When TV Land launched its first original scripted series Hot In Cleveland in June of 2010, the whole project looked like another example of cable channel “mission creep.” Just as The Learning Channel has long ceased to have much to do with education, and MTV no longer plays a lot of music, so TV Land seemed poised to abandon the programming model it had followed since 1996, when it first started airing the best of classic television. And Hot In Cleveland didn’t exactly impress out of the box either, with its stubbornly regressive three-camera sitcom style, or its adherence to the old-fashioned sitcom values of farce, insults, double entendres, and shameless mugging for a live studio audience.
But contrary to the fears of longtime TV Land fans, Hot In Cleveland did exactly what the channel was designed to do, providing some beloved television institutions a welcoming home. And while Hot In Cleveland never won over the cognoscenti, the series did run for six years and 130 episodes. As its final two episodes air tonight, the show is leaving behind an actual legacy—even if it’s not one that’s immediately discernible.
Hot In Cleveland was initially meant as an oasis of traditionalism in a TV era dominated by edgy single-cam sitcoms. Over the years, it’s also become a place where familiar faces congregate. The first episode introduced three burned-out Los Angelenos—a vain former soap star (Wendie Malick) and her two friends (Valerie Bertinelli and Jane Leeves) who’d worked behind the scenes in Hollywood for years—and had them moving in with a cranky old Clevelander (Betty White) after an accidental layover convinces the ladies that they’ll be better appreciated outside of California. In the years since, as the heroines have tried to find love and to remake themselves as Rust Belt regulars, Hot In Cleveland has seen one-shots and extended guest turns by the likes of Carl Reiner, Buck Henry, Wayne Knight, Heather Locklear, John Mahoney, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Craig Ferguson, Jon Lovitz, Carol Burnett, William Shatner, Jay Harrington, Cheri Oteri, Tim Daly, Mary Tyler Moore, Valerie Harper, Cloris Leachman, Ernie Hudson, Stacy Keach, and Dave Foley.
In other words: Pretty much anybody who used to be a regular on a network TV show has been welcome to drop by. Eventually Hot In Cleveland became its premise, as aging actors have migrated to a place where they could still be popular.
Outside of Nickelodeon and Disney Channel (two outliers that merit more critical attention than they get), the most enduring cable TV sitcoms have tended to be format-benders, like Louie, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia. But since Hot In Cleveland’s long run began, ABC Family, TBS, and BET (among others) have debuted more retro-styled comedies. The big TV networks have had a hard time getting their sitcoms to catch on lately, outside of ABC, which has developed a house style that combines a modern-looking single-camera approach with more mainstream, family-focused humor. Gradually, cable has become a viable entertainment option for audiences looking for older characters and safer creative choices in their TV comedy—similar to how USA shows like Burn Notice and Royal Pains have revived the lighter kinds of TV drama that the major nets and premium cable channels currently shun.
Hot In Cleveland is by no means solely responsible for this. TBS and Tyler Perry have had a fruitful traditional-sitcom partnership since 2006. The massive success of The Big Bang Theory on CBS and in syndication is probably just as much of a catalyst for the resurgence of the three-cameras-with-laughter show. Meanwhile, TV Land’s recent single-camera originals—the now-canceled Jennifer Falls, the current Younger, and the upcoming Impastor and The Jim Gaffigan Show—suggest that even the home of Hot In Cleveland is moving past HIC-style sitcoms. (That may be because the show’s regular viewership has dipped to under a million per episode over the past couple of years, after routinely topping 2 million in its first two seasons.)
Still, there’s something to be said for how confidently and consistently Hot In Cleveland stayed on-brand. Creator Suzanne Martin (a former Ellen and Frasier writer) and frequent directors Andy Cadiff (Home Improvement, Spin City, The King Of Queens) and David Trainer (That ’70s Show, Designing Women) saw an unfilled demand for a particular kind of throwback: not the bright, juvenile 1980s sitcom that Nick and Disney have copied, but something more like the genre’s adult-oriented 1990s heyday.
Hot In Cleveland wasn’t averse to silliness. It spun plots out of Three’s Company-like misunderstandings, and built a lot of jokes around the ludicrousness of its heroines’ jobs and their unwillingness to age gracefully. But one of the elements that sets television apart from movies and novels is its ability to bring the same group of likable folks into people’s homes on a regular basis, and Hot In Cleveland did that as well as any TV series of the past five years. Its kind of humor—sometimes dry, sometimes smutty, and nearly always rooted in character—and its focus on relationships in constant flux, made it a lot like ’90s favorites Friends or The Drew Carey Show, albeit with some post-menopausal cast members.
I watched every episode of Hot In Cleveland, not because I loved it, and not because I thought it was brilliant, but because it was pleasantly undemanding. It made for a nice change-of-pace from the darker and more artistically ambitious shows I usually watch. Plus, I do think it was very good at what it was trying to be—much more so than the similar TV Land originals The Exes, Happily Divorced, and Kirstie. The credit for that largely goes to Malick, Leeves, and Bertinelli (and to a lesser extent White, who was a little stiff during the series’ first few seasons but loosened up considerably after her old Mary Tyler Moore co-star Georgia Engel became a regular). The actresses very early on got a handle on their characters—Malick as the egotistical opportunist, Leeves as the lovelorn wise-ass, and Bertinelli as the upbeat bumbler—and played them with brio, making the most of every opportunity to stand on a hot soundstage alongside other veteran performers.
I’d like to think that the low stakes of Hot In Cleveland had something to do with how long it lasted, and how well its stars hit their marks. A lot of jostling for position goes on when television shows are considered top tier. Critics, social-media users, and awards-giving bodies have a tendency to compare an ongoing series to its competition and to its earlier seasons, monitoring closely for slips in quality—to the point that watching week to week starts to feel like as pressure-filled as it is to make the show. That’s why it’s easier sometimes to retreat to Seinfeld reruns, which are never going to be affected now by a loud outcry on Twitter or a nasty behind-the-scenes dispute. And 21st century references aside, Hot In Cleveland was always meant to feel like an old favorite: a sitcom that’d been kept in a vault for 20 years, unaired until now.
There’s been some criticism lately of how streaming platforms like Amazon and Netflix have been green-lighting series that don’t seem as cutting-edge as their Transparent or Orange Is The New Black. But it could be that they’re just following what’s increasingly becoming basic cable’s strategy, generating enough episodes of no-big-deal programming to fill up hours. Even beyond Netflix binging or DVD box sets, viewers increasingly like to watch in blocks, whether it’s three Castles in a row on TNT or two hours of Family Guy on TBS. During Hot In Cleveland’s six years, TV Land frequently ran half-day or all-day marathons of the show, treating it like a back-to-back-to-back stretch of Gilligan’s Islands.
If nothing else, Hot In Cleveland may have proved that it’s possible for a TV series to skip right past the “airing on a network for five seasons and then getting sold into syndication” stage, and to go straight to the part where it’s venerable and established. Networks may no longer be an ideal place for a show like this, because prime TV real estate is too expensive, and too hostile. More and more, the Hot In Clevelands of the world are finding cozy, out-of-the-way spots on the dial, where it’s easier to settle in.