Review: The Cleveland Show

Animation Saturation: Seth McFarlane's latest animated sitcom, "The Cleveland Show," falls flat.

The Cleveland Show, a new spin-off of the wildly popular Family Guy, doesn’t stray far from the formula that has made co-creator Seth MacFarlane the highest paid writer/producer in television history. Interchangeable cutaway gags, non-sequiturs, and pop-culture references run amuck. Jokes are played out for funny-then-stupid-then-somehow-funny-again effect. And talking animals are more sophisticated than the people around them (in this case a Germanic bear couple voiced by MacFarlane and, for some reason, Arianna Huffington). Like Family Guy and American Dad, Cleveland is comedy measured in jokes per minute, with all the subtlety of a projectile vomit to the face (seriously, one gag features the two main characters vomiting in each other’s faces).

The show picks up with our mild-mannered African American protagonist Cleveland Brown (voiced by co-creator and producer Mike Henry), divorcing his wife and leaving Quahog, and the rest of the Family Guy universe, behind. His obese son Cleveland Jr. (Kevin Michael Richardson) tags along, and the two wind up in Cleveland’s hometown of Stoolbend, Virginia. There, Cleveland marries his high school sweetheart, Donna (Sanaa Lathan), and moves in with her and her two kids: Loretta (Reagan Gomez-Presten), a boy-crazed teenager, and Rallo (also Mike Henry), a hypersexual fast-talking five-year-old.

Face-vomiting aside, Cleveland aims for a gentler tone than its aforementioned predecessors, particularly Family Guy. In one interview, co-creator and showrunner Rich Appel noted that Cleveland would be a more character-driven show than Family Guy. He contrasted the shows' protagonists by noting, “Cleveland will not punch his wife or fart in his daughter’s face.” It’s a nice sentiment, really. And Cleveland and company are, without a doubt, more endearing than the Griffins. Cleveland is a classic sitcom protagonist- his heart is almost in the right place, he just stumbles along the way. But the show’s comedy relies too heavily on random non-sequiturs and gross-outs to be character driven. Mike Judge’s King of the Hill, which was cancelled in part to make room for Cleveland, was able to craft sympathetic characters and believable relationships because it was a slow burner. The show’s comedy was a natural byproduct of its characters. Cleveland is too concerned with matching Family Guy in belly laughs to let its characters breathe. 

If you’re looking for a socially conscious send-up of African American culture and race relations, look elsewhere (or, in particular, to Aaron McGruder’s underappreciated TV adaptation of The Boondocks). Clevelands producers seem to be all too aware of the limitations they face with a show about a black family created by white guys. Granted, you can’t fault MacFarlane and company for handling race issues carefully- nor can you fault them for, well, being white. And they deserve some credit for bringing a black cartoon family to primetime (the first since Eddie Murphy’s The PJs left Fox in 2000).  But Cleveland just doesn’t make for good comedy. There is no sharp or edgy racial satire. Instead, we get flashback jokes about Jheri curls and references to ‘80s sitcoms. 

Even if you like MacFarlane’s style writing for what it is – scattershot comedy where plot and character development are secondary – there’s still little reason to watch Cleveland. The pop-culture references to Kevin Federline and Dolly Parton’s breast size (really?) are stale. The show has only been on the air for a few weeks and it’s already aging like hollandaise sauce. Family Guy is edgier, American Dad is smarter, and if after an hour of “hey, remember that one time” jokes you still aren’t satisfied, MacFarlane’s YouTube channel, Cavalcade of Cartoon Comedy, streams twenty-four hours a day. Cleveland fails to fill the character-comedy void left by King of the Hill, and instead ends up coming across like a watered-down version of Family Guy. And it’s too bad, because Cleveland seems like the kind of guy you’d like to root for.

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