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ROCKY INTRO FOR 'CAVEMEN'

TV critics ask why a 'Cavemen' comedy. Producers don't know.

It was probably the first question most people had upon hearing ABC was airing a comedy starring the GEICO cavemen: Why base a series on characters from a car insurance commercial?

But after 45 minutes of watching the cast and producers of Cavemen field questions from TV critics Wednesday at the summer press tour, it was obvious: Even they don't know why this series should exist.

Executive producer Mike Schiff, a veteran of series such as In Living Color and 3rd Rock From the Sun, could barely stammer out an answer when asked what the series would focus on. Another producer, former adman and GEICO caveman creator Joe Lawson, said he was surprised critics would question a series developed from a commercial: "I didn't know we would catch so much hell," he cracked. "It was a nice surprise."

Mostly, this crew could only agree on what Cavemen was not, noting that its leaden, heavy-handed pilot episode - in which the cavemen are subjected to stereotypes that often trouble black people, such as assumptions of laziness, stupidity and lawlessness - would not air until the fifth or sixth episode.

"Unfortunately, if you pick an offensive stereotype of any kind, you bump up against an ethnic group (victimized by it)," said Schiff, sitting among eight white male actors and producers. The show would focus on the struggle for acclimation by outsiders, he said.

They didn't seem to get the irony: that a stage packed with white males would try to write a series about exclusion from the mainstream. Critics seemed to abandon any ire they might have felt about the pilot's clumsy racial overtones for pity. These guys clearly have no idea what a drubbing they are in for.

Uncertainty for ABC shows

That sums up ABC's struggle in the first of two days of discussing its fall shows before TV critics. Faced with an array of mostly middling new shows with uncertain futures, critics weren't sure how to take what the network was offering - and vice versa.

Entertainment president Steve McPherson didn't make things easier, admitting during a session that the producers of Lost were going to make a big announcement today at the Comic-Con convention for comic book fans in San Diego, essentially snubbing the critics.

As his news conference devolved into a succession of complaints - why, indeed, would a network host two days of news conferences in a Beverly Hills hotel and not tell the 150 journalists assembled its big news? - an ABC staffer got permission for Lost's producers to make an early revelation: Harold Perrineau, whose character, Michael, sped off into the sunset with his son, Walt, at the end of the second season, will return.

McPherson offered no details, though rumors suggest Perrineau was available because a pilot he starred in was not picked up for fall.

Intrigue and controversy

Other news was sporadic and scattered. Dana Delany, the former China Beach star who also appeared in NBC's quickly canceled hostage drama Kidnapped last season, will join the cast of Desperate Housewives. And ABC is developing a version of a British reality show, Dance X, starring dancer-choreographers Bruno Tonioli and Carrie Ann Inaba from Dancing with the Stars.

McPherson, who at times seemed openly contemptuous of critics, later said they went too easy on NBC president Ben Silverman, who hired actor Isaiah Washington after Washington was fired from ABC's Grey's Anatomy. Silverman had told critics he wasn't aware of the controversy swirling around Washington, who was accused of using an antigay epithet during an on-set argument.

"It's pretty obvious what went on there," said McPherson, who implied Silverman may have crept close to inducing Washington to leave his ABC contract. "(Silverman) is either clueless or stupid."

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