For ‘Family’ fans, ‘Cleveland’ rocks
How much you’ll like “The Cleveland Show’’ depends entirely on how much you like “Family Guy.’’
That show - a show business empire by now - is the home of rat-a-tat humor, ribald talking kids, rampant sex jokes and pop culture references, and general absurdism. It’s been mocked by rival cartoon “South Park’’ on the (accurate) grounds that the jokes are often wholly disconnected from the stories. But it’s successful enough to merit a spinoff of one of its unlikeliest characters: the token black guy, a pudgy underdog named Cleveland Brown.
Tomorrow night’s premiere, at 8:30 on Channel 25, starts off with the original “Family Guy’’ crowd in the Rhode Island town of Quahog. Cleveland, a drinking buddy of “Family Guy’’ protagonist Peter Griffin, announces he’s getting a divorce, then drives off toward a new adventure with his son, Cleveland Jr. His intended destination is California, but he stops off in his hometown of Stoolbend, Va., for nostalgia’s sake, and runs into his unrequited high school love. Over the course of the episode, he wins her heart, becomes a father figure to her two kids, and introduces us to the concept of the show: “The Brady Bunch’’ gone Southern, animated, and wild.
More than perhaps any other current show on TV, “The Cleveland Show’’ is enormously self-aware, down to its very existence - “He’s getting his own show?’’ Peter’s son Stewie cries out, as Cleveland and his son drive out of Quahog - and the repeated jokes about white people making a show that they hope black people will like.
And the parallels to “Family Guy’’ are many, owing to the likelihood of crossover fans and also, perhaps, to the fact that there’s no need to be especially creative when you’re sponging off another show’s success. Peter and his friends from Quahog gather at a bar called The Drunken Clam; Cleveland and his new friends get together at The Broken Stool. Peter has a talking dog named Brian; one of Cleveland’s new buddies is Tim, a bear with a Russian accent, who’s voiced by “Family Guy’’ impresario Seth MacFarlane. (Arianna Huffington voices Tim’s wife, also a bear.)
And, as on “Family Guy,’’ the characters speak in a running meta-commentary. “Aaaah! A bear!’’ Cleveland says when he first meets Tim. “Aaaah! A black man!’’ Tim responds. “It doesn’t feel so good, does it? It’s very reductive.’’
Yes, it’s that same brand of brutally clever humor, yet there’s an undercurrent of sweetness to “The Cleveland Show’’ that “Family Guy’’ lacks. Cleveland, voiced by longtime “Family Guy’’ producer Mike Henry, is less a dolt than a classic underdog, and the notion that he’s finally getting his due is a tiny bit uplifting.
But as fans of “Family Guy’’ know well, these shows aren’t really about imparting life lessons or exploring the parent-child relationship. They’re about making jokes at the expense of the characters and celebrities (tomorrow’s targets: Kathleen Turner and Kevin Federline) and demonstrating both a knowledge of pop culture and a willingness to go for the jugular. For a certain segment of the audience - men, boys, evil babies, talking bears - it’s likely to go over quite well.