When watching “Oliver Beene,” it’s hard not to get the feeling that you’ve seen this before. And it isn’t just the deliberate ’60s-era nostalgia that the show aims to generate. With its youthful sentimentality and family premise, not to mention the voice-over narration by a grown-up Oliver (David Cross, “Mr. Show”), the show has already been labeled as a far less schmaltzy variation of “The Wonder Years.” Furthermore, the abundance of fantasy sequences bears it a strong resemblance to stylistically-similar shows like “Andy Richter Controls the Universe” and “Scrubs.”
Despite these similarities, all three aforementioned shows are far superior to “Oliver Beene.” In the new comedy, Grant Rosenmeyer – better known as Ari Tenenbaum in “The Royal Tenenbaums” – stars as the titular Beene, a smart but awkward 11-year-old trying desperately to fit in during a time when JFK is president, the space race is heating up and the country is embroiled in the Cold War. While this may sound eerily similar to the premise of NBC’s “American Dreams,” “Oliver Beene” takes a much more comical tone, irreverently lampooning various cultural habits of the times.
However, the effectiveness of this comedic remembrance varies drastically. Set in Rego Park, Queens, “Oliver Beene” does best when dealing with characterizations of stereotypes, like the parts of last week’s pilot that introduced Oliver’s eccentric family.
There’s his womanizing, older brother Ted, played by what we can only hope is the last of the Lawrence brothers, Andrew; his social-climbing Jackie Kennedy-wannabe mother Charlotte (Wendy Makkena, “Sister Act”); and his tightfisted dentist father, Jerry (Grant Shaud, “Murphy Brown”).
But too much of the show focuses on uninspired subplots, like this Sunday’s first-time-without-a-babysitter storyline. The one highlight is the introduction of Oliver’s gay-beyond-his-years friend.
More often than not, though, this offering from veteran sitcom producers Howard Gerwitz and Steven Levitan (“The Larry Sanders Show,” “Just Shoot Me”) resorts to the unnecessary and unfunny crass humor that pads the majority of today’s lifeless sitcoms.
On the other hand, an upcoming episode dealing with the integration of a black student in Oliver’s all-white school is sidesplittingly funny, and reminds us why FOX wedged it between “The Simpsons” and “Malcolm in the Middle” in the first place.
2 1/2 Stars