Traditionally, television comedy chronicles the woes of being a shlubby, mediocre American male, who is really a well meaning teddy bear underneath, but it is also a defense of obnoxious people. Perhaps this is a reflection of the shows creators or their understanding of the real America. Regardless of what propels the writers to recycle this dynamic, their (and the actors) task is to encourage viewers to empathize with these curmudgeons, make these prickly pears appear lovable, or, at least, watchable, as determined by TV studio executives.
The list of sitcoms featuring black or white cantankerous males is endless, be it: The Honeymooners, All in The Family, Sanford & Son, Fawlty Towers, The Jeffersons, Mr. Belvedere, Curb Your Enthusiasm, Frasier, The Simpsons, Mad About You, Married with Children, Scrubs, South Park, Family Guy, Entourage, My Name is Earl, House of Payne, Bored to Death, and The Office.
While fewer in number, female driven half-hour comedies tend to follow a similar formula, although grouchy women must fit in two girl-next-door sizes, bovine or extra small. Rhoda, Mama's Family, One Day at a Time, Gimme a Break, Designing Women, Murphy Brown, The Nanny, 227, Roseanne, Golden Girls, Absolutely Fabulous, Weeds, and Parks and Recreation sought (and seek) to defy the one dimensional characterizations of women as either maternal, self-flagellating, nuns or sex-craved lunatics. As you've seen, certain characters successfully bucked the trend and others became another spoke in the tried and true wheel.
There are comedies with equally indefensible male and female characters, colorful ensemble casts, including Three's Company, Frasier, What's Happening, Just Shoot Me, Will and Grace, Seinfeld (although with only one female), Little Britain, Arrested Development, Hung, and The Cleveland Show.
And, finally, there are comedies where the children are as complex as the adults, acting as apples that don't fall from the tree and provide space for B and C story lines instead of mere anecdotes. What The Cleveland Show does best is that its kids are, as The Who sang, "alright." Last night's episode of The Cleveland Show was so exception.
This time, the insipid baby bully, Rallo, and popular, alpha teen, Regina, are mystified why Cleveland Jr. dutifully helps their mother Roberta with household chores. But they soon realize he's not merely responsible and good-natured, he is a sycophant. Cleveland Jr. fastidiously make his bed, ensuring the blanket doesn't "divorce" his sheets and boast that he has never cried over his parents divorce. Feeling compassionate, Rallo and Regina intervene.
The pop-psychology de rigueur depiction of familial dysfunction where members act as arm chair psychologists and solve each others' problems is America's cheapest form of mental health care (and will sadly remain so even if health care reform passes). Cleveland Jr. is not rebelling and therefore he isn't doing well. The step-siblings set out to force him to feel his pain. He must cry by any means necessary, even if the pain isn't about his folks per se. (If they are going to set him free, i.e. to feel as miserable as they do, they must gain some sadistic pleasure from it.)
Staged contrived intimacy, typically in the form of a Youtube web video or low-budget reality show, is the only way American teens know how to show they care! Luckily for us, they don't lock him in the bathroom for days on end and film it. Instead, the duo stage "The Cleveland Jr. Roast," and call in Don Rickels to perform his services. (One wonder if their audience know his version preceded the Comedy Central glossy toasts.)
Rallo refers to Cleveland Jr. as a, "A Man So Huge His Butt Has It's Own Zip Code." Cleveland Jr. feels terrible that he is so overweight, he requires his own "municipality." After enough taunts from Rallo, Regina, and Rickels, his whimpering turns to tears. They then hug it out, well, everyone except Don Rickels. A commercial break appears to be the only way to stop his zinging. Oh, adult-children! Cleveland Jr.'s own parents are no more mature.
Too enmeshed in their own woes, the parents don't know how to prevent Cleveland Jr. from stuffing down his feelings. While the siblings step in, Cleveland finds his footing on the work front. Cleveland hasn't found a job, a timely issue, except that there is no mention of the present day economic woes as an impetus. His new friend Tim quickly hooks Cleveland up with a job as an entree level telemarketer. His boss-to-be spews overplayed fears about hiring a black man. (Institutional racism remains a serious issue, and one worthy of skewering, but, like with sexism, it is typically subtler and more intrenched than Hollywood makes it out to be.) Cleveland "overcomes" and makes exceptional sales and the boss apologizes for "stereotyping people."
Cleveland happily takes his Employee of the Month $200.00 reward bonus and decides, as Cleveland says, to "waste" it, as if we're in still in the nineties... In contrast to the astronomical bonuses bankers receive, most recently Goldman Sachs employees, his paltry two hundred dollars seem reasonable if not inconsequential. The only person, err, mammal to appear upset is Tim, as the bear can't seem to make a sale.
Success gets to Cleveland's head. He, along with his bar mates, mock Tim, with awful, ironic jokes about how his bear genitalia is anything but bigger than the average bear. Cleveland then starts to self-sabotage after a just a week of success and plays hooky. He hits bottom when he gets into a car with Terry, his high school buddy, even though he points out that Terry is too drunk to drive safely. A car accident with a non-moving object ensues. Cleveland takes the rap, which somehow turns Roberta on sexually.
His wife may have bailed him out, but he is forced to leave his job. Luckily, he realizes his racist boss is a closeted homosexual and has a thing for Terry, and is able to outmaneuver the boss, offering made-up titillating stories about Terry in exchange for a job, this time though away from his desk. Cleveland succeeds, even getting Tim a raise. The established conflicts are solved, even if the plausibility of much of the storylines goes unanswered.
Will the racial jokes feel less recycled? Like when Terry takes the wrap for he and Cleveland smoking pot, he does so to help Cleveland's bright future stay that way. Except his joking about how Cleveland might one day become a black president? Mocking past generations dismissal of such possibility has been done repeatedly, including on The Cleveland Show.
Since this is a comedy starring blacks as depicted by whites, it faces greater scrutiny than comedies, the majority of which are uncomfortable and clumsy in rendering prejudice. They see it through the lens of white people and not the minorities or otherwise oppressed.
To its credit, The Cleveland Show doesn't fall as often into the same traps as those programs intending to be sensitive about race and culture as Jody Rosen points out in Slate. Rallo challenges Cleveland's knowledge of Herbie Hancock, a musician closer to Cleveland's age is certainly a common source of one-upmanship between parents and children, peers, and colleagues, regardless of race. And the show will feature more hip celebrities, like Kanye West, to balance out the old school ones, like Mr. Hancock.
The show's pop-culture references outweigh the political ones in terms of frequency, timeliness, and complexity, which is typical for Seth McFarlane vehicles. Having reviewed four episodes, I think I've offered as much as a picture of the themes and characters as is needed. The characters will continue to develop, some episodes will be better than others, as I've noted and as is the case with any series. It remains to be seen whether the funny jokes can out outweigh the duds. And as long as The Cleveland Show remains art mocking life, our country is fine, but if life ends up imitating it, we're doomed.
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