8 p.m. Tuesday, Oct. 2

ABC hops into a time machine in hopes of rekindling a bit of its past sitcom glory. But unfortunately, the gizmo took the network back a few million years too far -- well beyond the era of "Happy Days" and "Laverne & Shirley" and even "Love, American Style" to the time of Neanderthals.

That "Cavemen" doesn't quite uphold the quality Stone Age tradition of "The Flintstones" was clear pretty much from the outset of Tuesday's premiere, which critics have been preparing to savage ever since viewing a pilot that carried not only few laughs but some perhaps unintentional racist overtones. It didn't help that the premise was lifted whole from a series of 30-second TV spots for Geico Insurance -- because, I mean, who better than ad copywriters to try to win viewers back to the moribund primetime comedy genre?

The good news: ABC has sufficiently monkeyed (if you will) with the original pilot so as to cleanse it of any racial insensitivity. The bad news: What few laughs were once there have now been effectively removed.

Darwin himself surely would be appalled by "Cavemen," which tends to poke holes in his survival-of-the-fittest theory by demonstrating that cave guys who become icons of their age are in fact neither the strongest nor the most mentally acute members of the species. Not that we couldn't see this coming. ABC, rightly sensing a critical pasting, didn't send screeners out to critics, taking a cue from CBS and its "Kid Nation" fiasco.

What they needn't have worried about is offending anyone, since the show has evolved following the retool into "Friends" with beards. This isn't easy to do when your three lead characters are living examples of Early Man (every day is a bad hair day!), but "Cavemen" somehow manages to be both high-concept outrageous and utterly politically correct. Fred and Wilma, where art thou?

The show takes place in San Diego and goes out of its way to say nothing about race or class at all, making their appearance and lineage -- along with the premise of the show -- effectively moot. It centers on three cavemen: Joel (Bill English), his lazybones roomie Nick (Nick Kroll) and whiny brother Andy (Sam Huntington). Joel is secretly having a big-time fling with Kate (Kaitlin Doubleday), who is blond, gorgeous and a Homo sapien (or "Sape" in cave slang).

The jokes here play off of the joke that these guys are a little bit, you know, different. But the problem with any show like "Cavemen" that's driven by a gimmick is that it's so tough to suspend disbelief and buy into it. I mean, why do these guys exist? Did they slip through some portal to land here? Nobody seems to care enough to ask. Instead, in the opening teleplay by executive producers Bill Martin and Mike Schiff, they simply are treated like any other misunderstood minority.

The show plays like a gag with no payoff, like a commercial that misses something in the journey from 30 seconds to 23 minutes -- like a reason to exist. And while it performed well in the ratings in its debut opposite CBS' "NCIS," the curiosity factor alone could account for that. It will prove quite the evolutionary trick should "Cavemen" successfully avoid going the way of the dinosaur before season's end.

Say this for the show, however: really good makeup.

Double Vision, Television 360 and ABC Studios.
Executive producers: Bill Martin, Mike Schiff, Josh Gordon, Will Speck, Daniel Rappaport, Guymon Casady
Co-executive producers: Joe Lawson, Jace Richdale
Producer: Michael Petok
Associate producer: Marshall Boone
Teleplay: Bill Martin, Mike Schiff
Directors: Will Speck, Josh Gordon
Director of photography: Michael Trim
Production designer: Brandy Alexander
Costume designer: Roemehl Hawkins
Make-up: Michelle Tyminski, Katrina Chevalier
Editor: Rick Weis
Music: Jude Christodal, Mickey Petralia
Casting: Leslie Litt
Joel: Bill English
Andy: Sam Huntington
Nick: Nick Kroll
Kate: Kaitlin Doubleday
Thorne: Stephanie Lemelin
Leslie: Julie White