Given 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 remark.
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: