There was little doubt that TV Land’s Hot in Cleveland, the network’s first and highly anticipated ‘scripted’ sitcom, would be a surefire hit. After all, with comedy veterans like Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendy Malick and the iconic Betty White making up the ensemble cast, what could possibly go wrong? The show, which follows the lives of four middle-aged women living together in Cleveland, has in fact garnered a small (but loyal) fan base since its 2010 debut, with many critics likening it to White’s previous work, The Golden Girls. However, despite the obvious parallels, the fresh-faced Cleveland is looking less and less like its 80’s predecessor and more the typical, dumbed-down, not-so-funny fare that’s characterized much of today’s sitcoms. Let’s take a look at why Cleveland falls short and what every sitcom writer needs to remember when striving for their own brand of comedy gold.
After watching several episodes of Cleveland in conjunction with older, stronger sitcoms of yore (ironically on TV Land also), I identified the show’s fundamental problem: poor characterization. In other words, the show’s main characters lack any distinctive characteristics that make their personalities unique or memorable. Big mistake. Classic sitcoms thrive on these distinctions because they allow characters to complement and clash with one another for comedic effect.
Remember The Golden Girls? If you were a newcomer to this show and decided to watch any episode of the series for the first time, you would be able to describe the personalities of each character by the end of the episode. Dorothy was the smart, acerbic one. Blanche was the man-hungry, Southern belle. Rose was the sweet, dim-witted one. And Sofia was the wise-cracking, Sicilian mother. Their personalities were strong and shined through in every episode.
In Cleveland, the personalities are more muddled, neither blending nor clashing together very well. While Malick and White do their best to bring out the vanity and sharp tongue of their respective characters, Bertinelli and Leeves fall flat. Could you describe the personality of Leeves’ character at the end of any episode? She’s British, yes. And…?
The cast also needs a so-called ”straight man” character to anchor and hold down the show. In most classic sitcoms, there is a central character who always get frustrated (or at least bemused) by the supporting cast, who consequently seem quirkier and less identifiable. Think Dorothy in The Golden Girls. Sam in Cheers. Ritchie in Happy Days. Even Jerry in Seinfeld. One of the women on Cleveland must be the somewhat ”normal” character who the audience can identify with — at least more than the others. In my opinion, Bertinelli’s character would be ideal for this, all while surrounded by the quirky Leeves, the pompous Malick and the off-kilter White.
Instead, we have four women who are totally disconnected with the audience, not to mention artificial, clichéd and — worst of all — boring. We learn a bit about their former lives, but are refused any compelling relationships or back stories that sustain these women together. Think of the mother-daughter sparring with Dorothy and Sofia. Or the contrast of Frasier, Niles and their father, Martin on Frasier. Look at the dysfunction of Everybody Loves Raymond! The only bond in Cleveland is a desire to remain…well, desired. Three strangers on a plane have an emergency landing in Cleveland. They stay and move in with an elderly woman because they still feel ”attractive” in the not-so-superficial city.
Let’s say Bertinelli and Leeves’ characters were childhood friends. They become actresses and meet up with Malick in Hollywood. They fail in acting because they grow out of their roles and decide to go overseas together, only to end up in Cleveland. Or what if White was Bertinelli’s aunt? Or Malick’s mother? Anything really. Family relationships and back stories add more depth and dimension to the characters. Even if you bring in off-and-on characters (as the show does with the characters’ kids), it’s just not the same as relationships between the main cast itself. Cleveland dispenses with this.
It’s disappointing that a show with such star power and talent is riddled with such poor, ineffective writing. Indeed, it appears the only reason the show is surviving is the universal adoration of Betty White. But I think White also knows that Cleveland is a bust of a show. Compared to The Mary Tyler Moore Show and The Golden Girls, it lacks all the hallmarks of classic TV and comes off as nothing more than a contrived vehicle for the actors’ enjoyment. Pity. This could have been a great final project for White. Instead, it is a stark reminder of how much today’s sitcoms deviate from the quality, class and sheer fun of their predecessors.