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TV Series Review

It’s The Wonder Years injected with an unhealthy dose of Malcolm in the Middle. Fox’s new Sunday night comedy is set in the early ’60s, focuses on the life of an 11-year-old boy and provides the mature hindsight of an adult narrator. But Oliver Beene deliberately breaks the rose-colored glasses worn by a young Fred Savage, replacing them with cynical gray.

Oliver (Grant Rosenmeyer) lives with his family in a Queens, N.Y., apartment. His dad is a dentist. He gets picked on by his older brother. And he couldn’t hit a softball if his life depended on it. He spends time jumping out of swings, shooting off model rockets and blowing up "dog poo." Meanwhile, his older brother drools over porn magazines, dreams of "well-stacked" girls, and conjures excuses to get his face close to their breasts (when an older woman offers him full sexual liberty, however, he runs away).

Producers don’t exactly impose a modern sensibility on young Oliver and his friends, but Oliver’s adult voice delivers it in spades. At times that evolved cultural perspective helps, such as when a "Negro" student begins attending Oliver’s school. Stereotypical jokes exploit the racial uncertainty of the time period, but the story works out for the good. Oliver’s future self intones, "The funny thing about people is that we may come in a variety of colors, but deep down we’re all basically the exact same bag of bones with the same needs and desires and dreams. Black, white or Martian green."

Other times hindsight allows scriptwriters to introduce salacious subjects completely uncharacteristic of 1962. We learn that one of Oliver’s pals will grow up to practice a homosexual lifestyle (he and his partner adopt a Chinese orphan). That bit of foreknowledge transforms everything the boy says and does into sexual innuendo. He raves about Rock Hudson, yearns to travel to San Francisco, and adores fashion and beauty pageants.

Obviously, crude conversations, foul language, sexual jesting and an unabashed enthusiasm for pornography place this reflective series on the other side of town from The Wonder Years (and the nostalgic NBC drama American Dreams). They also make it impossible for families to enjoy its clever asides, cultural satire and witty, boyish banter.

Episodes Reviewed: March 9, 16, 30, April 6, 2003

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Steven Isaac

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