The late actor Carroll O’Connor spent 30 years denying that Archie Bunker’s reactionary politics on All in the Family were his own. O’Connor, who like Archie came from Queens, N.Y., once said that his father “disliked talk like Archie’s—he called it lowbrow.”
The conviction that bigotry is lowbrow and tolerance is classy is among the local ordinances that make a working-class neighborhood like Queens a beautiful place for a sitcom. All in the Family established this set-up in 1971, and Dear John, the short-lived Cosby, and The King of Queens have since exploited it with varying success. The best of these shows, All in the Family and The King of Queens, complicate things by suggesting that, since ordinary Joes rule the borough, it’s pretension itself that’s intolerable. Bigotry, of some kind, is basic; it’s honest.
Today we welcome Oliver Beene (Fox, Sundays, 8:30 p.m. ET), the latest comedy set in Queens. Possibly to increase Beene’s viability asa contender for the canon, the show’s creator Howard Gewirtz—who had a hand in The Larry Sanders Show, Bosom Buddies, and Taxi—has set it in 1962, before left-wing Meatheads even started fighting with their fathers-in-law and well before the Museum of Modern Art and new polyglot immigrants shook the borough’s status as a time capsule in which postwar social dynamics were meticulously preserved.
In the first two episodes, the Beenes, a white family of uncertain ethnic origin, aim to shake their lowbrow habits and affecting familiarity with permissive cocktail culture: adultery, therapy, and alcoholism. But Oliver (Grant Rosenmeyer), the awkward 11-year-old son, helps to steer his family out of pomposity. Here in Queens, beer, snow cones, and the human butt are the hard facts of life. The Manhattan regime—with its liberal mores—is for showoffs. Vulgarity is truth.
On last week’s pilot, the Beenes try to join a country club that offers gin, cabanas, and a Graduate-like sexual initiation for Ted (Andrew Lawrence), Oliver’s handsome older brother. Charlotte (Wendy Makkena), Oliver’s mother, has practiced her laugh in advance of the family’s debut; predictably, what she comes up with is a grating bray. Jerry (Grant Shaud), her husband and a dentist, sees the club as a chance to drum up business. Oliver has to choose between chasing a girl in the sunshine—styling himself as a happy American habitué—or embracing his awkwardness by playing Parcheesi with pallid, unassimilated geeks. Finally, the family goes bust when Jerry moons the membership.
On Sunday, the show again pursued the theme of class advancement: Jerry and Charlotte go to dinner in Great Neck at the mansion house of an old friend, Mitch, who has made it big in the lighting business. Hearing about the pal’s several houses—and dude ranch for his race horses—Jerry’s head blows off. (Surreal Malcolm in the Middle-style interludes are used to little effect.) Finally, Jerry and Charlotte contrive to steal a Fabergé egg and are caught, just as Mitch is about to make them a present of a brand-new car. Punished for their climber ways, the couple drives back to reality in their clatter-trap jalopy.
Meantime, the kids’ plot concerns home-alone pranks and a murderous, working-class neighbor. Emissaries of a more cosmopolitan sensibility include Joyce (Daveigh Chase), a smart (Jewish?) friend of Oliver’s who’s had therapy, and Michael (Taylor Emerson), a tap-dancing kid with a lap dog who—we learn in a flash-forward—will, at 41, adopt a Chinese daughter with his boyfriend. The cliché of fruitiness is one that even Bunker might have had trouble enjoying.
Oliver Beene has gotten C’s and D’s from critics, and they’re right that its laughs are few. But Wendy Makkena has had very good moments as Charlotte, and TV archivists should take note. The jokes about swinging and gay guys might one day give way to gags about Negroes, Jews, and women’s-libbers—and the family might crash into the problem that, in Queens, they can’t be happy lowbrows and good liberals at the same time. Probably the show will fudge a compromise, but at least the borough will get back to the old fun. If, in fact, the old fun’s any fun anymore.