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'Oliver Beene' has no heart

On the surface, the new Fox sitcom "Oliver Beene" appears to be a cross between "The Wonder Years" and "Malcolm In the Middle."

Like those shows, "Oliver" (Sunday, 7:30 p.m., Ch. 13) is a filmed half-hour about a family. As was "Wonder," it's set in the 1960s. As is "Malcolm," this family is boisterous, even outrageous.

But one important ingredient is missing from "Oliver." This is a show without a heart.

Set in 1962, "Oliver Beene" title character is an 11-year-old (Grant Rosenmeyer) whose family is, well, weird. His father, Jerry (Grant Shaud of "Murphy Brown"), is a dentist obsessed with, well, dentistry. His mother, Charlotte (Wendy Makkena), is a Jackie Kennedy wanna-be. And his older brother, Ted (Andrew Lawrence), is an obnoxious bully. Fox has made several episodes available to critics, and in each one these people yell at each other a lot but nobody seems to actually love each other.

Which makes it loud but not particularly funny. And rather unpleasant to sit through.

It's obvious that creator/executive producer Howard Gewirtz, who says he based the show on his own childhood, spent a lot of time watching "Wonder Years." He's even got the adult voice of Oliver (David Cross) narrating the show.

"I needed to have an adult narrator tell stories about his childhood," he said. "In that way it's similar to 'The Wonder Years,' but we really want to just take it further. We want the humor to be wilder. We want to really raise the stakes."

In other words, he (and Fox) wanted it to be more like "Malcolm." But that family is built on love. Not this group.

"Certain words that come up when you think of 'The Wonder Years,' like sweet and nostalgic, are words that we are not going for," Gewirtz said. "We're going for harder edge. We're going for things that'll hopefully be in line with other things on Fox."

Specifically, he's looking for things that "really kind of make you gasp a little."

As if there were any question of that, Fox juggled things a bit so that the first episode that airs isn't the original pilot — it's an episode in which the family tries to gain admittance to a local country club. And, specifically, what seems to have made Fox air this one first is the plot line in which an older woman (Wendy Malick of "Just Shoot Me") tries to seduce teenage Ted. The whole thing lacks any degree of finesse or subtlety.

Ironically, Gewirtz, whose credits include "Taxi," "Bosom Buddies" and "Wings" (he also, somewhat embarrassingly, created the 1997 flop "Jenny"), said he had been "desperate to try to find that really great derivative sitcom" but had "absolutely run out of ideas" so he had decided to go with something "autobiographical."

He should have spent more time watching "Wonder Years" and "Malcolm." Autobiographical or not, "Oliver Beene" doesn't ring true — it's just too mean-spirited to be believable.


E-mail: pierce@desnews.com