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A Requiem for The Cleveland Show

Bob "MovieBob" Chipman | 12 May 2014 19:00
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Last night, Family Guy audiences were treated to a genuine television rarity: Cleveland Brown, the animated sitcom's primary black character, returned to the series as a member of the regular cast after a four-season detour in the spin-off The Cleveland Show. In TV land, this almost never happens - spin-offs are typically designed to mutually benefit supporting actors whose characters become star-turns and networks looking to expand and keep said stars "in the family." If and when a spin-off fails (or, in this case, simply concludes its run while the original is still in production) it's generally a given that the spun-off character(s) will not come slinking back to second-bananahood.

But The Cleveland Show wasn't born of actor's hubris. It was born to fill out a schedule and for Seth MacFarlane to gift his longtime friend Mike Henry (a Family Guy writer/producer who also voices Cleveland) with a sandbox of his own. So now, with TCS having run a respectable 88 episodes (enough to qualify it for syndication - the #1 goal of every network series), the character(s) can be folded back into their original place with just a minimum of fourth-wall breaking inside-joke ribbing.

In the episode, titled "He's Bla-ack!" (it's supposed to be said like this, because it wouldn't be Family Guy without increasingly oblique references to 1980s cultural-runoff), Cleveland and his new(er) family move back to Quahog, get into a brief inter-family squabble (Donna and Lois argue about parenting and "ban" their husbands from hanging out) and end off on the promise that everything is more or less back to normal. The main takeaway seems to be that Sanaa Lathan (Donna) is a good fit for the Family Guy ensemble (Cleveland Jr. didn't appear, Rallo had two scenes and Roberta turned up just long enough to be creepily escorted offscreen by Quagmire, because of course he did) leaving things nicely in place for the show's season finale next week.

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In-universe ribbing aside, The Cleveland Show was a decent success in it's day (Fox ordered a second season after only seeing how popular a "leaked" pilot was, then put seasons 3 & 4 on the docket midway through season 2) but it never quite managed to find Family Guy's mainstream mega-success or American Dad's devoted cult-following. Maybe that's because it never seemed built to attract either. The show had a unique energy, despite living firmly in the Seth MacFarlane "house style;" the easygoing rhythm of an ordinary network sitcom married to a charming suburban familiarity with a notable lack of Guy's deliberate button-pushing or Dad's Dadaist genre-jumping. For the spin-off of a series that redefined "edgy" in American animation, it was probably the least edgy thing on Fox's cartoon schedule - in its best moments, it was much more an up-to-date, regionally-specific Simpsons than the "Black Family Guy" many were expecting.

I was, you'll gather, a fan and defender/apologist of The Cleveland Show, and I'm going to miss it even as it seems the main cast will be living on in the margins of Quahog - hell, given that it's MacFarlane/Family Guy, I consider it a miracle that the family came back with Cleveland instead of being written out via some kind of "hilarious" horrible fate. I understand why it didn't attain the casual-immortality of its peers: it was hard to put recommendations into words beyond "it's charming," and I remember the show for sweet or moving moments more than big laughs - not exactly what Fox's Sunday night demo was looking for.

But still, it made it to syndication and the DVDs/streams/etc are pretty widely available. So if you never bothered when it was new and are looking for something semi-fresh to occupy time as we head into re-run season... maybe this is a "newly-old" series that's worth another look for you.

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