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Cartoon Graveyard: No Spinoff Zone

October 1, 2009

cartoongraveyardHey gang, apologies for the dearth of posts lately. We’re heading into midterm season, and it’s been getting kind of busy around here. Bear with us, this too shall pass.

When I mentioned to people that I was going to watch and review the pilot of The Cleveland Show, the new spinoff of Family Guy, responses ranged from condolences to outright disgust. Family Guy is admittedly programa non grata around the Squelch, as its preponderance for lazy humor, disdain for character consistency of any kind, and general lack of anything meaningful to say cause sensitive aesthete types like me and David to quiver in impotent, non-millionaire rage. But the show has gone from embarrassment to cash cow for FOX, and I guess something had to replace King of the Hill. Plus, there was always the possibility of an outright fiasco of You’re In The Picture proportions, and I couldn’t miss that. So, as trepidation gnawed at my heart, I proceeded to do something I’ve never done: left the TV on after The Simpsons.

Title: The Cleveland Show

Network: FOX

Premise: Black neighbor of popular fat, racist white character moves on up… to the upper East side! Wait, that’s not right.

Cleveland, vibrant and interesting.

Cleveland, vibrant and interesting.

The show opened with a few scenes in which Cleveland Brown explains to the core cast of Family Guy why he’s leaving town: ex-wife Loretta (wait, they got divorced what, three years ago?) has just been awarded his house in the settlement. So he and son Cleveland Jr., who has inexplicably become a fat teenager with the world’s most annoying voice, presumably so whichever writer is assigned to Chris/Peter-is-fat jokes can pull down two salaries, are off on a road trip to California to find a new job. As they drive away, Stewie abruptly breaks the fourth wall: “Wait, he’s getting his own show?” It seems like just a throwaway line, like every other joke in the Seth MacFarlane empire, but it’s actually a worthy question. Cleveland is, after all, a boring character. I stopped watching Family Guy several years ago, for reason stated above, but I was under the impression that Cleveland’s character traits were limited to slow speech and general passivity, except when those traits were tossed out the window to make room for the joke du jour. How can this guy be expected to anchor a show?

Cleveland, racist.

Cleveland, racist.

The answer: by surrounding him with comedy stereotypes and hoping he can play the straight man to all the buffoonery. Cleveland’s road trip takes him back to his hometown of Stoolbend, Virginia (heh heh heh… hum) and an unexpected meeting with old flame Donna. Will Cleveland find new love in his old town? Well, considering we just saw a title sequence in which he extolled his new family and the true love he and Donna share, I’m gonna say yes. Don’t get me wrong, I’m glad to see anything from the MacFarland factory actually focus on plot for an episode, but this being a pilot means there aren’t going to be many surprises in store. So Cleveland is introduced to Donna’s circle of family and friends, all of whom seem to be wholly defined by one or more easily-mocked personality traits. What are the odds? There’s a skirt-chasing kindergartener, an ignorant redneck, Donna’s thuggish ex-husband, and so on and so forth.

Cleveland, fun and exciting.

Cleveland, fun and exciting.

Here’s a bright spot: defying expectations, The Cleveland Show isn’t racist. There are a few jokes about Cleveland being black, but they’re mostly coming from the mouths of avowedly racist characters, and at their expense for the most part. So congratulations are in order for making an animated sitcom with a minority cast without making that the focus of the humor. Then again, considering its source, the cutaway gag about “white people making sitcoms they think black people will like” feels a little bit like the pot calling the kettle white, but I’ll assume that’s an intentional bit of self-reference. It feels good to say nice things once in a while.

As is usual for MacFarlane’s spawn, there are a few chuckles to be had, but the overall impression is one of disappointing laziness. That bear from the promos? Yup, he’s a neighbor, and he’s got a funny accent. That’s about it. And let’s not forget skuzzy teenager Federline Jones, dated equally by Donna’s daughter and his own name. That’s the level of comedy we’re dealing with here, which shouldn’t be a surprise given that this is a spinoff of a show notorious for never letting serious satire or narrative focus get in the way of a good dick joke. Or a bad one. Then again, it’s not as if TV shows never change after their pilots. Maybe The Cleveland Show will surprise us and become a rich, intelligent cavalcade of laughs. But much like the real-life Cleveland Browns, I wouldn’t bet on it.

Cleveland, none of the above.

Cleveland, none of the above.

Final Judgment: Like I said, something has to replace King of the Hill, but I wish it could have been something more interesting.

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