The concept of three, single, older women living together in a house with a feisty octogenarian should immediately bring to mind, the obvious: "The Golden Girls." I'll admit my heavy bias up front: I am a huge fan of "The Golden Girls," a show I would rank in my top ten favorite sitcoms; a show that featured snappy dialogue from a talented quartet of actresses. On paper, TV Land's "Hot in Cleveland" appears to be a low-rent, hastily thrown together, modern update on the series, going as far as to bring the last surviving Golden Girl, Betty White in, to fill the Sophia role. As has been the case before, and surely will be again, appearances can be deceiving.
Getting off to a shaky start, "Hot in Cleveland" throws a trio of older friends in the titular city after their Los Angeles bound flight was diverted due to weather. The women, determined to get out of the rut their lives have become end up roommates in the house by Melanie (Valerie Bertinelli), the recently divorced, and most sensible of the trio. The house comes with a caretaker, Elka (White), a sharp-tongued, Polish woman with an affinity for marijuana. With their pasts behind them and a new beginning on the horizon, Melanie along with Joy (Jane Leeves) and Victoria (Wendie Malick) are tasked with walking the fine line between old-school sitcom style in a world that wants every show to bring something new to the table.
The series, the brainchild of Suzanne Martin (a former writer on "Frasier") wisely casts two former colleagues in the form of Leeves and Malick, while taking a huge chance on Bertinelli, who hasn't had a smash hit since the late 80s. Fortunately, all three women have great on-screen chemistry together and just like in "The Golden Girls" you believe the friendship, despite the distinct personalities. I'll be quite honest in saying Bertinelli's "goody-two-shoes" approach to the character is a breath of fresh air in a world where smarminess and edginess seem to be mandatory qualifications for a sitcom star. She makes Melanie into an optimistic character that is the most grounded of cast, despite her odd habits, including her reluctance to use profanity. Leeves, Malick, and White though make sure the edgy bite isn't completely absent in the series, with Leeves as funny as her "Frasier" days. Joy is the middle ground between Melanie's down-to-earth attitude and Victoria's self-absorption.
On the other hand, Malick takes a bit of time getting used to, doing her best to make a vastly overwritten stereotype fit snugly into the series. Victoria, an aging daytime actress is often handed the most "out there" storylines, and I do question Martin's decision to trot out some very tired clichés, time and time again, including but not limited to makeup jokes and working her way into a high school play. Joy does eventually find a good place in the series and one of her later storylines, revolving around a fake illness, is much easier to stomach once the tone of the series and characters has been fully developed.
Lastly, we have what for many will be the series' main attraction, Betty White. Add me to the small, but vocal minority who finds White entertaining in small doses, and "Hot in Cleveland" is the prime example that White's success on "The Golden Girls" was mostly the sharp writing. The staff here ensures she gets the most shocking lines (only shocking due to her age) and when she gets a dud, she bombs hard; however, from the sounds of the live studio audience (a dying trend), you wouldn't know it. The pot jokes that populate the first third of the series are awful and White's delivery is deadpan to a fault. Once she's paired with frequent guest star Carl Reiner, she shines, and in later episodes when she's actually made a part of the story and not merely waiting for her cue, Elka is a much-appreciated character. However, for all the hype White gets, she's easily the weakest part of the cast in the first season.
"Hot in Cleveland" makes no attempt to reinvent the wheel, nor does it attempt to ape "The Golden Girls" like one might expect. Martin and crew are going for laughs, sometimes broad, sometimes subtle. The series takes classic sitcom shenanigans and interjects a dose of the modern; a great example comes when Melanie plays the classic "nosy mother" routine, but instead of searching a diary, she winds up reading her son's (who is visiting from college) texts and at the prodding of Joy, jeopardizes the relationship between her son and his girlfriend. The series really feels like a throwback to the network sitcoms of the late 80s and early 90s, right down to the bevy of guest stars including Tim Conway (sadly misused in his appearance), Hal Linden, Susan Lucci, and Huey Lewis, just to name a few. These supporting roles never feel like stunt casting and the experience the actors bring to the table is a tremendous boost for the series.
Clocking in with only 10 episodes, the freshman season of "Hot in Cleveland" is easily a success. I walked away with some good laughs in every episode, and even the one or two that fell flat, still were good ideas on paper and above average compared to the dreck that audiences eat up on CBS. With a 20 episode, second season green lit and set for launch in mid January, "Hot in Cleveland" is shaping up to be a pleasant weekly diversion, bringing together a talented cast for a fun, old-school approach to laughs. How much more can you demand from a sitcom?
The 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is a big letdown. The show was apparently, not filmed in HD and the result shows. Color levels are warmer than they should be, with bleeding occurring on occasion. Detail is moderate, while compression artifacts occasionally become an issue. The most glaring issue is a sizable amount of aliasing. While the show definitely looks sharper and more vivid than something made a decade ago, compared to the modern production, it's a big step back.
The English 5.1 Dolby Digital audio track is an obviously pumped up version of the accompanying standard English Stereo track. A dialogue driven show, the series is largely front loaded with surrounds occasionally getting some action during an in-studio location scene or when the disposable soundtrack kicks in.
On the extras front, the second disc features three, very brief, behind-the-scenes featurettes titled "Set Tour," "We Love Our Age," and "How'd They Get So Hot?" each focusing on the set, the characters, and the wardrobe respectively. A short blooper reel and the complete "Lady Pants" commercial from the accompanying episode is also included.
Most interesting is the original "Pilot" episode, shown in full-frame. For the most part it's the exact same show as featured on the series, but is a bit longer and some minor plot points are changed. Also included is the pilot episode of TV Land's new series "Retired at 35." Unlike "Hot in Cleveland," this pilot doesn't build confidence or contain much humor. The only memorable aspect is how drastically different Jessica Walters is here compared to "Arrested Development." In short, it's poorly written with a very dull cast.
Far from the "Golden Girls" knock-off one might discard it as, "Hot in Cleveland" is a pleasant, well-acted, old-school sitcom. Well beyond average but definitely not great, it's a series that those in need of a good laugh should check out. Hopefully next season will get fare better in the visual department, as the lackluster transfer was the most disappointing aspect of this entire release. Recommended.