Facebook Watch may or may not be the future of TV, but judging by its latest original series, the animated comedy Human Discoveries, the social network's original programming is looking to the past, both in subject matter and style.
Human Discoveries is set tens of thousands of years in the past, at a time when humans were living in caves, surviving by hunting and gathering, and using crude tools. Of course, this show is about as scientifically accurate as The Flintstones, and creators Chris Bruno and David Howard Lee are just using the prehistoric setting as a framework for telling jokes about modern life.
There's nothing wrong with that approach (it worked for The Flintstones, after all), but Human Discoveries offers only stale jokes in a style that looks like something Comedy Central would have paired with South Park or Drawn Together for a few months in 2005. The producers have drawn in an impressive voice cast, led by Zac Efron and Anna Kendrick (who are themselves also credited as producers), but celebrity voices aren't enough to sell the warmed-over material about self-centered idiots getting drunk, hooking up and bickering with each other.
Efron plays the show's nominal hero, an every(cave)man named Gary, who's not as strong as his camp's leader, the buff, long-haired Ugg (voiced by Paul Scheer) or as smart and forward-thinking as his love interest, the proto-feminist Jane (Kendrick). Gary just wants to chill out in his cave, eat elk meat and have sex with Jane, but Jane is always insisting that there's more to life.
In the first episode, she's on a crusade to allow women to be more than gatherers, while Gary discovers fire and invents underpants, developments that provide equal opportunities for lowbrow jokes (of course, not long after creating the first undergarments, Gary soils himself).
The four episodes available for review (all of which run about 22 minutes, the typical length of a basic-cable comedy) follow along similar lines, as members of the camp invent or discover various substances and activities that correspond to modern human practices, and then proceed to misunderstand and/or abuse them.
Bruno and Lee seem to have a muddled sense of how to present Jane's progressive views, showing them backfiring and failing more often than they succeed. She ends up apologizing to chauvinistic lunkhead Ugg on multiple occasions.
Maybe that's just the show's equal-opportunity approach of making all of its characters varying degrees of moronic, but if the creators are going to deliberately tackle controversial social issues, they should work out some sort of perspective, even an absurdist one.
The worst example of this misguided approach comes in the fourth episode, when Jane's friend Minerva (Jillian Bell) invents "hand-spears," concealable individual weapons that she insists will make the camp safer when everybody has one. Jane, who could be broadly characterized as a well-meaning liberal, becomes a rabid hand-spear nut once she gets hold of one.
Does Jane represent liberal hypocrisy (she also spends the episode demanding praise for her invention of life-saving CPR)? Or is she more like one of those young female social-media influencers who use guns as Instagram props? The show doesn't seem to know or care, but making an entire episode that's an extended metaphor for gun control indicates that the creators are looking to push viewers' buttons.
Less controversial topics, including drunkenness (Gary's friend Trog, voiced by Lamorne Morris, declares newly invented "garbage juice" to be "the pinnacle of humanity"), online obsessions (camp elder Marsh, voiced by Ed Begley Jr., disapproves of the younger generation always staring at their fires) and monogamous relationships get similarly lazy, confused treatment.
The off-kilter Marsh, who's the only old person in the entire camp (a nod to low caveman life expectancy), is the only character who brings in the kind of absurdist, oddball sensibility that could have made this show more than a CBS sitcom in loincloths, but he's rarely used for more than punctuating jokes about being out of touch. An extended fantasy sequence in which he tells a bizarre story about confronting giant snakes is easily the highlight of the first four episodes.
In addition to the cavemen, the show's ensemble features a Greek chorus of sorts, made up of local elk, who offer running commentary on the oddities of human behavior, while also trying not to get slaughtered and eaten (in each episode, they have a different leader who is eventually horrifically killed by the humans). The animals often seem like they belong in a different show, only rarely intersecting with the main human storyline (usually just to get killed). There's no consistency indicating which animals can talk and which can't (there are talking birds in the first episode who then just disappear), and their inclusion gives the impression that the creators are throwing in whatever elements they can think of.
That also applies to the human characters, who are sometimes remarkably self-aware from a modern perspective, but more often completely clueless about how they are stumbling into important aspects of humanity. Writer Mark Russell proved in his recent DC Flintstones comics that silly caveman characters can be vehicles for smart, relevant satire, but the cavemen of Human Discoveries, depicted via bright, rudimentary animation that's easy for people to see on their smart phones, have about as much sophistication as Geico's notoriously annoying mascots.
Starring the voices of Zac Efron, Anna Kendrick, Lamorne Morris, Jillian Bell and Paul Scheer, Human Discoveries premieres July 16 on Facebook Watch.