The Cleveland Show

The Cleveland Show debuts at 8:30 p.m. EDT tonight on Fox.

Spinoffs need to justify their existence in a way a regular show just doesn’t. When Family Guy debuted, it was only really judged for its own purposes and against Fox’s other animated shows at the time. But even if The Cleveland Show were much, much funnier than it is, it’d probably still deserve a low grade simply because it hasn’t made a case for why it exists in the first place. After Family Guy and American Dad, do we really need another Seth MacFarlane show (I’ve seen even a few diehard MacFarlane fans argue this isn’t the  case), much less one that brings the amount of MacFarlane TV we get weekly to 90 minutes? Is the show sufficiently different from Family Guy (like, say, Frasier was from Cheers) as to be vital? And why Cleveland? Why now?

It’s the latter question that’s most vexing. Cleveland’s a strange, strange character to build a Family Guy spinoff around. Unlike most of the Family Guy characters, he’s a pretty nice guy and almost unfailingly decent, even when life is jerking him around. Since so much of MacFarlane’s humor is based in cruelty or pop culture gags, Cleveland is not someone it’s easy to attach a lot of hilarious gags to. On the other hand, since he is the one fairly decent person in Quahog, he makes a better argument for himself as a spinoff character than, say, Quagmire. Cleveland needn’t be the funniest character on his own show, so long as he’s the standard sitcom dad at that show’s center. And that appears to be the direction the show is going in its early episodes.

The biggest problem The Cleveland Show has in its early going is that it has yet to come up with a way to differentiate itself sufficiently from the other two MacFarlane shows. American Dad finally found a way to differentiate itself via telling stronger stories than Family Guy (which is usually content to string a bunch of gags together and call it a day). The Cleveland Show also wants to head in this direction, but because the central character isn’t terribly funny, the show is constantly bouncing into Family Guy style cutaways that are usually funnier than the main action. The rest of the jokes are the usual blend of faux-edgy sex jokes and bodily fluids gags, making it feel even more like Family Guy.

By and large, I don’t think the Family Guy approach is the worst approach to an animated show in the world. The series is certainly revealing its age very quickly because its characters are essentially one-dimensional, but in earlier seasons (particularly the third season before the show was canceled), Family Guy could be quite funny, even if it never quite figured out how to tell a coherent story. But when you stretch that approach out to a full hour (or 90 minutes, depending on your opinion of American Dad), you just end up with diminishing returns. Why watch Cleveland spar with his kindergartener tough-talking stepson, Rollo, when you could be watching the original article of Stewie on Family Guy just 30 minutes later?

The relative weakness (so far) of the new characters is what ultimately makes The Cleveland Show not quite a success. The pilot, which airs tonight, works so hard to set up the premise that none of the characters manage to make themselves all that distinctive, though the visual designs and voicework on some of them almost pull it off. Cleveland (voiced by series co-creator Mike Henry) has moved back to his hometown of Stoolbend, Virginia, where he’s run into his high school crush, Donna (Sanaa Lathan), who never quite got that he was in love with her. Now, he’s going to become the man in her life, and he and his son, Cleveland, Jr., are going to move in with her and her two kids, daughter Roberta and son Rollo. In the same neighborhood, Cleveland’s going to run into douche-y former frat boys, rednecks and talking bears.

All in all, this isn’t a bad setup for a show and is probably even a better premise than Family Guy’s “Here’s a family we hope you find funny” setup. There’s inherent tension both in the idea of a grown man reconnecting with a high school love and having to step in to be a father to her children, and even if plenty of other shows have done this particular setup before, it’s a first as far as major network animated shows go. With this heavily character-based setup, in fact, it seems like the show could eventually grow into something more character-driven than either of the other two MacFarlane shows.

The pilot, though, spends so much time setting up just how this whole situation came to be that it never quite breaks out of the premise pilot strictures. There are so few laughs – or even attempted laughs – once Cleveland leaves Quahog (in a prologue to the main action) that the whole episode just feels like it’s laying groundwork for future episodes. That might be OK in a drama pilot, but a comedy pilot either needs to set up some great characters or tell some great jokes, and this pilot doesn’t really land in either category.

Fortunately, that’s not the case in the other two episodes sent out for review, which are both funnier and spend more time delving into the characters of Cleveland’s new neighborhood. Neither quite manages to answer the “why does this show even exist?” question adequately, but both do have some amusing gags in them and take their time setting up the sorts of character-based jokes that will tell us more about the people who live here. (As an example, there’s one scene in the third episode where the contents of Cleveland’s redneck neighbor Lester’s house are revealed that’s, yes, a stereotypical redneck gag but still well-executed and pretty funny.) Are any of the episodes all-time classics of comedy? No, and, indeed, none of them quite manage the blend of laughs, story and character that the show is going for. But they at least trend in the right direction.

The best reason to be hopeful about all of this is that Rich Appel, responsible for many of the best episodes of The Simpsons and some of the best seasons of King of the Hill, is Henry and MacFarlane’s other co-creator here. Appel knows how to build compelling characters and solid storylines from his time working on those two shows, and even if he hasn’t quite managed the blend here, there’s still a good chance he could. There are a lot of elements that make The Cleveland Show seem like it should work better than it does, but as a whole, it hasn’t quite managed to stand up and differentiate itself enough from its parent show to be taken as its own thing.

Pilot grade: C-

First three episodes overall: C+

Stray observations:

  • We’ll be adding this show to our regular coverage of the Fox animated shows, so I’ll get more into why the second and third episodes do or don’t work in weeks to come.
  • It’s worth saying that the theme song is pretty fun, a nice little riff on what the theme for a Norman Lear-produced Cleveland Show might sound like.