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Television Review

Even White can’t heat up Cleveland

Betty White stars as a firecracker caretaker in a house shared by three middle-aged women. Betty White stars as a firecracker caretaker in a house shared by three middle-aged women. (Evans Ward/Picturegroup)
By Matthew Gilbert
Globe Staff / June 16, 2010

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There’s a scene in “Hot in Cleveland’’ where six people sit at a restaurant table making jokes. And they crowd together, filling half the table, so the cameras can give us all faces, no backs. It’s that brazenly theatrical positioning of actors toward the audience, with no pretense of trying to evoke realism. You wait for the scene to end with a flick-off of the lights so the actors can scatter off-stage and prepare for the next bit, like an old-fashioned stage revue.

TV Land’s “Hot in Cleveland,’’ which premieres tonight at 10, is a broad, Vaudeville-style sitcom where everything — story, characters, sets, sound engineering — is only there in service of the rat-a-tat of one-liners. The show doesn’t pretend to be anything but a vehicle for four TV actresses to snap punch lines like firecrackers in front of a live audience. Initially, I was surprised that a project with sitcom royals Wendie Malick, Valerie Bertinelli, Betty White, and Jane Leeves wound up on TV Land — until I saw the show. “Hot in Cleveland’’ is as retro as they come these days, fitting in easily alongside TV Land’s nostalgia lineup of “Home Improvement’’ and “The Cosby Show.’’

For me, “Hot’’ was hard to watch. The jokes were so relentlessly predictable, jumping from age joke to weight joke to middle-aged sex joke and back around again. I tried to rationalize the show as an attempt to bring back some “Golden Girls’’ glory and showcase actresses of a certain age, but the level of writing pales even further by comparison to that classic. Here’s one of the show’s typical exchanges: “It’s just so hard to find great roles for women in their late 30s,’’ says Malick’s unemployed soap opera diva. “Really?’’ replies Leeves’s makeup artist, “What’s it like at your age?’’ Ta-dumb.

Even White, who can kick even the most lazily written material up a notch, can’t save the day. She is the resident grumpy clown who mutters lines that make the other actresses smile as if to say, “Aww, she’s so cute. She’s Betty White!’’ Yes, watching Leeves (“Frasier’’), Malick (“Just Shoot Me’’), Bertinelli (“One Day at a Time’’), and White knock around insults and irony like a hockey puck has its pleasures; these ladies are experts when it comes to sitcom pacing, that sport of speed and aim. But alas, the puck is made of Styrofoam.

The plot is pretty feeble, too. Leeves’s Joy, Malick’s Victoria, and Bertinelli’s Melanie are best friends on a flight to Paris that’s forced to land in Cleveland. The ladies quickly learn that they’re considered hot outside of the body-dysmorphic environs of Los Angeles — “I haven’t felt like a piece of meat in so long,’’ says Joy — so they decide to stay in town. They move into a house whose caretaker, White, is a sassy old dame who survived the Holocaust and smokes pot. I’m not saying a sitcom premise needs to be fully fleshed out, but there’s something extra-dashed-off about this one, as if the writers just want those ladies in the same place at the same time and the rest is irrelevant.

I’m sure some viewers will enjoy “Hot in Cleveland,’’ specifically because it is so formulaic and shallow. They will embrace it as a pleasing throwback to a simpler time, when TV comedy was all about big performances and constant zingers. “Hot in Cleveland’’ doesn’t stand up to many sitcoms elsewhere in prime time, but it’s certainly hot on TV Land.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com. For more on TV, visit www.boston.com/ae/tv/blog.

HOT IN CLEVELAND Starring: Wendie Malick, Valerie Bertinelli, Betty White, Jane Leeves

On: TV Land

Time: Tonight, 10-10:30