the scarcity of color in primetime-and on TV, period-The Cleveland Show has a lot of showing and proving to do. While this spin-off of Seth
McFarlane's popular series Family Guy has the advantage of an already loyal fan base, earning respect will be
an uphill battle, judging from last night's season opener.
Family Guy enthusiasts know Cleveland Brown as the lighthearted
neighbor to the Griffin family; the token Black dude with a Southern slur that
produces the word "turrible." The spin-off's premise: After losing his home in
a divorce, Cleveland leaves the town of Quahog with his pudgy 14-year-old son
Cleveland Jr. and ends up reuniting with high school crush Donna (Sanaa
Lathan). She has an Afro'd five-year-old son and a teenage daughter and proclaims
strangely that "these kids need a man in their lives and I need a man."
Fittingly, she and Cleveland get hitched.
Mike Henry, who is White, voices the
character of Cleveland. Although he plays a Black man convincingly, it's unfortunate
that a real-life African-American actor couldn't land that speaking role. The
covert blackface doesn't impede the show's racial humor, but it does perhaps
make the jokes more cliché than Tyler Perry gags: A smack-talking son, a
white neighbor attempting slang ("Sup dog?"), an obligatory Black president
Not surprisingly, the funniest portions
of the premiere were the Family Guy-derivative
elements: Absurd flashbacks (R. Kelly posing as a toilet), and baby Stewie, who
after bidding farewell to the "chocolate people" gets up in arms about the
spin-off ("What the hell?! He's
getting his own show?"). Otherwise, Cleveland is more leisurely than its parent series. When
raunchiness is present, it'll rarely be on behalf of its leading man, who has a
more down-home anti-angry Black man quality about him. The most infuriated he
gets in episode one is when he speaks through clenched teeth to Donna's
daughter's love interest Federline Jones.
Such diluted comedy has led to early
reviews of Cleveland being either
lukewarm or disapproving. L.A. Times wrote: "For those who love and admire 'Family Guy,' 'The Cleveland Show'
offers another version, slightly watered down and...much less smart... 'The
Cleveland Show' is neither sweet nor particularly funny, neither a family
comedy nor a true satire." Variety wrote:
"For those who buy into the MacFarlane formula... this is all riotous fun. For
the rest of us, it's a bit like Dane Cook's stand-up act-a reminder that what
tickles current teens and twentysomethings is often markedly different from the
satirical material that amused their parents."
Since the series has already been
renewed for a second season, Fox must have hope that it'll grow on viewers. But
getting a cartoon off the ground can be challenging even without the added
difficulty of a starring minority household. Cleveland isn't the first Black cartoon to nab a primetime
slot; remember Fox's Eddie Murphy-backed stop animation series, The PJs? Created in 1999, the claymation earned consistently
impressive ratings and nabbed three Emmys, but faced backlash for it's
depiction of Black life. Spike Lee called it "hateful towards Black people."
Even some mainstream cartoons get a bad
rap out the gate. See The Simpsons,
particularly the character of Bart, who was considered to some a negative
influence on kids. Meanwhile, Family Guy was initially disregarded as a cheap Simpsons knock-off.
Other times, logistics inhibit an
otherwise popular cartoon. Debuting in 2001, the WB's animated series The
Oblongs had trouble finding footing,
only airing two episodes before being cancelled. It soon made a comeback when
Canadian network Teletoon picked it up, followed by Cartoon Network. And
despite its debut pulling in 19 million viewers on Fox, sci-fi cartoon Futurama suffered from a wavering time slot. After being
cancelled in 2003, the show has also been rejuvenated via Cartoon Network.
Even with rocky starts, good cartoons
prevail. The fate of Cleveland Show
seems promising, as the New York Daily News put it: "If 'The Cleveland Show' isn't quite as
sharp-tongued or focused yet as 'Family Guy,' it's got the eccentricity to fit
into broadcast television's most off-center evening."
Viewers-especially fans of MacFarlane's Family
Guy and American Dad-will likely stay tuned to watch how the series grows
out of its stepchild role. It's either that, or House of Payne. Choose wisely. -Clover Hope
Watch the pilot episode of The Cleveland Show below: