“The Cleveland Show” won’t be winning over the Parents Television Council anytime soon, nod to diversity notwithstanding. Creator Seth MacFarlane’s latest attempt to take over the world, or at least the Sunday FOX animation lineup, is just as raunchy and irreverent as the show it spun off from, “Family Guy.”
“Cleveland” isn’t quite a black version of “Family Guy,” but it does have more similarities to it than MacFarlane’s other animated project, “American Dad.”
The biggest difference of course is that the show focuses on a black family. This is never ignored, but fortunately race isn’t the central issue in the show. As much flack as MacFarlane receives for his controversial content, racial issues have always been treated — with directness or tongue-in-cheek irony — as something to be mocked, not celebrated.
This is not to say that all the black characters are depicted as fine, upstanding citizens. MacFarlane doesn’t do preachy. “Cleveland” is an equal opportunity world of reprehensibly flawed people, protagonists included; they’re just not flawed in any stereotypically racial way.
“Cleveland” centers on Cleveland Brown (voiced by Mike Henry), who intends to move to California after his divorce with his now 14-year-old son Cleveland Jr. (Kevin Michael Richardson), but gets sidetracked in his hometown of Stoolbend, Virginia. Stoolbend is fictional, but no doubt is named such to let your mind run wild with the possible scatological double entendres. Cleveland hooks up with his high school crush Donna (Sanaa Lathan) and somehow marries her, joining his family with hers: She has a teenage daughter Roberta (Reagan Gomez-Preston) and 5-year-old son Rallo (Henry again).
Trademarks of all MacFarlane animated shows are present in “Cleveland.” Let’s take ’em one by one.
1. Offensiveness – All moral issues are addressed in the most inappropriate, sick and wrong ways. Even though “Cleveland” doesn’t have “Family Guy’s” creepy old man pedophile, there are plenty of instances of seat-shifting, uncomfortable sexual moments. Of all the perverted characters, it seems like Rallo is the one whose hormones are working overtime.
2. Randomness/whimsy – Non sequiturs and fantasy sequences intrude constantly, but in the tradition of “Family Guy’s” Brian, “Cleveland” also features a talking animal with no explanation about how he achieved the gift of gab. MacFarlane does his usual fantastic job of voicing the neighbor Tim, who just happens to be a heavily accented bear. His wife Arianna, is voiced by Arianna Huffington herself. It’s a fun little role, but a little unnerving to hear that voice coming out of an animated bear discussing domestic issues.
3. Musical elements – MacFarlane loves his musical interludes, and viewers will find plenty, usually with an ’80s twist. The theme song is also fiendishly catchy upon repeat viewing.
4. Colorful characters – Well, you did read about the bears, right? On top of that, neighbors include a wannabe hipster (Jason Sudeikis) who still does the “blow up” fist bump, overuses Twitter and talks about getting is “grub on”; extreme red neck neighbors and supposedly a Victorian family.
“Cleveland,” like its predecessor, is uneven. The jokes fly fast and furious but only some of them hit, and some episodes are total misses. Plain and simple: If you like “Family Guy,” then give “Cleveland” a chance. It’s more likable than “American Dad” since Cleveland is a warm and fuzzy sort of guy you can identify with, and we expect the show to find its groove soon.
The biggest problem I can foresee, having watched three screener episodes in a row, is that having three MacFarlane shows back to back on Sunday can create a similar MacFarlane fatigue. One can become desensitized to that particular brand of humor quickly, and it would be better if there was a buffer show with a different sensibility to offer variety.
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