Ever go back to watch the first episode of a sitcom, and discover that the characters there seem more like fully-rounded human characters rather than sitcom beasts, because the writers had not yet discovered the three tics apiece that they were going to build the characters around? Well, I’m hoping for the opposite to happen with Hot in Cleveland, TV Land’s entry into the original sitcom world. There are some things in the show that make me really want to like it, but the pilot (which can be viewed online here through July 10th) is so much about The Primary Tics That Define Our Characters that they have no room to be human, yet.
The concept behind the show is at least somewhat awkward; it’s about how three past-their-prime gals from LA accidentally find themselves in Cleveland, only to discover that they shine in the city’s lesser standard of beauty. This is, of course, insulting to both cities, to women, and to men, but we’ll let that go as a sitcom setup (I’d be shocked if this concept wasn’t originally sold as “the Sex And The City gals meet The Drew Carey Show“). But once you get past that, you have something workable – three women out of their element who find the difference advantageous. Things can be done here.
But what really makes me want to like this is the cast. Central is Valerie Bertinelli, and I’ll admit that my affection for her owes as much to her being a key early TV crush thirty-mumble years ago as it does to her comedic talents. She is cast as a writer. Wendie Malick (whose early appearances on Kate & Allie I’ve been watching lately – they weren’t using her as a funny person, which was necessary for her role but seems a shame based on her later achievements) is a diva from a recently-cancelled soap opera who lives within the fading echoes of her own fame… in other words, a character not that removed from the aging supermodel that made her the comedic standout on Just Shoot Me. Jane Leeves, who has pleased me since she played Blue on the syndicated sitcom Throb (from that interesting period when they were doing syndicated original sitcoms) is a salon owner… and in Cleveland, they meet up with the caretaker of their new house, played by Betty White (who my love for arises mostly from Sue Ann Niven on Mary Tyler Moore and from The Betty White Show; she did a fine job on Golden Girls, of course, but that show doesn’t have the place in my heart that it does for others.)
Actually, come to think of it, Golden Girls is an interesting show to mention here, as it was at heart about three women peers facing the same challenge (in that case, aging) from different perspective together, with one older truth-talker added in. Hot in Cleveland can be described similarly, only the challenge is the sudden relief from aging, or at least the judgment thereof; that is obviously a narrower and less universal topic, but angled right, there may be much comedy to explore. The pilot of the show isn’t up to it; it looks at times like a scratch pilot, like something where little money was risked on the production, that it was just something filmed to give executives enough information to decide whether to spend money on actual episodes. (Much of that effect comes from the camera work and editing; I’m not an expert TV maker who can tell you why the moment-to-moment cuts seemed awkward and jarring, but I’m enough of a TV watcher to tell you that they were.) And the actresses had not yet built any chemistry together, nor was there a sense of particular character relationships; the characters are defined by who they are, not yet by how they react to each other. So there is plenty of need for growth, but there is clear room for that growth; this is not a good sitcom yet, being very obvious, but it is not a sitcom that cannot be made good. There is reason for hope. And the joy of the summer doldrums is that there is no reason for me to abandon it immediately.
One note for the attentive: the director of the pilot was Michael Lembeck, who has quite a respectable history as a sitcom director and some record in features – the recent Tooth Fairy being his latest – but who TV viewers really got to know when he was playing Max, Valerie Bertinelli’s brother-in-law on One Day at a Time (a pleasant performance). I hope they liked working together again!
So I have some hope