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Saturday, September 25, 2010


I watched the first episode of "Family Guy", hated it, and never tuned in again.  So when I heard that creator Seth MacFarlane had spun off one of the characters from that show into his own series, "The Cleveland Show", I wasn't exactly thrilled.  But about halfway through the first disc of THE CLEVELAND SHOW: THE COMPLETE SEASON ONE, I had to admit that, despite its faults, I was actually enjoying it.

"The Cleveland Show" breezily mocks the familiar stereotypical sitcom style, complete with a saccharine opening theme song by Walter Murphy and funky bumper music.  Cleveland Brown (Mike Henry), a pudgy, Reginald Veljohnson-type black guy who is much nicer and less cynical than his former neighbor Peter Griffin, has returned to his hometown of Stoolbend, Virginia to marry his high-school sweetheart, Donna Tubbs (Sanaa Lathan), and settle into suburban life. 

Cleveland's rotund son, Cleveland Jr. (Kevin Michael Richardson), a sensitive, kindhearted nerd, joins Donna's much hipper kids Roberta (Reagan Gomez) and precocious tyke Rallo (Mike Henry again) to form an oddly-matched new family.  They live across the street from a redneck couple named Lester and Kendra Krinklesac.  Cleveland's other neighbors include Holt Richter, a lonely middle-aged bachelor who lives with his mom, and a couple of very large bears named Tim and Arianna.  Yes, bears.  MacFarlane himself plays Tim, while Arianna sports the unmistakable voice of Arianna Huffington.  And they're bears.

The show whisks us through a rapid-fire series of off-kilter takes on the usual sitcom cliches, plus some not-so-familiar ones such as the time Cleveland and his hunky cable-guy partner Terry stumble into a bachelorette party and are mistaken for male strippers.  The groaningly obvious puns of "Family Guy" continue here as Cleveland remarks "I guess there's no harm in showing a little helmet", whereupon he reaches into his underwear and pulls out--you guessed it--a tiny football helmet.  "Look, it's the Redskins!  Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!"  Groan!!!

In the same episode ("Brotherly Love"), Junior seeks romantic advice from preschool playa Rallo after he falls for a pretty classmate named Chanel.  Rallo, the show's "Stewie" equivalent but not nearly as obnoxious, takes one look at Chanel, goes ga-ga, and starts scheming to sabotage Junior's efforts to woo her.  But they're both thwarted when Chanel's boyfriend Kenny shows up and challenges Junior to a rap contest.  (Kenny is voiced by Kanye West, who, surprisingly, lets Junior finish.)  Meanwhile, Terry has graduated from stripper to male prostitute, with a delighted Cleveland getting to be his "pimp."  That's a plotline I don't think they ever went into on "The Cosby Show."

The Black History Month episode has some fun moments, with Cleveland getting into a race-fueled slugfest with his white trash neighbor Lester and ending up being charged with a "hate crime."   Later, Lester's morbidly obese wife Kendra falls off a stool in her kitchen and lands butt-first on Rallo.  Trapped beneath half a ton of bloated flesh, the diminutive Rallo must find a way out of this death-trap before he's crushed.  When Donna gets wind of the situation she hijacks a "Brotherhood" parade float that Cleveland and Ernie were court-ordered to build together, screeching her way through the other floats in a nicely-animated action sequence. 

The show boasts a heavily-populated supporting cast, ensuring a wealth of storylines, and several characters are voiced by well-known names.  David Lynch appears as Gus, the bartender at the bar where Cleveland and the gang hang out.  Jamie Kennedy is Roberta's white rapper boyfriend Federline, and Jason Alexander appears as his father.  Other guest voices include Bruce McGill, Stacy Ferguson, Bebe Neuwirth, Seth Green, Stockard Channing, Jennifer Tilly, and Hall and Oates as Cleveland's good and evil angels. 

Unlike similar cartoons of years past, the limited animation style of "The Cleveland Show" is augmented by computer effects that give the movements of characters, automobiles, etc. much more of a "full animation" feel.  Vivid colors and beautifully-rendered backgrounds richly enhance the visuals in each episode, giving the show a strong aesthetic appeal.  Occasional musical interludes include the lavish and soulful "Balls Deep" (not what you think) in which a lovesick Junior is joined in song by NBA star Scottie Pippin.

While "The Cleveland Show" manages to radiate some of the same warmth as the standard family sitcom and its characters become more endearing over time, the show is still bursting with the same caustic frat humor of its predecessor.  Each line is a potential set-up for the next visual aside, which may consist of anything from an aging Clint Eastwood flushing his own balls down the toilet to the ghost of Bea Arthur screaming "God'll get you for that, Rallo!" from beyond the grave. 

These rapid-fire throwaway gags are so plentiful that the belly-laugh bullseyes make up for the frequent groaners.  Blacks, whites, Asians, gays, Jews, Eskimos--everyone is fair game.  The writers don't pull any punches, offering up merciless visual puns regarding Nicole Kidman and Meg Ryan's plastic surgeries or tossing off lines like this:

"Hey, you want another cold one?"
"Does Amy Winehouse pick at her skin a lot?"

The death of Cleveland's ex-wife Loretta is presented in rather graphic terms with guest star Peter Griffin delivering the tasteless coup de grâce:  "Hey, look at her gross boobs!" (The unused alternate line is even worse.)  I won't even hint at what happens to her after Peter's friend Quagmire is charged with delivering the body to Stoolbend for the funeral. 

But perhaps the most over-the-top aspect of the show is its staunch dedication to gross-out humor.  Whether or not you like "The Cleveland Show" will depend a lot on your tolerance for some of the most extreme fart, vomit, and toilet jokes ever seen on television.  A prime example of this is the Thanksgiving episode, in which the Browns host Cleveland's parents along with Donna's weird and extremely flatulent Aunt Momma, who isn't quite what she seems.  The aftermath of an impromptu sexual tryst between Aunt Momma and Cleveland's macho father, Freight Train, involves literally gallons of vomit being retched like there's no tomorrow.

The four-disc set from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment, containing all 21 first-season episodes, is widescreen with English 5.1 Dolby Digital sound.  Subtitles are in English, Spanish, and French.  Several episodes feature cast and crew commentaries, deleted and alternate scenes, and both censored-for-TV and uncensored versions (the latter retaining the unbleeped profanity).  "Meet Cleveland" is an entertaining featurette.  Earth, Wind, and Fire appear in a Christmas video for the song "Get Your Hump On", which is followed by a "making of" short.  Of particular interest is a table-read for the entire "Brotherly Love" episode.    

Even with its endlessly puerile "let's see what we can get away with on TV" humor, "The Cleveland Show" still manages to connect on an emotional level (albeit a superficial one) from time to time, making it considerably less disposable than it might have been.  Cleveland himself is a basically decent, likable lug who may remind you of a black Homer Simpson, and his family, aside from the underdeveloped Roberta character, is a fun bunch.  But the main goal of THE CLEVELAND SHOW: THE COMPLETE SEASON ONE, aside from being genuinely funny at times, is to be as outrageously offensive and tasteless as it can possibly be.  As such, I found it similar to an inflamed zit--it sorta grows on you.

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