TV Land’s original sitcom, Hot In Cleveland was a surprise hit in 2010. Buoyed no doubt by the latest Betty White-craze, this innocuous, retro sitcom about four women “of a certain age” who share a house together shares more than just White with the classic 1980’s sitcom The Golden Girls. While Hot in Cleveland does not approach anything near the wit of The Golden Girls, it’s still pretty entertaining once you manage your expectations.
A quick recap of the convoluted premise: three beautiful, middle-aged women from L.A., going through a collective mid-life crisis, decide to fly to Paris, but land in Clevland due to mechanical failure in their airplane. What they realize is that in the “real world” of Cleveland, Ohio, they’re still considered “hot” and desirable, while back in plastic-land of L.A., they were being shut out. So on a whim, they rent a generic colonial and move in. They inherit a crotchety elderly caretaker, Elka Ostrovsky (White), who lives in a cottage in the back. Week after week, the ladies go through some very standard sitcom stuff, punctuated by sometimes-hokey jokes and an uproarious laughtrack.
Watching Hot in Cleveland is a bit of a time-warp, really. It’s very reminiscent of sitcoms of the late 1980’s, mid 1990’s. The multi-camera format, along with the laughtrack date the show. Also the cast give a dose of severe deja vu: Wendie Malick of Just Shoot Me! fame plays Victoria Chase, a five-time divorcee and washed-up soap diva who just weathered the cancellation of her talk show; TV pop icon Valerie Bertinelli of One Day at a Time, plays Melanie Moretti, a best-selling nonfiction writer whose husband left her for a younger woman; Frasier‘s Jane Leeves is Joy Stroggs, a British high-priced eyebrow waxer (I know, this is a sitcom), with a penchant for hooking up with wildly inappropriate men; and the aforementioned White is the acid-tongued senior who slings mean barbs and has a fondness for Bedazzled track suits.
The second season picks up where the first left off: Elka was arrested because Melanie’s cop boyfriend discovered Elka had a cache of stolen jewelry and antiques that her late mafia husband squirreled away in the tornado shelter. Victoria, meanwhile, won a Daytime Emmy for her soap and is banking on the trophy to revitalize her sagging career; Melanie, meanwhile, cried out “I love you!” to her NARC cop who jailed Elka; Joy discovered that the son she gave up for adoption is trying to track her down.
The episodes that follow work with a couple story arcs: mainly Elka’s trial, Joy’s problems with immigration and her attempts at finding a way to stay in the U.S. legally, Melanie’s ongoing struggles with her love life and Victoria’s new cash problems, resulting from a convenient plot twist that has her assets frozen when her accountant was arrested (“I’ve been Madoffed!”). Most of these plots are more or less resolved about three quarters of the way through the season.
What can be said about this show, at least from the first season is that it’s very safe and likable, and few people will object to it. There are sex jokes (that also feel very Sex and the City-era), and there are trendy references that will probably date the show badly in a couple years. The episodes are all pretty much consistent – nothing gut-bustingly funny, but you’ll probably chuckle and crack a smile or two.
One terrible episode has to be mentioned though: In “Dancing Queens” the four ladies, intent on finding gay best friends troll a divey gay bar, where Victoria gets mistaken for a drag queen (pretending to be Victoria chase – very meta – and yes, of course there was a Victor/Victoria pun). What was so offensive about the show is how reductive these women seemed about gay men: to them, we are nothing more than just fashionable, bitchy accessories, that are put on this planet to let straight women feel good about themselves, and look great doing it. This kind of homophobia wouldn’t be so offensive if it didn’t come from a show with such a gay-friendly cast (I mean, c’mon, it’s Betty White ferchristssakes). The ladies aren’t interested in finding gay men as emotional companions, but instead are seeking to recreate their straight woman/gay guy marriage, crystalized and romanticized by Will & Grace.
Aside from the dreck of “Dancing Queen” the other shows coasted on the charm of the castmembers. White, still lapping up all the goodwill from the public, is predictably fantastic. Malick also has some great lines and gets to do some of the best physical bits on the show. Leeves seems to rip a page out of Kirstie Alley’s book of comedy, mining some moments of inspired humor by being a neurotic mess. Bertinelli, the straight woman of this bunch is trading a bit on her “cuteness,” though the writers do give her some moments to shine and break out of her good girl image (it’s great whenever Melanie gets drunk). With a cast of such seasoned pros, the acting would of course be the high point of the series. And because of the relatively starry cast, Hot in Cleveland boasts some impressive guest stars, some of whom are very funny. White’s romantic interests are often Golden Age TV comics like Carl Reiner or Steve Lawrence, while Leeves’ Frasier pals (actually Leeves and Malick’s, as she was a recurring character in the long-running sitcom’s last season) John Mahoney and Peri Gilpin stop by; and for Nick at Nite fans, Bertinelli’s One Day at a Time mom, Bonnie Franklin shows up as a disapproving mom of one of Melanie’s beaus. Malick gets paired up with Melanie Griffith (!) who does some pretty funny stuff, and her soap opera diva is matched with Susan Lucci, doing yet another variation on the daytime star bitch persona that she seems to trot out a lot.
The writing is hit and miss. There are some genuinely funny moments – one particularly inspired scene has Leeves’ Joy put on a dour American accent, while Bertinelli’s Melanie fakes her way through a terrible Cockney, and not to be left out, Victoria puts on a vedy British posh voice when trying to hide their identities. This is when the writers use the actresses at their best, and it’s actually laugh-out-loud funny. But unfortunately, more of than than not, the writing is just a notch above a decent CW sitcom. With the combined talent of Leeves, Malick, Bertinelli and White, there’s no reason why this show couldn’t be great.
Click here to buy a copy of Hot in Cleveland: Season Two