Hot in Cleveland shouldn’t have been tucked away at 10 p.m. to make its premiere: This playfully naughty throwback starring Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves, Wendie Malick, and Betty White is the kind of thing a network would program at 8 p.m. nowadays. That is, if networks had any use for women stars over the age of 40. Which was the point of this show, debuting on the home of fond dreams, cable’s TV Land, after a slew of Everybody Loves Raymond reruns.
If you bought the premise -- three Los Angeles gals stranded in Cleveland find that they
like the place, because they can eat junk food without guilt and there's not a working-class lug in sight who knows the meaning of "manscaping" -- then you bought this show.
The jokes were wan, but the performances were plucky. If Bertinelli seemed stifled as the show's good-girl, Malick made the most of her florid aging soap-star persona, and Leeves left Frasier's Daphne behind as a man-hungry woman who yelped yearningly, "I haven't felt like a piece of meat in so long!"
Cleveland's chief weapon was Betty White as the caretaker of the house Bertinelli ends up leasing. From her instant characterization of the others as "prostitutes" to the not-immortal punchline, "Escaping from the Nazis was the least of my problems," White wrung her laughs from her timing and intonation.
The half-hour put so little pressure on the attention-span that one had time to ponder various items flitting across the screen:
• The raucous laughter from unseen mouths; the house set that looked like an unfurnished version of the Bea Arthur Maude home, or Bertinelli’s One Day At A Time apartment – it was all like a
tutorial in how they used to build ’70s/’80s sitcoms.
• Do you think Leeves put it into her contract that she gets to show a lot of her legs in every episode? Because there was some strenuous gam-promotion going on there…
• The unheralded presence of John Schneider as Bertinelli’s flirt-interest was so unheralded that it took me a minute to register that this wasn’t a Schneider impersonator, but was indeed the charming fellow himself.
My guess is that Hot in Cleveland will do pretty well for TV Land’s ratings while it’s still a novelty. But I also think the network has miscalculated its target audience. The current Betty White groundswell was built by 20-somethings who think it’s cool to love one senior citizen in show-biz and refer to her as “legendary.” This is not the case among the 40-something TV Land demo, which had little to do with the Facebook phenomenon that got White her SNL gig. To TV Land’s core audience, White is the clever woman who was married to Allen Ludden, brightened Password, starred in TV Land classics such as The Mary Tyler Moore Show and Golden Girls, and is now getting the sort of renewed career boost many 40- and 50-somethings wish they were getting in their own careers. Furthermore, TV Land viewers probably feel as much fondness for Valerie Bertinelli or Jane Leeds as they do for White, since One Day At A Time and Frasier are as familiar and comforting to them as White’s shows.
In short, it would be a mistake to beef up White’s role simply because she’s currently on a roll. (She originally signed on for a only a limited number of episodes, but clearly the network and producers want her onscreen as much as possible.) The TV Land generation will latch onto this series more firmly only to the extent that Hot in Cleveland builds its own unique ensemble of lovably irascible characters, with White an integral part of the ensemble.
So, you tried Cleveland once. Will you be returning for a second week?