“Everybody Loves Raymond” creator Phil Rosenthal liked to say that “I’m doing this show for CBS, but in the back of my mind, it’s for Nick at Nite.” In other words, while he wanted “Raymond” to be a success in its original run, what he really cared about was creating a comedy that would have an enduring legacy.
Nick at Nite’s sister channel, TV Land, currently packs its schedule with “Raymond” repeats, and tomorrow night at 10 introduces its first original sitcom: “Hot in Cleveland,” starring Valerie Bertinelli, Jane Leeves and Wendie Malick as three LA pals who accidentally land in Cleveland and decide to stick around a while, in a home with a wacky caretaker played by the great Betty White.
TV Land is, in effect, trying to cut out the middle man, creating their own classic-style sitcoms rather than buying someone else’s repeats. Every cable channel goes down this road sooner or later (cue the laments about how MTV no longer plays music videos), and given how few traditional three-camera sitcoms are produced anymore – and, therefore, how many veteran sitcom actors, writers, directors, etc. are looking for work – it’s a bit surprising it took TV Land this long to try.
“Hot in Cleveland” is pleasant enough, but it apes the classics far more in its style than its substance. It looks and sounds like the kind of show from the ’80s or ’90s that eventually wound up on Nick at Nite, but had it actually aired on, say, NBC in 1992, it’s doubtful anyone would have remembered it fondly enough to want it preserved in perpetual cable rerun-hood.
Bertinelli plays Melanie, divorced author of a self-help book about 200 things all women should do before they die. Among those things is taking a trip to Paris with your friends, so she invites unemployed soap opera diva Victoria (Malick) and “eyebrow queen of Beverly Hills” Joy (Leeves) on the trip. Mechanical problems with the plane force an unexpected stop in Cleveland, where the three middle-aged Angelenos are stunned to discover they’re considered desirable.
“I feel young and hot,” Joy exclaims when they enter a bar full of men staring at them. “Like they’re undressing me with their eyes and I’m not in Spanx!”
There are a lot of jokes in that vein – Joy and Victoria are dazzled when Melanie’s new beau Hank (John Schneider) turns out to be a plumber, because they never knew any men in LA who could fix things – though none are nearly as sharp as the gags from the “30 Rock” episode where Jack has to talk Liz out of her plan to “flee to the Cleve” where she would have a boyfriend and be treated like a model.
Bertinelli, Leeves and Malick are all likable pros who know how to milk a punchline or sight gag for all it’s worth. Malick embraces her character’s two-dimensionality, and Leeves has a funny bit of physical comedy where Joy wakes up hung over and discovers that her pores contain reminders of a a night of beer and greasy bar snacks.
“Hot in Cleveland” really only comes to life, though, when Betty White is on stage as Elka Ostrovsky. She has no reason for being there other than that she’s Betty White, but in this, The Year of Betty White, that’s more than enough. She greets her new co-stars by asking the realtor, “Why are you renting to prostitutes?” and when Joy suggests that she can smell marijuana, Elka barks out, “What are you, a cop?” Joy says, “No,” and White’s eyes narrow as she asks, “Then what’s it to you?”
White, like the others, is transcending mediocre material thanks to well-honed talent and good vibes from past roles, as the studio audience (or their canned laughter equivalent) goes nuts over lines of hers that barely even qualify as jokes.
Again, shows like this aren’t made much anymore, unless you count sitcoms-for-tweens on Disney Channel and Nickelodeon. So there may be enough nostalgia from fans of the style – and these four actresses who starred in better examples of it back in the day – to give “Hot in Cleveland” an audience for a while. But if the writing doesn’t get crisper in a hurry, eventually its viewers will just be inspired to seek out repeats of “Golden Girls” and “Frasier” on channels other than TV Land and Nick at Nite.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org