bomb shelters, we had many friends going out to buy gas masks. It struck a nerve...Howard was just telling me he was looking to buy gas masks for his family, and I said, 'Oh, my God, you really are your father.'"
Levitan says NBC also wanted Oliver Beene, but that he took it to Fox because its execs were more passionate about the show. Like that ever helped a Fox show: The network's entertainment president, Gail Berman, is said to love the hell out of Andy Richter Controls the Universe, too, but that isn't stopping her from putting a pillow over its face. In fact, Fox is the damnedest network to figure out. You know what you're getting with the other three majors: CBS' pre-chewed product, NBC's musty-see TV, ABC's middle-of-the-road-kill. They're dominated by franchises and formulas and freak shows masquerading as "reality TV"; they're run by men and women who'd no more take a risk than give Paul Reubens another kids' show. But Fox is a wild card, not so easily defined as its competitors.
Berman and her boss, Sandy Grushow, have extraordinarily good taste: They brought you Judd Apatow's Undeclared, about life in the freshman dorms; the documentary series American High, in which real high school students carried vidcams through the halls; the brilliant Andy Richter Controls the Universe, set inside the warped head of Conan O'Brien's former sidekick; and Levitan's Greg the Bunny, in which pissed-off puppets had more personality than people. And they exhibit extraordinarily bad judgment, putting all of those shows in suicidal time slots; not one lasted an entire season. And just when you think Fox is completely moribund--two years ago it was hemorrhaging young viewers--it sinks to the top of the ratings with Joe Millionaire and American Idol.
Fact is, Oliver Beene ought to be huge. But be wary of any show too good, because just when you get attached to it, it gets mowed down by a reality show. And launching a half-hour comedy these days is like buying land in Iraq--not a very good idea. Only three sitcoms regularly crack the Nielsen Top 20, and they're the familiar standbys: Friends, Everybody Loves Raymond and Will & Grace. Everything else is a reality show or something with the initials C, S and I in the title.
"Right now, my biggest fear is we're not playing to a receptive crowd," says Levitan, who is, at this moment, writing the Just Shoot Me season finale and trying to convince NBC not to make it the series finale. "I feel like a comedian walking out onstage to a bunch of sour faces not in the mood to watch comedy. It's tough when you're doing jokes and people wanna see people eat pig colons. That's the thing that worries me--that any crummy reality show can draw pretty good numbers. Frankly, I am a little bit embarrassed by much of our television these days."
The funny thing is--and even Levitan has to admit--the success of Joe Millionaire and American Idol may be good for Oliver Beene after all. Fox has been using those two shows to promote the hell out of Oliver Beene. Whether that translates into anyone actually watching the show is something to be answered Sunday night. That's when real reality sets in.