In some ways, it makes perfect sense. You want to a spinoff from the uber successful Family Guy (one of the few TV series, animated or not, that survived being cancelled only to comeback and thrive) and it has to be something more than a spiritual twin ala American Dad. You have a limited pool of characters to draw from, including the oversexed airline pilot Glen Quagmire (who, one could argue, easily anchor a Love, American Style spoof of such Me Decade morays in 2013 society), the handicapped cop Joe Swanson (not much we can do there) and divorced deli owner Cleveland Brown. Oh sure, you could stretch it a bit to have Mr. Herbert do a pedophilic take on his own King Friday and a certain 'neighborhood' or do an entire show involving Jewish stereotypes and the hideous Goldman family, but no, Cleveland made the most sense. The only major problem? The voice actor responsible for the African American character is white. Oddly enough, it never was a concern previously, and surprisingly, it's not one now. Apparently, only Charles Correll and Freeman Gosden had to pay for playing against their own ethnicity (Google them, kids).
All racial elements aside, the recently cancelled series, The Cleveland Show, is being offered up in a Complete Season Three box set which includes all 22 episode. The main premise finds Cleveland Brown (voiced by Mike Henry) leaving Rhode Island and Spooner Street to find his long lost love from high school, Donna Tubbs (Sanaa Lathan). Finally locating her in Stoolbend, Virginia, he marries her and brings his now obese son Cleveland Jr. (Kevin Michael Richardson) to live with them, her teenage daughter Roberta (Reagan Gomez-Preston) and her precocious preschooler Rallo (Henry again). Of course, there are new neighbors in this small Southern town, including the Bear family (who are actual bears), the redneck Krinklesac clan, as well as the Ritchers and the Chonis. Cleveland now works for Waterman Cable, where his boss (Bruce McGill) is a closeted homosexual. Donna works at the local high school, where a former classmate (Will Forte) is now principal and Roberta dates a Jewish rapper wannabe named Gabe (Jamie Kennedy).
That's the basics. Unlike Family Guy, there are dozens of extraneous characters who seem to step in and then disappear at random. One of the best recurring players is the slightly dim bar owner, Gus, voiced by none other than the American auteur himself, David Lynch.
The breakdown of season three's storylines are as follows:
"BFFs" - when Cleveland learns that old pal Peter Griffin came to town and didn't call him, he plans a camping trip for his former buddies.
As a marginal fan of Family Guy (and a huge supporter of Seth Macfarlane's big screen debut, Ted), yours truly just doesn't "get" The Cleveland Show. If it's an acquired taste, it will forever remain avocado and tarragon for this particular palette (YEECH! to both of those). There are so many things that just don't resonate - the white voice actor playing a man of color, the little kid named Rallo who's such a borderline hate crime it's amazing no one has taken the series to task for how the character is handled, the overall lack of subtlety. There's also some minor continuity issues (how, exactly, did Cleveland Jr. get so fat) and a level of meanness and inappropriateness that often surpasses the limits set by Peter Griffin and his clan. In fact, if the Browns had a talking pet that pretended to be a thoughtful intellectual ala Brian, we'd have a carbon copy of the successful sitcom this was spun off from, just with more misplaced vitriol. Sure, some of the ancillary characters are a little more out there, but they also pale in comparison to a raging pedophile or a sex fiend without a moral compass.
In fact, The Cleveland Show follows the lead of its central character in that it's too sedate, to easy with the obvious racial joke to genuinely explore the varying issues within same. Granted, this is a TV comedy, not some debate on the African American experience, but if someone like Tyler Perry finds a proper balancing act, why can't MacFarlane and the gang? But the main complaint that can be leveled against this show is that it's not very funny. Granted, it took years for Family Guy to grow on audiences. It had to be cancelled and then celebrated on home video before people took the time to explore the series' many toilet humor nuances and satiric scatology. Cleveland the gang don't have such luxuries. Instead, everything is bludgeoned with a sledgehammer filled with obviousness which renders any potential wit worthless. Of course, there are moments of pure guilty pleasure, as when the Latino family of "Y Tu Junior Tambien" starts exhibiting some rather blatant behavior, but it's a truly crass and culpable level of enjoyment.
Other highlights include the Die Hard spoof, the ventriloquism act of "Brown Magic" (anyone old enough to remember Willie Tyler and Lester?) and the horror oriented "Nightmare on Grace Street." Of course, any time David Lynch is featured it's fascinating. One has to wonder how the show managed to get such a high profile and provocative artist. Granted, anyone whose seen the auteur's aggressively stupid DumbLand cartoon understands his kinship with someone like MacFarlane, but this is David-Friggin'-Lynch for F's sake! The man is a moviemaking genius! (Apparently, they asked and he said, "Yes." Simple as that.) Other guest stars like Kayne West, Bruno Mars, Questlove, Craig Robinson, Johnny Bench, and Florence Henderson pale in comparison. Overall, the rest of the cast is quite capable, doing their best to invest their lines with the necessary sass to make them work. Unfortunately, the show seems out of tune with its overall intentions. If they wanted to take on race and the realities of same, The Cleveland Show doesn't even attempt to tackle them. Instead, it finds targets all over the place, with equally uneven results.