TV Land keeps churning out these fake retro sitcoms looking for an ideal companion to “Hot in Cleveland.” But these shows really seem to have been designed to make “Hot in Cleveland” look brilliant in comparison.
Back in January, TV Land paired the second “Cleveland” season with “Retired at 35,” a painfully unfunny series that got renewed because, hey, George Segal and Jessica Walter need something to do, right?
Tonight at 10, “Cleveland” returns with its second batch of season two episodes, this time followed by Fran Drescher and John Michael Higgins as a couple who get “Happily Divorced” after he comes out of the closet.
All three comedies are filmed in the old-fashioned multi-camera format (shot on a stage with a studio audience and/or canned laughter accompanying the jokes), and feature actors who were popular back in the days when it was the dominant sitcom style. But “Retired at 35” and now “Happily Divorced” are mainly reminders of why that style fell out of fashion.
Admittedly, Drescher wasn’t my cup of tea even when “The Nanny” was ascendant, but boy howdy is “Happily Divorced” loud and grating. You know you’re in trouble when the first laughtrack outburst comes not from anything that was intended as a joke, but simply from a shot of Higgins waking up abruptly. And from there, it seems to be a competition between Drescher and the laughtrack to see who can be louder in delivering and/or responding to jokes that aren’t so hot in the first place. After a while, Drescher just starts screaming every punchline (she tells Higgins “You’ve never been with a man. Trust me: it’s not that great!”) to the point where she’s actually hoarse for most of the pilot’s second half.
Though the series is based on the friendship Drescher developed with her real-life husband after he realized he was gay, there’s not a second of the debut episode that feels like it has any connection to actual human behavior. When Drescher’s mom (Rita Moreno, picking up a paycheck) learns why the couple is splitting, she shrugs and says, “Don’t throw away a good marriage over nothing.”
The one part of the show that filled me with any genuine longing for the good ol’ sitcom days is the opening title sequence, which is very much in the style of “The Nanny” credits, with animated figures moving around and a catchy theme song with lyrics like “She got married anyway / Turns out he was gay.”
“Hot in Cleveland” somehow went without a full theme song, but in every other way is so much better than either of its companion shows that it’s like the cliche about the woman who surrounds herself with uglier friends so she’ll look more attractive next to them. It’s not genuinely good on its own, but it sure seems that way when it’s joined at the hip to “Happily Divorced.”
The stories aren’t particularly connected to reality, either – tonight’s return, for instance, has the four women randomly winding up in Ohio’s Amish country, including a long stretch where Valerie Bertinelli is dressed as a bearded Amish man – yet the way the gags are set up, and the delivery by Bertinelli, Wendie Malick, Jane Leeves and Betty White, make it all go down easily. It’s cheesey, but at least it’s a reminder of why the multi-camera sitcom roamed the earth so long and so well.
(There’s even a not-so-subtle homage to one of the greats of the genre when the ladies wind up in an Amish bar whose most popular regular patron is played by George Wendt.)
When the characters on “Happily Divorced” deliver their dumb punchlines, they seem like members of some alien species who learned everything they know about humanity by watching reruns of “Growing Pains.” When Malick gets put to work churning butter and raves, “Wow! This is better than the Shake Weight,” it’s a corny joke, yet Malick sells it as something with just enough of a toehold in reality that it’s at least worth a chuckle.
All of this is imitation nostalgia – TV Land’s attempt to make more money by producing its own equivalent to all those reruns of “All in the Family,” “Everybody Loves Raymond” and, yes, “The Nanny” – but at least “Hot in Cleveland” can vaguely pass for the genuine article. “Happily Divorced” is about as convincing in this lineup as Valerie Bertinelli is as an Amish man.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org