June 17, 2010

TV: Hot in Cleveland (TV Land, Wed 10)

After years of surviving on sitcom reruns, TV Land dives into the original sitcom world with Hot in Cleveland, and for a first effort, it's not horrible.

The first episode is devoted to setting up the premise. Three friends from Los Angeles are on a flight to Paris. Melanie (Valerie Bertinelli) is still recovering from a recent divorce; Victoria (Wendie Malick) is a soap opera diva whose show has just been cancelled; and Joy (Jane Leeves) is a makeup artist who's started losing her celebrity clients. They're all feeling old and unattractive, and angry at being replaced by younger, prettier women.

The plane makes an emergency landing in Cleveland, and since they're stuck there overnight, the ladies head out to a local bar. Much to their amazement, they find that the local men (unlike the shallow Angelenos they're used to) are dazzled by their beauty, and that midwestern culture is not obsessed with youth and skinniness. ("Everyone eats," says an astonished Victoria, "and no one feels shame.") Delighted to be objects of lust again, the women decide to stay in Cleveland for good, renting a large house that comes with its own caretaker (Betty White).

The show's great weakness is its writing. The jokes are a bit corny and very predictable, and at a moment when the sitcom is seeing a variety of innovative new formats, the setup-punchline-setup-punchline flow of this one feels rather dated.

But these four actresses are old pros at this -- Betty White, for heaven's sake, has been making sitcoms for as long as there have been sitcoms -- and they find every laugh that can be found in the script, through the power of consummate craft, immaculate timing, and sheer force of will. They make the material seem better than it is. Bertinelli, though charming and immensely likable, is the weakest link in the cast, in part because of how her character is written; the perky ingenue shtick that worked well for her at 20 doesn't hold up well at 50. And White's character is the least well conceived; she was a late addition to the cast, and you sense that the writers haven't had time yet to rethink the character to play to her strengths. (Not that "running from the Nazis" jokes would work that much better with a different actress, but still...)

Given the familiarity of the faces, and the very old-fashioned style of the show, Hot in Cleveland feels right at home on TV Land. It's almost as if the network has commissioned a set of brand-new original reruns to go along with their classic reruns. The writing will have to improve if the show's going to survive in the long term, but the actresses are delightful to watch, and they're enough to keep me with the show for a few more weeks to see if the writing rises to their level.

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