Hot in Cleveland - "Pilot" and "Who's Your Mama?"

Hot in Cleveland - "Pilot" and "Who's Your Mama?"

Hot in Cleveland debuts tonight on TV Land at 10 p.m. Eastern.

Hot in Cleveland is basically a series made out of that episode of 30 Rock where Liz Lemon longs to "flee to the Cleve" because in that city, she's gorgeous and desirable, not constantly worrying she's good enough. Only it's not as funny. And it's vaguely condescending. And it rests way too heavily on any previous affection viewers might have for its (admittedly well-known) cast. To get some idea of what the show is like, observe the fact that the three women at the show's center end up living in a house with an older caretaker who's obviously supposed to be a broad, European stereotype (in that she escaped the Nazis during World War II), and the show filled the role with Betty White, who proceeds to play the part as Betty White. Are you still amused by White saying things that most old women wouldn't say? Then you may enjoy this show. Otherwise, you'll be wondering why no one bothered to cater White's character to the actress playing her.

Cleveland is a lazy pitch down the middle to the viewing public. It coasts almost entirely on the fact that its cast is full of consummate professionals who make lazily written lines and premises seem like they're better than they actually are. I didn't smile once at either episode of this show that I screened, but there were times that the delivery of, say, Jane Leeves made me think I should be having a better time than I was. And say what you will about White, but she's very good at playing the "old lady who does things you wouldn't expect an old lady to do" card (and playing it over and over and over). There's a good enough cast here that the material itself leaving so much to be desired makes the show feel more disappointing than most other garden variety made-for-cable sitcoms.

TV Land has been doing so well for so long with syndicated reruns of sitcom hits that it's perhaps a bit surprising the network never bothered to come up with a sitcom of its own until now. (The network brand TV Land spun off from - Nick at Nite - has tried its hand at a number of original sitcoms, including the very weird but kind of amusing Hi Honey, I'm Home.) A long run on Nick at Nite or TV Land used to mean something (before the most successful show in the history of Nick at Nite became The Fresh Prince of Bel Air), and the network's long list of shows that were big hits a second time around is like a virtual primer in sitcom history.

But the hits just keep getting harder to find (sorry). The network is up to Everybody Loves Raymond, which ended barely five years ago, and more hits are not forthcoming. In the time since Raymond left the air, the kinds of multi-camera sitcoms that have always been TV Land's bread and butter have gotten fewer and farther between. There's Two and a Half Men, sure, and both How I Met Your Mother and The Big Bang Theory show signs of syndication life. But beyond that, pickings get pretty slim, unless you hope that the network can transition to single-camera comedy in a way the major networks have not. King of Queens, I guess. Or going all the way back to the '50s and resurrecting The Donna Reed Show again (please no). But the network is at a point where it pretty much has to start making its own stuff.

Pity, then, that they didn't come up with something better than Hot in Cleveland. The basic premise here is pretty bizarre. Three friends from Los Angeles are en route to Paris when their plane has to land in Cleveland after mechanical problems. Somehow, they end up in a dive bar, where the men immediately point out to them just how gorgeous they are (at length and often). So moved, soon-to-be divorcee Melanie (Valerie Bertinelli, playing the only woman who feels like a real character and not a warmed-over sitcom cliche) abruptly decides to put down roots in Cleveland, and despite some problems with the man she's seeing (played by John Schneider, whose appearance mostly serves to underscore how well he's aging), she eventually talks her other two friends, faded star Victoria (Wendie Malick) and acerbic businesswoman Joy (Leeves), into moving in with her and caretaker Elka (White) in the house she's rented. From there, they'll have wacky adventures and explore the vast, weird wasteland known as "middle America." (In episode two, Victoria is amazed by the mere existence of something very like a Costco, which we have in California, thank you very much.)

This actually isn't a terrible premise for a TV show, especially one that's not aiming super high. Telling a story from the point of view of a bunch of 40-something women who've realized they're desirable again is potentially interesting, and, as mentioned, the cast is full of old pros. The problem comes from the fact that the script is full of like-a-jokes. The "like-a-joke" (a term coined by Canadian TV writer Denis McGrath, which I feel like stealing) is a line that has the rhythm of a joke, that is delivered like a joke, but forgot the part where a joke is supposed to be funny. Like-a-jokes can occasionally be so well-constructed and delivered that you'll laugh at them anyway, simply because of the fact that there's real panache going into them. But eventually you stop and listen and realize that there's nothing funny there.

Hot in Cleveland falls in to the greatest pitfall of the like-a-joke: It thinks that certain words are just inherently funny. "Cleveland" is one word that the show repeats over and over, to howls of studio audience laughter. You've also got "Oprah" (this is one that lots of shows that lean heavily on like-a-jokes are fond of), "brows," "Ryan Seacrest," and "heterosexual." There's an entire riff in the first episode based around the fact that someone in the production chain just thought that the very notion of saying the word "manscaping" would make everyone burst out laughing. Maybe there are people that are this way, but it's just lazy construction to lean on buzzwords to make your jokes.

The best Nick at Nite shows were always the ones that didn't lean too heavily on topical references from their times. When the network briefly tried to make Murphy Brown a thing, it didn't work so well because the show, which was enjoyable in its time, was so reliant on cultural humor from the early '90s. It's hard to imagine anyone watching Hot in Cleveland 50 years from now and knowing what to make of it. The best sitcoms are, ultimately, universal stories that transcend space and time and can be funny to people who have, say, no connection to a red-haired scatterbrain and her Cuban husband working the 1950s club scene. Hot in Cleveland isn't God-awful. It won't make you want to shoot yourself for watching it. But, man, if it isn't ever bland and stuck in 2007.

Stray observations:

  • There's just something about hearing an actor say, "[Title of Show] is filmed before a live studio audience" that gets the old '80s nostalgia juices running for me.
  • My big concern with the show was that it would be really condescending toward the folks who don't live on the coasts. I don't know that that's the case, so much. Much of the time, the joke is on the three ladies who've moved to Cleveland, not the Clevelandites themselves, who are warm and friendly and welcoming.
  • The second episode revolves around Leeves thinking that she's accidentally dating the son she gave up for adoption years ago. Jolly!
  • Julie Benz? Really?
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